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Why Southern Republicanism?

Benen and Kornacki oversimplify.

12:30 PM, Sep 3, 2010 • By JAY COST
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It’s putting it mildly to say that the South is not the same place in 2010 as it was in 1910.  The agrarian poverty under which the region labored for so long finally began to ease after World War II, and in its place arose a modern economy that was built around manufacturing, defense, high tech, oil and natural gas, and of course tourism.  This carried with it major social changes like Northern immigration, a rising middle class, a more educated populace. The latter point is particularly noteworthy.  For years, the South lagged far behind in education, fearful that an educated public would abandon the low-wage South for the high-wage North.  But today, thousands of Northerners travel to the South to attend one of the regions many superlative schools - the University of Virginia, the College of William and Mary, the University of North Carolina, Duke University, Emory University, and more.  A hundred years ago, this was unthinkable.

All of this contributed to the success of the GOP.  The following is from Earl and Merle Black’s Rise of the Southern Republicans:

The rise of a middle and upper-middle class has produced millions of voters with substantial incomes subject to substantial federal and state taxation.  Many of these upwardly mobile individuals, wanting to keep the lion’s share of their earnings, view the Republicans as far more sympathetic than the Democrats to their economic interests and aspirations. 

This is essentially the point that Haley Barbour makes in the interview that apparently offended Kornacki and Benen.

Yet where were the first post-war congressional districts to tip Republican in Dixie?  In the Black Belt counties with the most henious racial oppression?  No. The GOP won a special election in 1950 in TX-18 (Amarillo).  Then in 1954, the party won TX-5 (Dallas) and FL-1 (Tampa).  Newt Gingrich’s congressional district was in suburban Atlanta. Dick Armey’s was in Dallas. George W. Bush was from Texas by way of Connecticut.  

Religion has also been an important factor.  The Democratic party fought internal religious battles for decades prior to the Great Depression.  These pitted Southern, rural Protestants against Northern, urban Catholics.  It’s a big reason why it took the party 103 ballots to pick a nominee in 1924 and why Herbert Hoover won 48 percent of the Southern vote against Catholic Al Smith in 1928.  Meanwhile, the GOP had long been the domain of Northern Protestants (with the general exception of the German Lutherans).  So is it any surprise that when a two-party system came to the South, Southern Protestants would find common cause with their Northern counterparts, especially after a hot button cultural issue like abortion made religious beliefs politically salient once again?

These slow moving factors help explain the gradual shift toward the Republican Party.  By itself, the Civil Rights turmoil cannot account fully for the political changes. For while the Deep South voted for Goldwater in 1964, the Democrats still carried a whopping 90 of 106 congressional districts in Dixie in 1964.  In fact, the big breakthrough for the GOP in the House did not come until 1994.  Prior to that, the Democrats could count on better than 3/5ths of the Southern congressional districts.  Even today, the Democratic party splits Southern districts, winning a fair share of majority white districts in the process.  That level of competition is not consistent with the Benen/Kornacki argument that white Southern antipathy toward blacks motivates them to vote Republican.  If it were, we would see a new Solid South, a solidly Republican South.  We don’t see that.

Benen and Kornacki are no doubt on to something.  The racial politics of the 1960s are still with us, even though they now lurk in the background.  But their stories are overly simple, and they cast Southerners and Republicans in an unfairly negative light. 

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