Endangered Species of the American South
Forty years ago, Southern Republicans were even more down in the mouth than the Democrats are today. Town halls, state houses, governors' mansions, Washington, DC--everywhere you looked, Democrats ruled. It had been the same old story since Reconstruction: Democrats won with their juggernaut of Southern Baptists, ruling-class whites and anybody else who wanted to be respectable and relevant. By contrast, the party of Lincoln staggered along, trying in each election to cobble together a winning coalition out of white moderates and uninspired black folks--the ones who could vote, that is.
Now Southern Democrats have landed smack in the same dilemma. After three decades of staying barely alive behind moderates like Carter, Clinton, Gore and Edwards, the Democrats' defensive strategy--"we're like Republicans, but different"--was dealt a serious blow in 2000, when Gore lost every Southern state (if you count Florida), and again in 2002, when the Democrats suffered even greater statewide losses. Three of the South's remaining Democratic governors--all of them New South moderates--were tossed out of office last year. In South Carolina, if incumbent Governor Hodges could have inspired just one-third of the state's voting-age but unregistered black voters to come to the polls--there are upwards of 260,000--he would have won with votes to spare. But as Don Aiesi points out, "Democrats here are giving black voters no reason to bother. Of course, they're not giving white voters much of a reason, either."
On paper, the party-registration numbers are far from disastrous. But the electoral reality is bleak. "A Democratic presidential candidate could run a perfect campaign here, do absolutely everything right," says Aiesi, "and the best you could hope for is 45 percent. That's true in most of the South."
How did it happen? For one thing, Lyndon Johnson was right. When the Texas Democrat pushed the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts through Congress in 1964 and 1965, he told an aide that he had just "delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come." LBJ turned out to be a better prophet than Jeremiah. "For every black voter who came into the Democratic Party after 1964," says Aiesi, "at least two white voters have switched to the Republicans over time."
Of course, the Democrats haven't lost the South simply because white supremacists made the switch. "The Republicans have done a terrific job of convincing people they've got a lock on morality, truth and the American way," says Roger Finch, a longtime labor activist in Greenville.
That's partly because conservative churches have grown into a formidable political force. "Forty years ago, religious fundamentalists believed in separation of church and state," Aiesi notes. "They were mostly Democrats, but they generally kept out of politics. Now the marriage of politics and soul in the South is closer than ever--conservative values, God's values, Republican values. And they have more support now on the national level than conservative Southern Democrats ever did. Strom Thurmond and the Dixiecrats had to stand alone a lot of the time. With the national trend toward conservatism, Southern Republicans are in the driver's seat."
That influence lures nonideological Southerners--"the martini-drinkers," Aiesi calls them--into the Republican fold. Among them are Northern professionals who flocked south during the economic expansion of the previous two decades, looking for better jobs, lower costs of living and temperate places to retire. The vast majority of Yankee transplants vote Republican, Finch says, for two main reasons. "One, they don't want to pay taxes; that's partly why they've moved here. Two, they like keeping up with the Joneses. Being Republican in the South is keeping up with the Joneses."