The economics-based argument for a Southern Democratic revival–which, given the loyal support of African-Americans, means a Democratic surge among white Southerners–has two prongs. “New South” theorists argue that the historical bifurcation between the region’s post-slavery agrarian economy and the industrial-technological economies of the rest of the country is fading, and thus newly affluent whites in Georgia will soon be voting like their Connecticut cohorts. The second, advanced in this magazine eloquently albeit anecdotally by Bob Moser, in his article “The Way Down South: A Populist Route to Democratic Revival” [Feb. 12], might be called the “old South” prong, which argues that white voters trapped in the stagnant portions of the Southern economy make ideal targets for the economic populist appeals Democrats now realize are crucial to their nascent majorities.
Before proceeding, consider the regional voting patterns of white Americans in recent presidential elections. For the past three decades, white voters of the Midwest and West have voted very similarly and, not surprisingly, down the middle between a less Democratic Northeast and a more Republican South. Continuing this trend, in 2004 George W. Bush captured 55 percent of the white vote in these twenty-five states, while his share in the Northeast was slightly lower, just 50 percent–a figure that essentially mirrored his performance among the entire electorate. Yet 70 percent of white Southerners voted Republican in 2004. That means their preferences deviated three times more from the Midwest-West benchmark than did those of white Northeasterners. (Remember this factoid the next time some television blowhard scoffs that the Northeast is “out of touch” with the rest of the country.) That’s the magnitude of the problem. So, how to solve it?
The “new South” answer is passive, relying as it does on an economic revolution that is under way but has yet to run its course. By contrast, with plenty of poor whites already in the region, Moser’s plan for conversion via economic populism is immediate. The problem, however, is that the transformation Moser envisions is easier to prescribe than effect. The reasons are manifold, but space permits me to handle just two: race and unionization.
Moser brushes quickly past race, a curious oversight given that most every study of political tolerance (racial or otherwise) reveals a strong, positive relationship between socioeconomic status and tolerance. As Steve Jarding and Dave “Mudcat” Saunders painstakingly chronicle in Foxes in the Henhouse, poverty in the rural white South is both appalling and appallingly resilient. Combine high poverty rates with their concomitant lower levels of racial tolerance, mix in residual tensions from the civil rights movement, and you understand why the poorest region of the country is the most Republican–despite the massive head start African-American voters provide Democrats.