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The GOP’s White Southern Republican Problem | The Nation

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Ari Berman

Ari Berman

 On American politics and policy.

The GOP’s White Southern Republican Problem


May 30, 2013, Texas state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa looks at maps on display prior to a Senate Redistricting committee hearing, in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

In 1956, segregationist Southern Democrats outlined a policy of “massive resistance” in response to the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling desegregating public schools.

Today, the Republican Party, particularly in the South, is following a similar path of massive resistance when it comes to Obamacare and any other major policy initiative proposed by President Obama. According to The New York Times, twenty-six states—all-but-three controlled by the GOP—have declined the Medicaid expansion under Obamacare, thereby denying health insurance coverage to 8 million Americans. “Every state in the Deep South, with the exception of Arkansas, has rejected the expansion,” writes the Times.

The GOP’s obsession with defunding Obamacare has caused them to shut down the government despite the public outcry. Many factors play into the shutdown, but a leading cause is the fact the Republican Party is whiter, more Southern and more conservative than ever before.

Writes Charlie Cook:

Between 2000 and 2010, the non-Hispanic white share of the population fell from 69 percent to 64 percent, closely tracking the 5-point drop in the white share of the electorate measured by exit polls between 2004 and 2012. But after the post-census redistricting and the 2012 elections, the non-Hispanic white share of the average Republican House district jumped from 73 percent to 75 percent, and the average Democratic House district declined from 52 percent white to 51 percent white. In other words, while the country continues to grow more racially diverse, the average Republican district continues to get even whiter.

As Congress has become more polarized along party lines, it’s become more racially polarized, too. In 2000, House Republicans represented 59 percent of all white U.S. residents and 40 percent of all nonwhite residents. But today, they represent 63 percent of all whites and just 38 percent of all nonwhites.

Even though House Republicans do not represent the changing face of the country, they have a huge structural advantage when it comes to the makeup of Congress, especially following the 2010 redistricting cycle, when the GOP controlled the process in twenty states compared to seven for Democrats. Writes Cook:

The number of strongly Democratic districts—those with a score of D+5 or greater at the presidential level—decreased from 144 before redistricting to 136 afterward. The number of strongly Republican districts—those with a score of R+5 or greater—increased from 175 to 183. When one party starts out with 47 more very strong districts than the other, the numbers suggest that the fix is in for any election featuring a fairly neutral environment. Republicans would need to mess up pretty badly to lose their House majority in the near future.

This phenomenon is most acute in the South, where the GOP systematically packed as many Democratic voters, particularly African-Americans, into as few districts as possible in order to ensure huge Republicans majorities across the region (see my story “How the GOP Is Resegregating the South”). Here’s the gist:

In virtually every state in the South, at the Congressional and state level, Republicans—to protect and expand their gains in 2010—have increased the number of minority voters in majority-minority districts represented overwhelmingly by black Democrats while diluting the minority vote in swing or crossover districts held by white Democrats. “What’s uniform across the South is that Republicans are using race as a central basis in drawing districts for partisan advantage,” says Anita Earls, a prominent civil rights lawyer and executive director of the Durham-based Southern Coalition for Social Justice. “The bigger picture is to ultimately make the Democratic Party in the South be represented only by people of color.” The GOP’s long-term goal is to enshrine a system of racially polarized voting that will make it harder for Democrats to win races on local, state, federal and presidential levels. Four years after the election of Barack Obama, which offered the promise of a new day of postracial politics in states like North Carolina, Republicans are once again employing a Southern Strategy that would make Richard Nixon and Lee Atwater proud.

After the 1994 elections, white Southern Republicans accounted for sixty-nine members of the 230-member House GOP majority. Today, white Southern Republicans account for ninety-eight members out of the 233-member House GOP majority. That’s a pretty remarkable shift and one that is not likely to end any time soon. “In all but one election since 1976, the proportion of Southerners in the House Republican caucus has gone up,” says Dave Wasserman of the Cook Political Report.

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Of the fifty-four members of the congressional Tea Party Caucus—which is most vociferously telling John Boehner not to compromise—thirty-three are from Southern states. Of the eighty members of the so-called House GOP “suicide caucus” who urged Boehner to defund Obamacare, “half of these districts are concentrated in the South,” writes Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker. As long as ultraconservative Southerners from lily-white districts hold the balance of power in the Congress, we shouldn’t be surprised that obstruction and dysfunction is the result.

Ari Berman discussed the fight over redistricting in Texas back in June.

Editors' Note: An earlier version of this article stated that there were sixty-two white Southern Republicans in the House in 1994; this number has been changed to sixty-nine. It also said that there were ninety-seven white Southern Republicans in the House currently; this number has been changed to ninety-eight.

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