A Southern Strategy to Counter the Southern Strategy

A quarter of Alabamans are black.  Given that African-Americans reliably vote Democratic upwards of 90 percent of the time, you might think that the state would be an electoral tossup, if not solidly blue.  But it’s not.  Alabama, like much of the South, is a Republican stronghold.

“The Democratic Party as we know it in Alabama is dead,” observed Philip Bryan, spokesman for the state’s Republican Party, according to Jonathan Martin of Politico.  “We just killed it,” he said after the mid-term elections.  Bryan might well be right.  A Republican easily defeated his opponent in the state’s gubernatorial contest while the incumbent GOP Senator was reelected in a landslide.  Republicans also won six of the state’s seven seats in the House of Representatives and ran the table down-ballot, prevailing in races for lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state, treasurer, auditor, and commissioner of agriculture.  Additionally, the GOP took control of the State Legislature for the first time in the 136 years since Reconstruction.

It’s the same story throughout Dixie.  All but nine of the 37 House representatives from the Deep South (Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina) are now Republican-held, as are all but 38 of the 131 House seats in the old Confederacy.  Democrats were once competitive for less prominent elected positions like sheriff and chancery clerk, but even those are slipping from grasp.

Republican dominance in the demographically diverse region hinges on the remarkable fidelity of whites, especially at the top of the ballot.  In Alabama, for example, 88 percent of whites voted for McCain in the 2008 presidential contest.  The racial divide in voting behavior, of course, is a national phenomenon, but it is strikingly pronounced in the South.  Consider that only one House Democrat in the five states of the Deep South is white and only one Republican is black.  In Alabama, 26 of the remaining 39 Democrats in the State House are black.

The realignment rightward began decades ago.  “We have lost the South for a generation,” President Johnson allegedly told an aide upon signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  Alienated by the national party’s move to embrace desegregation, conservative “Dixiecrats” began switching their allegiance to the GOP, the “Party of Lincoln” long anathema to many southerners.  The political conversion by longtime Democrats like Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms exemplified the trend.  But race alone does not fully explain Democrats declining fortunes south of the Mason-Dixon line.

Liberals are complicit in their electoral demise.  They have squandered the loyalty of many southern whites dating to the New Deal, which did so much to alleviate poverty in the region.  Instead of pushing a similarly progressive economic agenda, for decades Democrats have offered a slightly watered down version of the GOP’s corporate-friendly policies.  Splitting the difference has allowed conservatives to define the terms of the debate along the fault line of hot-button social issues—coded appeals to racism, often.

It is instructive that, until recently, northern Alabama bucked the rightward trend in the rest of the state.  The strength of organized labor in the region aided Democrats, as did memories of the federal government’s role in electrifying the area courtesy of the Tennessee Valley Authority.  But today a Democrat-turned Republican represents the congressional district.

Advocating a renewal of progressivism in the South strikes some as suicidal, however.  Incoming Alabama House Speaker and state GOP Chairman Mike Hubbard is one.  The South is fire engine red, he explained to Politico, because Democrats belong to “the party of entitlement and of more government intrusion.”

But are Alabamans really avatars of libertarianism?  According to a 2006 study by the Tax Foundation, Alabama receives $1.71 in federal spending for every dollar it sends to Washington in taxes, one of the highest rates of return in the nation (interestingly, with the exception of Georgia, all southern states are net beneficiaries).  So maybe Dixie likes “big government” after all.

Washington’s largess has helped the South, but it remains a laggard when compared with other regions.  Alabama, for one, ranks low bottom of a host of socio-economic indicators.  This was on the mind of former NBA star and Birmingham native Charles Barkley when assessing his chances of winning the state’s governorship.  “Well, I think it’ll be a tough race, but you know what, I look at the bright side,” he told CNN.  “I can’t screw up Alabama.  I mean, we’ve been number 48 for a long time.”  Without a renewed Democratic Party in the region committed to progressive economic policies, it will stay that way.

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