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March 13, 2012 1:28 PM Candidates and Pundits Look Warily At Crazy Crackers

By Ed Kilgore

I made the argument yesterday that Alabama and Mississippi are places considered to be pretty strange even by fellow-southerners, mainly because they seem to have lingered in the Old South a lot longer than their neighbors. But having said that, it’s somewhat amusing to watch yankee candidates and pundits alike warily circling these crazy crackers trying to figure them out.

Exhibit One is my esteemed TNR colleague Alec MacGillis, who notes the universally observed unease exhibited by the GOP presidential candidates in AL and MS, and tries out some theories for why their finely honed messages might not be going over as brilliantly as they did elsewhere:

Take Santorum’s pitch for home-schooling, which may not resonate as much in a place like Mississippi. In other states, he casts home-schooling as the prerogative of parents who want to remove their children from the secular factories of the state schools. But in the South, white parents started pulling their children out of the public schools long ago—not for home-schooling but for private and parochial schools, and less because of godless teachers than because of Brown vs Board of Education. Or take Romney’s railing against what he calls Obama’s “crony capitalism”—loans for Solyndra and other favored green-tech companies. As TNR contributor Ed Kilgore pointed out during the Rick Perry boomlet, the South has long been enamored of doling out tax breaks and cash to companies who set up shop there, a form of industrial policy that is considered a-ok because it’s done by local Republicans. In this context, ideology matters less than culture and group identity, which is perhaps why both men have been reduced to making such excruciating cultural panders.

Only problem with the “they bailed out of public schools long ago” argument for the poor resonance of Santorum’s anti-public-education rap is that the numbers don’t quite back it up. As of 2007, the percentage of kids in private as opposed to public schools in Alabama and Mississippi was 11%, just under the national average for states. I’m sure the percentage is higher for white folks, and for white Republicans in particular, but that’s true in most states with a significant nonwhite population. It’s also true that public education reforms like charter schools have not been as popular in the Deep South as in other parts of the country, but nor have private school vouchers.

As for the idea that Romney can’t attack Obama on Solyndra because southerners like corporate subsidies—well, they don’t like just any old corporate subsidies, especially if they are aimed at those hippified green industries. And best as I can tell, any attack on Obama is welcome among Alabama and Mississippi Republicans. It’s certainly kosher in such places to accuse your primary rivals of being insufficiently ferocious towards Obama and other liberals—in many respects, that was the key to Newt Gingrich’s victory in South Carolina—and of being insufficiently rigorous in every detail of conservative ideology. I’ve seen GOP primaries in the Deep South fought out over minor details of anti-abortion ideology, and Lord knows there is an appetite for regressive tax schemes such as Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 plan.

I don’t know exactly why candidates like Romney and Santorum are engaging in what Alec calls “excrutiating cultural panders” unless they are just being poorly advised. Ronald Reagan certainly never had any problem connecting with southern conservatives, and he was as unfamiliar with the region as any of these guys.

On another front, another very smart analyst (and friend), Nate Silver, published a post last night discussing the relatively low accuracy of primary polls in southern states, and before long drifted into a bit of cultural mysticism:

Polls can sometimes have problems because of social desirability bias — the tendency to provide an answer that you think might seem most acceptable to the stranger on the other end of the line, rather than what you really think.
This bias is potentially stronger in cultures that have stronger codes of etiquette, and where people are more self-conscious of the front they present to strangers. This is pertinent in some Asian and Asian-American cultures, for instance. Polls of Hawaii, where there are many Japanese-Americans, have a bad track record; one survey there somewhat infamously predicted a win for George W. Bush in 2004, but John Kerry instead took the state by 9 percentage points.
Etiquette also remains more in tact in the South, and especially in the Deep South, than in most other parts of the country. If so, polls there could encounter similar problems.

Nothing in my personal experience in the South would lead me to think the people there feel any particular compunction to be nice to strangers calling on the phone; indeed, for all the legend of southern hospitality, there are large subcultures in the South (including my own, the Appalachian) where suspicion of and thinly veiled hostility towards strangers is very noticeable (“Strangers ain’t come down from Rocky Top, reckon they never will.”). Nate goes on to cite a far more persuasive theory: cellphone-only households are unusually prevelant in these two states, particularly Mississippi, which means pollsters, and particularly robo-pollsters, may be missing a lot of voters. But the tour through a cultural explanation seems obligatory.

In any event, the tendency to treat southeners as an alien breed is something crackers themselves encourage for all sorts of historical reasons; it’s nice to feel special. And everyone enjoys watching politicians pander to them. Indeed, I’m sure Alabama and Mississippi Republicans are laughing at these men even as they try to decide which one to endorse to take on the intensely hated and feared Barack Obama. We’re long past the days when a conservative yankee politician could get away with going south and indulging in casual explicit racism as a way of bonding with the white folks, and perhaps that is the problem: they haven’t yet found a suitable substitute. And so they talk about “cheesy grits” and pretend to like NASCAR and country music. It’s all a little ridiculous, y’all.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

Comments

  • jprichva on March 13, 2012 1:50 PM:

    I'm glad you pointed this out. I'm not Southern by birth (by the grace o' God), but I spent a right number of years there, and that southern hospitality is a myth. Their hospitality is 1) limited (to those they like or approve of), 2) conditional (as long as you remain someone they approve of), 3) capricious (there's no telling what will get you on their shit list), and 4) legendarily stingy (white cake and champagne for a wedding reception? that's IT?)

    When I lived in Richmond, I got a terrific deal on a house owned by a handsome young couple newly-arrived from Columbia, South Carolina, where they had been on everyone's A-list: clubs, Junior League, DAR, you name it. He was transferred to Richmond, and they arrived expecting the social welcome mat to be thrown out. They were, after all, blue-blooded antebellum twelfth-generation Southerners with money, charm, and manners.

    Richmond turned its collective back on this couple--no proposing for clubs, no invitations anywhere; the wife was so humiliated that she fled back to Columbia and the husband stayed around just long enough to sell me their house and transfer back to South Carolina. Their big social sin? They acted entitled. This pissed off Old Virginny like you cannot imagine.

    The South is a loony--and very angry---place.

  • Diane Rodriguez on March 13, 2012 1:58 PM:

    At the risk of tarnishing Saint Reagan, it was 30+ years ago and to people who were paying attention ( especially people of color), Reagan was as racist as the current crop of Republicans. Back then, it didn't require such an obvious foghorn because white males were firmly in the driverís seat. I'm more than a little tired of the deifying nostalgia that accompanies any mention of this guy. Personally, I always thought he was a greasy-haired, dumb-then-addled standard issue Republican. He was fed sentimental fodder by the swooning Peggy Noonan. Shining city on a hill indeed, shining from all the white faces. His policies were the foundation of what ails us today. Lord, these wingnuts had to start someplace.

  • Danp on March 13, 2012 2:09 PM:

    Let's not blame Southerners for being inhospitable to cell-phone calling pollsters. I want every one of them bastards treated like a snake in the shit house.

  • scott_m on March 13, 2012 2:23 PM:

    I bet the phenomenon of white Southern parents moving their kids from public to private and church schools could be seen better by looking at the mid-60's (1954 Brown decision + 10 years of "deliberate speed") to the early-80's (school busing no longer an issue; Reaganism has taken hold). Since those days, white flight, etc., has instituted de facto segregation in many areas.

  • Ron Byers on March 13, 2012 2:25 PM:

    The year following Katrina I went to Mississippi with my son's church group to help with rebuilding. It seems the region was extremely short of skilled or even semi skilled labor and the insurance companies were working hard not to pay homeowners who were still living in Fema trailers a year after the storm. We encountered any number of good Southerners in the historic Gulf Coast town where we worked. I helped install sheetrock in houses belonging to whites and to blacks, rich and poor alike. I was struck by how genuinely American they all were. They didn't seem to be from some foreign nation. They were hospitable and gracious. Maybe it is that last part that is throwing Mitt and Rick out of their routine.

  • RollaMo on March 13, 2012 2:28 PM:

    Funniest line on Romney was from Jonathan Capehart who said he "looked like a guy on safari in his own country."

  • MuddyLee on March 13, 2012 2:45 PM:

    "Upper class" South Carolinians don't seem to realize that their SC status doesn't necessarily "transfer" because if you're "upper class" from a lower class place (as perceived by most of the rest of the country), what status do you actually have? And corporate welfare to attract companies like Mecedes and BMW to the South is considered OK - especially if the workers are not unionized - maybe because it doesn't come from the federal government, maybe because it makes the states like Alabama and SC look a little less "third world." Yes the South is pretty crazy. But maybe it's progress that Catholics and Mormons are being accepted (by most) as acceptable presidential candidates.

  • Mitch on March 13, 2012 2:47 PM:

    I agree with @jprichva.

    I am from the South and have always thought that Southern Hospitality is a myth, sustained mostly by frequent use of words like "honey" and "ma'am" in conversation, and a more relaxed demeanor than is normal in most urban environments. Always note that there is a level of condescension in Southern genteelness, particularly toward minorities.

    Nobody is more vicious than sweet old Southern ladies. They will sweet-talk you and treat you like a favored grandchild - to your face. Then judge every thing about you (making up what they don't know) as soon as you are out of earshot. Judging from my youth (particularly the many churches my family has attended), this mix of politeness to your face, and spiteful gossip behind your back is the accepted social norm in the South.

    If you happen to be outside of the accepted groups, then may the gods help you. I was an agnostic teen, with a black girlfriend, a couple of gay friends and a strong addiction to reading. Needless to say, I was never accepted by Southern society.

    And having lived in California for a decade, I can honestly say that I don't miss it one damn bit.

  • Mudge on March 13, 2012 2:50 PM:

    The mention of "thinly veiled hostility" brought back a memory. I was in Georgia visiting an aunt, my father's sister, many years ago. My father had been born in Georgia, but moved to Pennsylvania during the Depression, married a northern girl and raised his family (including me) there. My aunt lived on the old family farm, which dated from the 1830s. During my visit, we went to town (small, essentially one street) and she dropped me at a general store while she went to park. I walked in and found a number of men, two playing checkers, Allconversation stopped the instant they saw me. No hello from the proprietor, nothing. The quiet (other than the sound of checkers being moved) lasted until my aunt came in. She immediately introduced me as her brother's son, her nephew, and normalcy returned. One of the checker players was in fact a cousin of mine. It was the most unusal entry I've ever had.

  • Tuttle on March 13, 2012 2:53 PM:

    One of this hillbilly's favorite bumper-stickers of all time: "Welcome to Tennessee. Now Leave!"

  • Matt on March 13, 2012 3:09 PM:

    Mississippian transplant here.

    Romney's pandering is genuinely hilarious, and won't help him one damn bit. The reaction here has been what it's been everywhere else: "Ha, nice try." But it's also pretty harmless. It doesn't hurt Southerners to point out that they say "y'all" and eat grits.

    So this was probably a wash in terms of winning delegates. What if he'd pursued a different strategy, though? What if, with an eye towards winning the more urbane GOP voters in the upcoming Illinois, Maryland and Rhode Island primaries, he'd deliberately snubbed Alabama and Mississippi, and pointedly written them off as a bunch of racist, ignorant, sanctimonious, clannish (if not Klannish), inbred, loony, angry, paleo-Confederate mouth-breathers with delusions of gentility? What if he'd basically said, "Well, you know, those people are beyond hope and I couldn't care less who they vote for."

    In other words, what if he'd taken his messaging cues from "progressive" website comment threads? What if he'd acted like the whole notion of party-building (incidentally increasing the political power of the largest African-American voter share in the country) was worth less to him than the chance to make snide, smug remarks at a safe target?

    Talk to the white working class in Mississippi (and, to the extent it exists, the white middle class). They almost all vote Republican. Some of them really do sound like George Wallace was too liberal for them--although you find that in Maine, too. But you find many more who are exactly the kind of persuadable voters that GOTV operatives salivate over in places like Maine. Voting in the Deep South is along racial lines not because the GOP won't lift a finger to court black votes (although it most certainly won't), but because Democrats act as though it would be impossible to reach out to the not-so-very-rare Mississippi moderate on, say, economic issues. (And that it would be kind of icky and shameful to try.)

    As for cell phone etiquette, let me offer my own experience. When I moved here from North Yankistan, my new number had previously belonged to a notary public. For the first year, I got about five calls a day from her clients. I'd say, "Sorry, wrong number." And the callers would almost invariably apologize profusely, and launch into a detailed explanation of why they were mistaken, what they'd intended to call about, what steps they'd take to make sure it never happened again, and how sorry they were to have disturbed me. (Since then it's been mostly collection agencies, who aren't so good-natured or willing to believe I'm not "Pam," but oh well.) So sure, Silver's right--there are some potential methodological hiccups along these kinds of regional lines. But who knows how much.


  • Anonymous on March 13, 2012 4:09 PM:

    Re the bit about private schools in Mississippi and Alabama: I grew up in rural eastern NC, and the private/religious schools were, oddly enough, established in the late 60s/early 70s, around the same time that they started integrating the schools. But like Mississippi and AL, around my parts most white people didn't enroll their youngin's in private schools. If there were any whites who had misgivings about intermingling with the blacks (and browns, now) they'd move out to the county rather than stay within city limits. I just finished the weekend back home, and my mother (a substitute teacher) in the city schools that I attended are now predominantly black because many white families have relocated to the county school districts.

    I also think southerner's sense of frugality and a small hint of hometown pride has something to do with the lagging private school development. Really, why the hell would anyone shell out thousands of dollar every year to send the youngin's to private school when there's a decent public school (with a state champion football/basketball/baseball/cheerleading team) that you're already paying taxes on? Most folks in the South go to publich high schools and then to public universities. No surprise there. I could be a wrong, but my inner Southerner suggests that, given the prevalence of non-dysfunctional public schools, "private" schools are a tad "elitist" in the eyes of many a Southerner. I definitely used to think that my hometown school system was a bit "insular/backwards", that is until I moved to Baltimore/D.C., where you have to make six figures in order to guarantee a decent primary/secondary education for the kiddies. Dare I say it, I would move back South just get a cost-efficient education for my children (should I choose to have any).

    In any event, white southerners have a lot more say in how their public schools run (think of all the gay teens banned from the proms), so they really don't need to establish their own private fiefdoms of scholastic pursuit. And many rural public schools are "secular" in name only, so the godless libruls aren't really a threat to the powers that be.

  • Sgt. Gym Bunny on March 13, 2012 4:24 PM:

    That was me above @ 4:09PM

    On the Southern hospitality bit. I agree, that hospitality only comes on the condition that you're just like them.

    I kid you not, everytime I go back home to eastern NC--like this weekend for example--I am triple sure that anytime I open my mouth, I use a highly affected southern accent. Given that my family spent at least 15 years overseas (Air Force) and I've spent the last 8 in the Northeast, what little accent I've ever had is now nonexistent. But faking Southern does get things done a lot quicker and smoother, especially if people aren't sizing you up, wondering what planet you come from...

    I also made a point to register my car in North Carolina. Being a speed demon with out-of-state (i.e. Yankee) tags is a speeding ticket-from-hell waiting to happen... You can't convince me that state troopers in NC don't have a bias against out-of-state drivers.