Political Animal


March 12, 2012 11:51 AM What’s the Matter With Alabama and Mississippi?

By Ed Kilgore

From the point of view of delegates to be selected, tomorrow is just another Tuesday, and not a particularly momentous one, in the GOP presidential nominating contest. But it’s hard to ignore the fact that the two states holding primaries, Alabama and Mississippi, are the mythological center of what has become the Republican Party’s southern base.

That means these primaries are by all accounts Newt Gingrich’s Last Stand. Fifty-two years after the Pennysylvania-born Army brat moved from Orleans, France to Columbus, Georgia, he’s finally achieved his apotheosis as the conservative South’s favorite son. If he loses both states tomorrow, he’s done in all but the most formal sense, unless sugar daddy Sheldon Adelson has totally taken leave of his senses. Meanwhile, these states offer an abundance of the white evangelical (according to PPP, 70% of likely GOP voters in MS, 68% in AL) and “very conservative” (44% in MS, 45% in AL) voters that are Rick Santorum’s electorate base. And if Mitt Romney can squeak past this equally divided opposition and register wins, he will lay to rest the “Romney Can’t Win in the South” meme and take a giant step towards the nomination.

But there’s a pretty strong sense that these two particular states carry symbolic freight beyond the delegates they offer or the momentum they can bestow or deny. Along with SC, AL and MS compose what historian V.O. Key called the “Super-South,” the states where all the tangled legacies of the region were most intensely present. It’s no accident that in Georgia, where I grew up, people used to tell “Alabama jokes” (“How do you define infinity? A four-way stop in Alabama.”) to distinguish themselves from their less enlightened neighbors to the west. And even Alabamians look down on Mississippi, perpetually the poorest state in the country.

Alabama and Mississippi were always states dominated by white identity politics to an extent known nowhere else, as is reflected in their legendary status as hotbeds of last-ditch resistance to desegregation and African-American voting rights. In presidential elections, they didn’t abandon the White Man’s Party like other states in the region did over prohibition (1920), Catholicism (1928), or generic states’ rights (1952), but were the first to bolt in elections defined by race (1948, 1964 and 1968). Along with SC, they were the first states to realign racially in the current party system, quickly burying the biracial coalitions that kept Democrats competitive for a long time in other southern states. In 2008, AL and MS really distinguished themselves: even as Barack Obama won 23% of the white vote in GA, 26% in SC, and 30% in AR, he won 10% in AL and 11% in MS. These are not places where new wealth or northern transplants have made big political or cultural differences; old times there are truly not forgotten.

So it’s no wonder the Washington Post says all three Republican presidential candidates, even Gingrich, seem culturally “uncomfortable” campaigning in Alabama and Mississippi, despite the two states’ rugged loyalty to the GOP. And I’ll bet you that when yankee liberals make fun of Alabama and Mississippi (viz. a video feature on Bill Maher’s show), other southerners don’t quite know whether to get mad or laugh along. After all, stereotypes, however unfair, tend to have some basis in reality. And unfair as it may be to the hard-pressed, courageous progressives of Alabama and Mississippi, these two places really are the last bastions of a South where, as Mississippian William Faulkner famously said: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

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.


  • Memekiller on March 12, 2012 12:11 PM:

    Republican politics is all about the rich buying votes from the poor by convincing them to follow the teachings of the atheist Ayn Rand. People will vote for God and country over their own self interests, so long as you convince them that the 1%=God and Country. Thus, Catholicism - which accepts evolution, sees pollution as a sin, and has made charity a central tenant of its purpose - is used by the Catholics on the public stage, like Santorum, to denounce healthcare and Inhofe to deny Global Warming.

    You could find some verse about helping the poor, too, but that's not the part of the Bible the rich are concerned with, and not the parts their leaders are going to read to the masses.

  • Ron Byers on March 12, 2012 12:34 PM:

    The amazing thing about the old South, and it has been amazing since the civil war, is the ability of the tiny Southern elite to convince hard scrabble whites to vote against their own interests. During the civil war the bulk of the Southern soldiers were poor whites who never had owned slaves and never were going to own slaves. The white landowners convinced them that they had to fight for the white landowners right to own slaves. In recent times, the Southern elites have convinced poor whites that labor unions are evil and have to be opposed at every turn. I have no explanation as to why or how the Southern elites can convince the bulk of the white population that being the poorest or most poorly educated in the country is in their best interests. That is something worth real exploration.

  • Equal Opportunity Cynic on March 12, 2012 12:54 PM:

    Ron: Although i don't want to bash the progressive side and support the reactionary side, it's helpful to reverse the perspective.

    "...the ability of the tiny Southern elite to convince hard scrabble whites to vote against their own interests."

    Or to put it another way, could it be that progressive sneering at working class Southerners really is odious enough to drive people to make common cause with someone who wants to destroy them economically? Why yes, yes it could be that odious.

  • Ron Byers on March 12, 2012 1:16 PM:

    Who is snearing at the economically deprived southern whtes? Not me. I am just trying to understand how the Republican party elites have been able to convince such a large population that the elites have their best interests at heart.

    The fact is I would love to see both Mississippi and Alabama bloom economically. I am tired of watching the Blue States subsidize them.

  • Midland on March 12, 2012 1:22 PM:

    Or to put it another way, could it be that progressive sneering at working class Southerners really is odious enough to drive people to make common cause with someone who wants to destroy them economically?

    If you're not just being pointlessly cynical, feel free to provide evidence for this point. And be sure to quote extensively from actual Democrats and Liberal activists sneering at working class Southerners in national media outlets.

  • Rick B on March 12, 2012 1:25 PM:

    @Equal Opportunity Cynic

    What surprises me is that the history of Christian evangelism in the South really started before the Civil War, when evangelicals went south to evangelize the slaves. It's my opinion, though, that the form of individual independent protestant churches required successful pastors the obtain the patronage of the local land owners, and those land owners supported the pastors and churches which taught that the Bible supported slavery. Wasn't the breakaway of the Southern Baptist Convention over that issue?

    Keep in mind that the SBC did not finally disavow teaching that the Bible supported first slavery, then segregation, until sometime in the 1990's!

    The purpose of the dominant religious denomination is always to support the legitimacy of the existing government structure. That's just history. Ask Constantine why he made Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire or why the Persians adopted Shiite Islam to fend off the Sunni Muslims from Saudi Arabia.

    Today conservatism in the Southern states and some others like Kansas is centered in the evangelical social conservatives, often in the independent mega-churches, and the split in the Southern Baptist Convention between moderate Baptists and Conservative Baptists tracked surprisingly close to the advances of the Civil Rights movement.

    Religion is sociologically the organizational system used in agricultural societies to teach and enforce the culture. In America that is the evangelical churches at work, and at the very top of that class hierarchy is the elite 1% who fund the Sunday sermons by the preachers and who elect the county sheriff.

  • MichMan on March 12, 2012 1:30 PM:

    ...unless sugar daddy Sheldon Adelson has totally taken leave of his senses.

    Ed, it's no mystery why Sheldon wants to support Newt The Galoot: He wants to divide the conservative vote so that the Mittster gets the nomination.

    He's bought off The Gingrinch by promising to support him in 2016.

  • Equal Opportunity Cynic on March 12, 2012 1:34 PM:

    You only have to browse the comments section on any of the threads on this topic today. No, it's not the national media (although the national media does in fact lack much understanding of anything not going on either coasts). But this is a fairly intellectual, high-content progressive blog. Presumably otherwise intelligent people engage bigotry toward entire states.

    And if progressives' expectation is that low-information voters, being peppered with a narrative about how those Ivy League and Hollywood liberals look down on them, will carefully consider the source and weigh the evidence rather than reacting emotionally, then we've answered the question of why those narratives work.

    Republicans: "These elites look down on you Southerners!"

    Democrats: "No fair! That's not any nationally recognized media, except Bill Maher, and you know nobody takes him seriously."

    Look, i realize that progressives as a whole can't be responsible for every blog comment. I'm just sensitized to this topic today because of those comments, and i've long felt those sorts of comments reveal a very real elitism that the GOP has learned how to exploit.

    But it's easier to just shoot me as the messenger and continue to rack your brains about how people could possibly vote against their economic interest than to engage in candid self-assessment.

  • martin on March 12, 2012 1:34 PM:

    “Alabama jokes” (“How do you define infinity? A four-way stop in Alabama.”)

    Inasmuch as stop signs are only a friendly suggestion around here, I don't think the joke works;>

  • Equal Opportunity Cynic on March 12, 2012 1:35 PM:

    And Ron, i certainly didn't mean you're sneering. A lot of people here aren't, but you don't have to look hard for those who are.

  • JoyousMN on March 12, 2012 1:49 PM:

    EOC, thanks for engaging. I hate close loops.

    A big part of why I like to read Ed Kilgore, and have done so for many years, is his even-handed take on the south, which I think comes from growing up there, and so he see's both sides of the argument.

    Always thought provoking, Ed. Thanks.

  • boatboy_srq on March 12, 2012 2:19 PM:


    The "both sides do it" argument doesn't work here.

    It may well be true that liberal "sneering" at disadvantaged southern populaces drives some percentage of the electorate there.

    What is more true is that Conservatist retelling of liberal statements as "sneering" - complete with misquotes, invented statistics and enough coloration to make The Wealth of Nations/i> read like Das Kapital. Even if the "liberals" were neutral, the Conservatist control of media, public sector, and religious dialogue would reinvent this perspective as something of Teh Other.

    There are many factors driving this, but some of the chief ones are:

    1) Resentment held over from losing the Civil War and being subjected to Reconstruction;
    2) The splintering of Protestantism, driven by the requirements dictated for Salvation, the true meaning of the Gospels and various behaviors of the established churches that a given sect deems "unGodly";
    3) Resentment that an industrial North has for over a century been more prosperous than an agrarian South. This is one root of "right to work" - which in these terms translates as "right for a Southerner to work in a job taken from a Northerner for whatever less than the Northerner's compensation the Southerner is willing to take in salary/benefits"; see #1 and #2 for further explanation;
    4) Three centuries of education policy that produced a few decent scholars and masses of cheap labor - such division produced as much by criteria based on race/sex/ethnicity as by actual curricula and funding;
    5) Wealth disparaties generated by decades of public policy that put the means of communication (ClearChannel, Fox, et al) out of reach of any who disagree with the status quo; this includes reliance on (well-funded) Church bulletins alongside/over local newspapers;
    6) A degree of accepted hypocrisy within the community where private acts of most kinds remain private and divorced from public position/statements/posturing unless forced into the public sphere (see Long, Eddie et al);

    etc etc.

    Liberals, or "progressives," may not look too kindly on the South for its various flaws. But only Conservatist Southerners actively look for reasons to hate Progressivism, and go to great lengths to make Progressivism/Liberalism appear unappealing.

  • Equal Opportunity Cynic on March 12, 2012 2:30 PM:

    boatboy_srq: Good points. #3 is particularly salient here. But if you're interpreting my posts as "both sides do it," you might be missing my point. I'm actually trying to get progressives to stop sneering, not making a case that they're as bad as the GOP. IOW i want progressives to make it more difficult for the GOP to plunder the working class.

  • boatboy_srq on March 12, 2012 2:39 PM:

    @EOC 2:30 pm:

    I took your point. You're missing mine: it doesn't matter what progressives say, so long as all the controls are in the hands of people who deliberately skew whatever is said to support their own agenda. Southern Conservatist pols/journalists/ministers have a vested interest - and an annoyingly consistent tendency - in making their opposition look bad, and taking whatever liberties they need with their opposition's language to support their positions. One only needs look at an AFA/FotF "poll" to see how biased the presentation is, and remains on a daily basis.

    Sneering - or not sneering - will have little effect so long as these people drive the other side of the dialogue, because it will sound like sneering (or worse) to their supporters by the time they're done with it.

  • Midland on March 12, 2012 2:51 PM:

    And if progressives' expectation is that low-information voters, being peppered with a narrative about how those Ivy League and Hollywood liberals look down on them.

    I appreciate your concern, but your own comment points out that it is the Right-wing noise machine that pushes the narrative about how Northerners and elites look down on the South. The only evidence you present to shift the blame on "liberals" is a few sneering comments on blogs that conservatives never read. People in blog comments constently savage anyone they disagree with. It's how our modern culture works, sadly. But that doesn't shift the blame for Southern conservative paranoia away from the right-wing noise machine that pushes the narrative. Asking "liberals" to be less rude is concern trolling.

  • liam foote on March 12, 2012 4:29 PM:

    Rankings of Mississippi (MS) and Alabama (AL) among all US states, courtesy of our friends at the US Census Bureau.

    Percentage of population with college degree+:
    AL (44th); MS (48th)

    Public school teacher salaries: AL (35th); MS (48th)

    Doctors per 100,000 residents: AL (38th); MS (48th)

    Infant mortality rate: MS (1st); AL (3rd)

    Personal per capita income: AL (42nd); MS (50th)

    Persons below poverty level: MS (1st); AL (9th)

    Fed aid to state, local gov't: MS (4th); AL (20th)

  • Matt on March 12, 2012 6:22 PM:

    If you're not just being pointlessly cynical, feel free to provide evidence for this point. And be sure to quote extensively from actual Democrats and Liberal activists sneering at working class Southerners in national media outlets.

    White Mississippian here, though not working class anymore. I'd submit every one of the dozen comment threads about the MS/AL Christianity/evolution polls I've been to today on my roster of favorite liberal blogs. Or, really, any time Mississippi makes the news at all. Haley Barbour made some questionable pardons? There's an oil spill washing ashore in Gulfport? The Ole Miss club Ultimate Frisbee team made regionals? Hyuk hyuk hyuk and cue the sneering.

    I know, I know: it's not everybody who does it, they're not totally serious about it, and they're not aiming at me, or even the African-Americans who vastly outnumber me in the MS Democratic voter rolls. (And who are the ones who disproportionately suffer from all the smugly quoted statistics about how MS is #1 in poverty, illiteracy, infant mortality, etc. etc.)

    But yeah, I have to say, if it bothers me, it's sure as hell going to bother the otherwise persuadable MS swing voters, who are already quite conscious of what the rest of the country imagines them. There's a DailyKos thread up where someone was talking about what it would take for him to live in the Deep South. He mused about how maybe a free house would do it (in which case come on down, because they practically are)--but, no, ultimately his conscience wouldn't allow it.

    For fuck's sake, his conscience. As though just to set foot here was to basically say, "Yeah, Bull Connor had some pretty good ideas."

    It's not the worst bigotry ever. But it's cheap and smarmy and smug and it's absolutely a contributing factor to GOP dominance here. In fact, it makes it worse, because when they have 90% of the vote from the 60% of the state that's white, they will win every single election without even having to worry about what African-Americans might want.

  • Brainz on March 13, 2012 12:27 AM:

    I love and respect the south, which has made many great contributions to America, and southerners are all too often unfairly maligned.

    That said, I have to share one of my all-time favorite jokes:

    Why did Alabama put Helen Keller on its state quarter?

    Because she learned to read.

  • Anonymous on March 13, 2012 12:30 AM:

    To liam foote

    thank you for the statistics.
    educational and health reform will hopefully ease some of the current situations in the future, but we need to do a lot more.
    University of Alabama has became one of the best schools in America and its manufacturing has the bright future.
    Yet there are too many that can't get access to those opportunities.

    we can't really blame uneducated, alienated, poor people to know any better or get politically active, but it's very frustrating and sad that they vote against their economic interests or blame minority as scapegoats.

    it's tragic, for example, how they still love Robert E Lee who triggered a full scale civil war which so many of non-slave owning, poor peasant white southern boys had to die for the plantation owners like him to keep their slaves, but they were told to hate northerners.

    But demographics and technology are changing the south starting in Virginia and North Carolina and i have great hope for latinos, blacks and young people growing and gaining more voices there.