Political Animal


November 20, 2012 3:32 PM Redding of the South

By Ed Kilgore

Addressing a subject near and dear to my heart, TNR’s Alec MacGinnis politely dismantles an argument from University of North Carolina-Charlotte’s Karen Cox that the Republican domination of the Deep South is a product simply of a larger rural population that is “red” everywhere. It is very difficult to deny that white voters in the South—rural, small-town, exurban and (with some exceptions) suburban are simply more prone to vote Republicans than their counterparts in much of the country. And moreover, the remaining hopes of a Democratic revival in the South (very much alive in Virginia, North Carolina and Florida) remain dependent in no small part on the South’s true distinction from most of the country: a large minority population that places a floor on Democratic voting strength.

The thornier issue of why southern white voters are so Republican is an entirely separate matter. It is, in my opinion, less about race (tough it is without a doubt partly about race!) than about religion. If you look at the percentage by state of southerners who belong to the very conservative Southern Baptist Convention (or “Great Commission Baptists,” as some now style it), it tracks the GOP propensities of each state to a significant degree. If you could add in “independent Baptists,” a few splinter denominations, and then equally conservative pentecostal denominations and non-denominational congregations, the numbers would probably be even more compelling. And southern mainline Protestants tend to be significantly more conservative—theologically, socially and politically—than their yankee counterparts. No one seems puzzled that states with large LDS populations tend to lean “red;” this phenomenon is no different.

Another “reddening” factor in the Deep South has been that states like SC, MS, AL (for quite a few years), TN, GA and LA (very recently), and perhaps now Arkansas, have reached or are reaching the tipping-point where state and local politics are being dominated by the GOP, to the point where non-ideological voters are naturally attracted to “playing” there. I have staunch Democratic relatives back home in Georgia who have become heavily involved in local Republican primaries because they are as dispositive of local political power as Democratic primaries were for close to a century.

Add in the national trend towards straight-ticket voting and it’s hard to be too optimistic about states where there is not the precise combination of minority voters, transplants, and industrial, service or “knowledge workers” who can keep the Donkey Party competitive. A decade ago—perhaps even less—I would have been confident that the consistently poor governing ability of southern Republicans, compounded by the high visibility of extremist elements in the GOP, would create regular openings for Democrats in statewide politics. But it’s now really an uphill struggle in much of the region.

None of this should excuse the joy with which all too many progressives elsewhere contemplate the demise of southern Democrats, or the corresponding tendency to attribute all the evil trends among contemporary conservatives to a Dixie influence. Yes, many midwestern conservatives are now sounding like their South Carolina brethren on the subject of unions, but not because of any direct southern influence. Even in the Christian Right, which a lot of people reflexively associate with the South, Colorado and California have become places as important in the formulating and dissemination of the pseudo-religious gospel of cultural reaction as anywhere in the South, and the convergence of traditionalist Catholics with conservative evangelicals is primarily a non-southern phenomenon.

So Democrats should be clear-eyed about the South, but neither hopeless nor vengeful. A lot of factors are in flux, as evidenced by the emergence of Virginia—which did not go Democratic in a single presidential election between 1964 and 2008—as a major stumbling-block for the last two GOP presidential candidates. It’s certainly not smart to assume the Solid South has returned for good.

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.


  • Anonymous on November 20, 2012 3:50 PM:

    Ed, I'm sure you were thinking of the Footwash Baptists and the Forty-gallon Baptists when you mentioned those 'splinters'.

    Another Georgia Boy

  • c u n d gulag on November 20, 2012 3:53 PM:

    I wish our Southern Democrats luck. Things can change.

    We had success in Cumberland County, NC, in turning that traditionally Republican district Blue - it's the home of Fort Bragg. It went for President Obama in 2008, and voted in a Democratic Congressman - and he even survived the '10 wave.
    Unfortunately, it changed back this year, and the Congressman lost his reelection.

    It'll be interesting to see what happens in '16, when, presumably, the Democrats won't be running a black male, like Patrick or Booker.

    Four years is a long time in politics. And, with Republican Governors and State Legislatures doing their best to muck up President Obama and the Democrat's efforts, people might finally begin to tire of voting against their own best interests.

  • charles pierce on November 20, 2012 4:24 PM:

    Ed -- Isn't the very existence of the Southern Baptist Convention technically "about race"?

  • Altoid on November 20, 2012 4:29 PM:

    Perspicacious as usual, Ed, but when it comes to the Midwest I do think you're underestimating the importance of southern (or maybe southern Plains) money. Behind the Kasichs, the Corbetts, the Walkers, the Snyders, lurk the Kochs and their ilk, and we also know the importance of Texas oil money and ideology in the party. ALEC, the font of so much midwestern and PA policy since 2010, is (as I understand it) a Koch initiative, and who can forget that Walker wasn't surprised to get a call from David K his own self?

    It might be easy from the outside to lose sight of just how radical a departure from their own histories and campaigns these governors' programs were. They came in as problem-solving moderates-- Kasich had been that kind of congressmen all his career-- and turned into ravening anti-union and anti-education werewolves, ramming legislation through their assemblies before anyone could catch a breath. It was a surprise to most of the publics there, and very un-midwestern. The manner as much as the substance accounts for a lot of the resistance Walker, Kasich, and Snyder ran into, imho.

    How well their agendas resonate with the voters is another question. I don't recall any of them running as ravening werewolves, so the fact that they won doesn't tell us anything. In each state there is one or more regular conservative bloc that voted them in more or less as traditional conservatives. These can be very regional-- southeast WI, for example, has that large right-wing Catholic vote, but it's been there for a long, long time-- that's where Father Coughlin and Joe McCarthy were based. Ryan is pretty much in that mold, Ayn Rand or no. And of course right-wing SoCal has always been a world unto itself, and influential enough in its own right. (No pun intended.)

    It sure would be nice to see electoral success in the South for Dems, but you're pretty convincing about the effects of having a single ruling party. Maybe we'll live long enough to see the gop's liberal renascence led by its southern contingent?

  • Daryl McCullough on November 20, 2012 4:43 PM:

    The extreme case is Mississippi. White Mississippians voted 90% Republican, and black Mississippians voted 90% Democratic.

  • liam fooe on November 20, 2012 4:49 PM:

    I'm looking forward to 2014 when GOP voters will possibly continue to rid themselves of the lunatic fringe and favor moderate, senseible Republican candidates. In my native Wisconsin there is a clear emergence of those such as Sen. Dale Schultz (R-Dist 17) and others stepping away from the Walker agenda.

    It does not necessarily have to be demographic changes that swing states such as FL, AZ and TX from Red to Blue or Swing. The more prosperous and educated states tend to be Blue, and this will be the trend in NC, ND and VA in the next several election cycles.

  • rdale on November 20, 2012 4:58 PM:

    If you substitute "Utah" for "deep south" the argument still holds true; here Behind the Zion Curtain--where the GOP has an almost total stranglehold on government--it's all about religion. As much as the LDS Old White Man's Politburo on North Temple Street tries to tell the faithful that it doesn't matter what party they vote for, when it gets down to the local level, the Home Teachers and the Priesthood leaders and the Relief Society and the Bishop are the ones who spend all day at work listening to Rush and Glen Beck (himself a Mormon) and are convinced that voting for Democrats is the same as voting for Satan himself.

  • navarro on November 20, 2012 5:03 PM:

    speaking as a native texan i think you are needlessly downplaying the factor of racism in the shift to the republican party. i've taught with several white teachers, necessarily college educated and some with masters degrees, who thought nothing of using the "n" word when there were no people of color in the room and were even offended when i called out the inappropriateness of such behavior. religious conservatism may play a role but the so-called southern strategy primarily worked because of the way it played to the racism of this region. if it weren't for my ties of family and my stubbornness towards being driven out of my home ground by the pack of intolerant racists who've taken over i'd have moved to the northwest years ago.

    i truly look forward to the day when hispanics and blacks together make up a large enough majority to push the republicans out of office.

  • Stephen Suh on November 20, 2012 6:07 PM:

    It is simply wrong to dissociate religion in the south from race. The Southern Baptist Convention is 'Southern' because of the issue of slavery. The Methodist churches in the south used to be part of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, which had split from their ME, North, brothers and sisters because of slavery.

    So yes, white voters support the GOP because of religion. But this is not to say that they don't support the GOP primarily because of racism. They are, in the American south, two sides of the same coin.

  • James E. Powell on November 20, 2012 6:46 PM:

    As others have already pointed out, the whole Southern Baptist thing is about separatists. But, Ed Kilgore, you know this. Why do you offer your aid in promoting this myth? Religion has been used as a cover for racism ever since racism. So cut it out.

  • H-Bob on November 20, 2012 8:22 PM:

    So, blame it on the snake-handlers ?

  • reidmc on November 20, 2012 10:05 PM:

    You've been 99.5% right about everything through this election cycle. Excellent analysis and writing. That said, here is your .5%. . .it is very much about race.

  • gvahut on November 20, 2012 10:17 PM:

    I wonder (and perhaps there's good data to support or refute this) if the level of segregation of neighborhoods and the level of segregation of social institutions beyond church help to maintain the status quo. If you're hanging out with people that look like you, act like you, tolerate the intolerant things you say, etc., then there's perhaps less of a chance of some enlightenment when you encounter others who aren't like you.

  • gyrfalcon on November 21, 2012 1:57 AM:

    So what explains Vermont? It's the second whitest state in the union, almost entirely rural, and gives the highest margin for Obama outside Washington, D.C. (in the most rural counties and among long-time Vermont farmers, not just hippy-dippy transplants from NY and Mass.)

    Is church/religion the explanation? Vermont is also consistently at the very bottom of surveys of church-going and religion-believin' states in the country.

  • Alan on November 21, 2012 8:59 AM:

    Does their conservatism derive from their churches or vice-versa?