As regular readers of this blog know, there is no political subject that fascinates me more than party politics in my native South–both the historical question of how the region became “red,” and the immediate question of whether and how Democrats can become more competitive.Earlier this week a colleague sent me a book review that provides a good excuse for revisiting that first, historical topic. The New Republic‘s Clay Risen reviewed The End of Southern Exceptionalism for the Boston Globe, and concluded that the book offers fresh evidence that economics, not race, was the central factor in the rise of southern Republicanism.I’ve ordered, but have not yet received, a copy of the book, written by Byron Shafer of the University of Wisconsin and Richard Johnston of the University of British Columbia. But the surprising thing to me about Risen’s review is that the book’s hypothesis seems to be so controversial, “one that few observers of the postwar South will agree with.”This is not to say I believe in a purely economic interpretation of the South’s Republican resurgence, but given the apparent supremacy of a purely racial interpretation, it’s a good corrective.Certainly the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were decisive events in breaking down the ancient alliance between the National Democratic Party and a whites-only regional Democratic Party that had dominated most of the South since the Civil War. But the civil rights revolution did not necessarily, and did not in fact destroy state and local Democratic parties. And if you look at the dynamics of two-party competition in the South, even today, the picture is too complicated to support the claim that race, or any other one factor, has caused the rise of southern Republicanism.My own informed-amateur “wave theory” of party politics in the South places great emphasis on the efforts of each party, and especially my own Democratic Party, to constantly create and recreate new coalitions, depending on the demographics of individual states. But this improvisational coalition-building was a big part of the originial post-World-War-II Republican effort to create a viable two-party system in the South.According to Risen, Shafer and Johnston focus on the rapid urbanization that occured thoughout much of the region from the 1940s through the 1960s, which created a self-conscious urban and suburban white middle-class that voted Republican just like similar places elsewhere (indeed, a heavy in-migration of already-Republican voters from the northeast and midwest, already a large factor in Florida in the 1940s, spread throughout southern suburbs in later decades). But in four states, Tennessee, North Carolina, Kentucky and Virginia, there was already a sizable Republican voter base among Appalachian whites (until quite recently, the very poorest people in America) who had been voting that way since the Civil War. The pre-Civil Rights strength of Republicans in any given state was largely a function of the size of these two very different elements of the population. Moreover, states with few Appalachian voters and smaller cities and suburbs had weak Republican Parties that did ultimately depend on their occasional success in reaching large numbers of rural white voters through race-based appeals.It should come as no surprise, then, to discover how well Eisenhower did in relatively-urbanized states like Florida (which he carried twice) or Texas (won in 1956), and in states with both growing suburbs and cities and Appalachian pockets (Tennessee and Virginia, which he won twice, and North Carolina, where he narrowly lost twice). In 1960, Richard Nixon, then considered a liberal on racial issues by southern standards, did nearly as well in precisely the same places.This complicated picture was confirmed, not obliterated, by Barry Goldwater’s race-based rural southern breakthrough in 1964. Although he swept the Deep South, he lost all the border states, including those carried by Ike and Nixon, and even within the states he carried, he ran behind the previous GOP candidates in many urban and suburban areas.At both the presidential level and–especially–the state and local level, Republican fortunes have ebbed and flowed according to the same shifting of coalitions in the ensuing decades. And even in the contemporary era, where Republicans have an advantage in most, though not all, statewide elections in most of the region, the components vary from state to state. In places like South Carolina and Mississippi, the party system represents a widespread racial polarization, and you can definitely say the basic partisan dynamics point straight back to the civil rights revolution. But in my own home state of Georgia, while race has been a factor, the explosive growth of the suburban population has clearly tilted the state to the GOP, which also means the Democratic counter-trend that has so often set in as suburbs mature could be a big factor in Georgia’s political future.In other words, there is no universal theory that really explains the past, present or future or southern politics, and that is why I am more optimistic than most in predicting that Republican hegemony in the South is far less than inevitable or permanent.UPCATEGORY: Ed Kilgore’s New Donkey
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By Ed Kilgore
Some of the contradictions in Republican talking points on election law and voting rights are becoming clear to me, so I wrote about it at New York:
During the intense controversy raised by Georgia’s new election law, which included a negative reaction from Major League Baseball and a number of corporations, many defenders of the law have played a game of whataboutism. What about voting laws in Colorado, the state to which the MLB’s all-star game has been shifted? What about liberal New York? A lot of these comparisons have been factually challenged, or have zeroed in on one benign feature of the Georgia law while ignoring others. But it does raise a pretty important question: What is the posture nationally of the GOP or the conservative movement on the right to vote and its limits?
Not long ago you might have said that Republicans and conservatives were firmly committed to the view that rules governing voting and elections —even federal elections — were purely within the purview of state and local policy-makers. But that was before Donald Trump spent four years disparaging the decisions made by liberal and conservative jurisdictions on voting procedures whenever they contradicted his often-erratic but always forcefully expressed views. If, for example, voting by mail was as inherently pernicious as Trump said it was, almost daily from the spring through the autumn of 2020, allowing states to permit it was a Bad Thing, right? That simply added to the complaints made by Trump after the 2016 elections that California’s alleged openness to voting by noncitizens cost him a popular vote win over Hillary Clinton, and the widespread Republican whining after 2018 that the same jurisdiction had counted out Republican congressional candidates (whining that somehow subsided when Republicans did better in the exact same districts following the exact same rules in 2020).And that was before Team Trump and his many Republican enablers spent the weeks and months after November 3, 2020, shrieking about state and local election procedures around the country, culminating in efforts to get the U.S. Supreme Court to overrule state court interpretations of state election laws. Indeed, since Trump, his congressional Republican backers, and the Capitol riot mob were trying to block the certification of state election results by Congress on January 6, you could say that a major segment of the GOP wanted the federal government to impose its will on the states with respect to voting and elections.
And if the prevailing conservative idea is that decision-makers closest to the people should determine voting and election rules, then it’s hard to explain the provisions in the Georgia law (and in pending legislation in Texas) that preempt local government prerogatives decisively.
So what doctrine of voting rights does the GOP favor, other than whatever is necessary to produce Republican election victories? That’s hard to say.
Yes, at the Heritage Foundation you will find experts who more or less think everything other than in-person voting on Election Day should be banned everywhere. And now and then you will get someone like Kevin Williamson who will articulate the provocative old-school conservative case for restricting the franchise to “better” voters, which was pretty much the ostensible case for the poll taxes and literacy tests of the Jim Crow South. Unfortunately, snooty contrarianism isn’t a particularly helpful guide to the development of voting laws, and most Republicans (other than those caught in a gaffe) are unlikely to agree out loud with the Williamson proposition.
Until quite recently, most Republicans agreed that the jurisdictions that had for so many years discriminated against the voting rights of minorities deserved extra federal scrutiny and some additional hoops to jump through before changing their rules. In 2006, George W. Bush signed a 25-year extension of the Voting Rights Act that did just that, after it passed the Senate unanimously and the House with scattered opposition. Then a conservative majority of the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key feature of the VRA, and now it’s almost exclusively Democrats (via the John Lewis Voting Rights Act) who want to restore it. Where are Republicans on that idea? With the states and localities, or just with the states and localities where federal intervention in voting and election practices doesn’t inconvenience Republicans?
Whatever you think of Democratic attitudes toward voting and elections, at least they can answer such questions coherently. They have united to an amazing extent around highly detailed legislation (the House and Senate versions of the For the People Act and the aforementioned John Lewis Act) that generally expands voting rights and sets clear federal standards for procedures in and surrounding federal elections. The Republican response to these proposals has been almost universally negative. But it’s unclear what, if anything, they would propose of their own accord.
If the implicit GOP position on voting and elections is simply that such rules are part of the give and take of partisan politics and that both sides are free to play fast and loose with the facts and get what advantages they can, then I can understand why they are loathe to make it explicit. But in that case, people who care about voting rights one way or the other should simply choose sides and have it out.