Thursday, September 11, 2008

Here’s What’s the Matter with “What’s the Matter with Cairo, Ill.?”!

ElectionDissection strolled down Mass. Ave., NW to the Cato Institute today for a book forum discussing “Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State: Why Americans Vote the Way They Do” whose authors maintain a data-rich blog.

Informed comments were offered by George Mason Univ. prof and exit poll veteran Dr. Michael McDonald – whose invaluable data ElectionDissection links to on our Election Returns & Other Data sidebar – titled “What’s the Matter with Cairo, Ill.?” McDonald contrasted how Chicago’s affluent and historically Republican Collar County suburbs have been trending Democratic in recent elections – reflected in the political journey of their Favorite Daughter, onetime Goldwater Girl Hillary Rodham Clinton – with the Republican swing in Cairo’s impoverished Alexander County, home to a historic Southern Democrat-style tradition.

Being a son of Little Egypt, nickname for Southern Illinois, the flood-prone region whose tip meets at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers at the aptly named Cairo, I have to quibble with Prof. McDonald’s choice of this town to contrast with Chicago ‘burbs. But, I’ll stress, given the strength of McDonald’s presentation, I’m only quibbling.

Cairo, sits – or withers, rather – at the tip of the Land of Lincoln, but couldn’t be further away from Abe’s Sangamon County, in both distance and culture.

Culturally, Cairo (pronounced “kay-row”) holds more in common with Memphis, the Deep South river town, or even Yazoo City in the Mississippi Delta, where McDonald mentioned he attended high school, than greater Southern Illinois, which has more of the feel of an Upper South “Border” region.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, The Cairo Gazette was openly secessionist. Cairo itself is largely Afro-Am in population, and impoverished. The town was the scene of repeated violence, a flashpoint in the struggle for civil rights, from which it has never recovered. Alexander County’s white population were so agitated, they gave segregationist Alabamian George Wallace 21% of their votes in 1968, the loudest electoral thundering of white backlash in the Land of Lincoln.

Cairo’s “peculiar” Old South character renders it an anomaly even for Southern-inflected Southern Illinois, home of sweet tea-sipping white Baptists. I just couldn’t resist quibbling with McDonald - and only out of regional and familial pride - whose comments will certainly inform my reading of the book.

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