Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Returning South--Alabama

As I mentioned in my posting on Mississippi a few days ago, I decided to go back to V.O. Key’s Southern Politics to see how much, or little, has changed since the time of his writing in the late 1940’s. While the politics of the deep south has certainly changed, what I found interesting was the lack of change we’ve seen in some of the underlying demographics of the region. Focusing on the African-American population, we saw that those parts of the state that had heavy concentrations of blacks in the 1940’s have similar concentrations today. When Mississippi voted last week, the Delta region especially gave Obama huge margins.

With that in mind I thought I’d take a broader look at the region and revisit a few of the earlier primaries. I’ll start with Alabama, which voted on February 5th. Like in Mississippi, Obama won statewide garnering 56% to Clinton’s 42%.

I’ve reproduced above two maps. First is a regional map of the south that comes from Kevin Phillip’s masterful “The Emerging Republican Majority.” In this map we see the distribution of the African American population throughout the south at the time of his writing in 1968. I’m going to be referring to this map in several posts over the next little while. Second is an earlier map of Alabama from Key’s "Southern Politics". What we see in Alabama is, like Mississippi, a geographic concentration of African Americans. Here we have a band of counties running across the state from east to west. This area was commonly referred to as the “Black Belt” in regard to quality of the soil rather than the majority of its inhabitants.

In describing the nineteenth to mid-twentieth century politics of the state, Key argued that a dynamic similar to that in Mississippi was consistent. Namely, wealthier white planters tended to square off against lower income whites from the upstate and downstate areas for control of the state government. Key writes:

“The split between the black belt and the remainder of the state…suggests that the backbone of southern conservatism may be found in those areas with high concentrations of Negro population. For decades the Alabama black belt has been a stronghold of conservative agricultural strength which has frequently allied itself with the business interests of the state. The presence of a large proportion of Negroes in the population alone may induce a degree of conservatism. To maintain its status the ruling group must oppose any political program that tends to elevate or excite the masses, black or white…

If the black counties are the backbone of southern conservatism, a partial explanation for the recurrent progressive outbursts in Alabama politics rests in the fact that over considerable areas of the state the population includes comparatively small proportions of Negroes.”

The resulting politics, Key found, was subject to ebbs and flows of power between the black belt and the remaining parts of the state. While the black belt trended conservative, the outlying counties were subject to fits of populism and economic radicalism. Because there was no developed two party system, Key found, politics was highly driven by personal factions.

So, looking at last month’s primary, what do we see? I’ve reproduced the primary results in the map at left (courtesy of The Obama counties are in green; Clinton’s in red. Like with Mississippi, we see a virtual reproduction of the earlier demographic picture of the state. The Black Belt is alive and well and still has heavy African American concentrations of voters, the vast majority of whom went with Obama. In the outlying areas, north and south, we see Clinton’s strength. Sixty years since Key’s writing we see how little has changed.

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