Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Riposte to My Last Book Club

After my last post I got to wondering whether I was being a little hard on the Palmetto State. Pulling out V.O. Key when talking about the south (and race) is certainly heavy artillery, but his conclusions--while valid in 1949--may no longer hold. So we should maybe look at more recent history. To help with this, I recently came across a book that was specifically designed to be an update of Key's "Southern Politics." From the title you get a sense that the authors wanted to take another look, state by state, at what Key explored. "The Transformation of Southern Politics," written by Jack Bass and Walter DeVries shows how, in the years after Key, two party politics began to emerge across the south. Whereas Key found factionalism within the solidly Democratic south to be the traditional form of politics, we here start to see the makings of more "rational" competition between the parties.

I should note, though, that this book was written in 1976 so we don't have the opportunity to explore the full arc of southern political transformation to the point where the region is now the most Republican part of the country. Indeed, in many of the states Bass and DeVries explore, parity between the parties had yet to emerge by the mid-70's. Nonetheless, the process was under way, spurred by several events and forces. Among these was the 1949 Dixiecrat revolt, Barry Goldwater's 1964 inroads in Dixie, as well as a social transformation that saw a massive in-migration into the south from many northern states. While these forces tended to help Republicans, Democrats also saw their politics transform--and this is a process the authors focus on. With the 1965 Voting Rights Act's passage, southern politicians could no longer ignore the numerical strength of black voters. In fact, they now had the incentive to court them. Thus, the 60's and 70's saw the emergence of many Democratic politicians who were much more moderate, and indeed sometimes progressive, on the issue of race in comparison to their predecessors. Jimmy Carter is probably the best example but lesser known figures like Ernest Hollings in South Carolina, Dale Bumpers in Arkansas, and Reubin Askew in Florida saw their rise assisted by black votes. Another consequence of the Voting Rights Act's passage, along with the breakup of malapportioned state legislative districts, was the election of sizable numbers of black politicians. Thus, Key's "Southern Politics" is very much in recession by this time.

In their chapter on South Carolina titled "The Changing Politics of Color," Bass and DeVries suggest that the state's politics, along with Tennessee's, were the furthest along in developing a true two party system. The responsibility for the growth and early maturation of SC's Republicans can be most ascribed to Strom Thurmond. After first bolting the Democrats to run as a Dixiecrat in 1948, Thurmond joined the Republican ranks and was elected to the Senate. One story that I found fascinating in Rick Perlstein's "Nixonland" was the role that Thurmond played in the election of Richard Nixon in 1968. By providing affirmation of Nixon's bona fides (some would call this a wink and a nod to the "Southern Strategy"), Nixon was able to win South Carolina, not only denying it to George Wallace who swept the rest of the Deep South, but helping to cement his victory over Hubert Humphrey.

While South Carolinian, and southern politics more broadly, was changing, that's not to say that some of the characteristics Key identified had disappeared. Voting could still be very racially polarized. In his recent look at southern politics, Thomas Schaller argues that white southern voters oftentimes increase their participation in response to high levels of black voting--in other words, the fear that black voters could tilt elections leads whites to vote in reaction to them (and thus for Republicans). Bass and DeVries found a similar phenomenon in South Carolina:

A look at county data reveals, as expected, that the combination of heavy black population and a high rate of black participation greatly stimulates white political participation. Whites in all 12 of the majority black counties were registered at a higher percentage than the state average of 61.3 percent. In ten of the counties the white registration rate was more than 15 points higher than the statewide rate. As a percentage of those registered, whites in the majority black counties voted at a slightly higher rate than the state average, and blacks in those counties at a rate about equal to the state average.

Thus, there's a mixture of both fluidity and stability in the politics of the south. What we need to look at next is the subsequent chapter of southern political history--the rise of Reagan, the maturation of the Republican Party across the region, and its subsequent dominance epitomized in the 1994 congressional election. Bass and DeVries have updated the version that I have so that is probably the best place to start but I'll try and search out some more works, comprehensive in scope, to continue this process of exploration.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

From Now On, Is Everything About Race???

Over the past week, especially since President Obama’s health care speech to Congress, the political debate in Washington and across the country has reached a heightened sense of craziness. Crystallized by the outburst of South Carolina congressman Joe Wilson—and the subsequent vote of disapproval in the House yesterday—the issue of race has once again been raised. Wilson’s “You lie!” comment has been interpreted in a variety of ways, with many arguing that racism lies not far beneath the surface. The most high profile advocate of this position is former President jimmy Carter. Commentary about Wilson’s motivations has been more divided.

As readers of this blog know, the role of race in American politics and society fascinates me. The Obama candidacy and now presidency have presented us with the opportunity to look, perhaps as never before, at how race defines and divides us. In theorizing about race, though, we need to be extremely careful—not because of the sensitivity of the issue and a fear of being either too overly or insufficiently “politically correct”—but because of how difficult it is to prove anything, especially when it comes to individuals’ motivations, beliefs, and biases. A case for such humility was made recently by Ta-Nehisi Coates in his blog over at The Atlantic (one of my favorites).

So having said this, I want to proceed gingerly in talking about this series of events. Nonetheless, the Wilson case brings to the fore some fascinating political/geographical history--stuff that gets us excited here. Whenever I’ve ventured to talk about race, especially in terms of its salience in the south, I turn to the great work by V.O. Key, “Southern Politics,” originally published in 1949. Key’s work was a landmark study of how the “solid south” evolved in the post-bellum south. In his introduction, Key argues

In its grand outlines the politics of the South revolves around the position of the Negro. It is at times interpreted as a politics of cotton, as a politics of free trade, as a politics of agrarian poverty, or as a politics of planter and plutocrat. Although such interpretations have a superficial validity, in the last analysis the major peculiarities of southern politics go back to the Negro. Whatever phase of the southern political process one seeks to understand, sooner or later the trail of inquiry leads to the Negro.

The main “peculiarity” Key explores is why traditional two party politics never emerged in the south after the Civil War. Whereas “rational” politics entails conflicts around economic issues—and thus divides the classes—such cleavages never took hold in the south’s politics. The reason, for Key, was because the fear of black advancement and political political power united both rich and poor whites. Even though poor whites and blacks shared many economic interests, an alliance between the two never congealed. Thus, southern politics was more factional than ideological, playing out completely within the arena of the Democratic party which, due to Jim Crow, was a totally white enterprise.

In Key’s analysis of individual southern states, he found that this type of politics was most entrenched in those areas with the largest black populations. The “blacker” a state or county, the greater incentive there was for whites to unite. Of all the southern states, South Carolina had the second largest black population, second only to Mississippi. In fact, Key entitled his chapter on the Palmetto State “The Politics of Color.” He opens this chapter by noting:

South Carolina has had a succession of spectacular race orators who almost blanket out the achievements of its abler and more temperate leaders, such as James F. Byrnes. While others shared their views, the politicians of South Carolina—and Mississippi—have put the white-supremacy case most bitterly, most uncompromisingly, most vindictively.

Does this history make Joe Wilson’s outburst racist? Who knows. Is he responsible for this history? Of course not. But history is hard to escape and it shapes people’s context and it shapes our culture. And when we’re discussing American history and especially that of the south and its politics, we can’t ignore race, even though doing so would make us more comfortable. We should also recognize that others will consider it and have their own judgments shaped by their particular experiences and histories. An interesting aspect of the Wilson brouhaha has been the role played by fellow SC congressman, and Democratic Whip, James Clyburn. Clyburn represents the neighboring district in the state and has a storied personal history as a leader of the civil rights struggle there. That he was the member driving the move to admonish Wilson should remind us how personal this issue can be.

Interestingly—and here we can find more sure footing—when one looks at Congressman Wilson’s district, one finds that his district is not one where we’d expect quite the level of demagoguery that Key described. The 2nd District finds itself, of the state’s 6, in the middle in terms of its racial composition. It is the third “blackest” with African Americans making up roughly 26% of the population. Also, it has the highest median income in the state and the highest proportion of residents with a college degree. Recent conventional wisdom has suggested that those with higher incomes and education will be the least likely to hold unenlightened views on race. In last year’s presidential race the 2nd was Obama’s third best district, giving him 45% of the vote. Furthermore, as has been noted at length over the past week, Wilson had a relatively close re-election last time, garnering only 54% of the vote. Both candidates have used the events of the past week to rake in huge sums of money for next year’s rematch. Thus, there doesn't seem to be much incentive, in a purely political sense, for Wilson to become the new incarnation of George Wallace.

So where does this leave us??? The fact that we’ve been focused on the meaning of two words over the past week—and that this meaning has been interpreted by many to have sinister racial undertones—tells us that we’ve not yet arrived at a mythical “post racial” America. Given our history and how much in is entwined into our consciousness, perhaps we never will. Where it does leave us is with a realization that these types of debates, clashes, and parsings of words are going to be with us for a while. The Obama presidency makes this unavoidable. However much we might want our political fights (in the best sense of the word) to be “just” about health care, the economy, education, and the like, they won’t be. Beneath the surface of all of these will be the unspoken, and often loudly spoken, role of race in America. We best proceed humbly.
**Top image, slave map of South Carolina, originally published in The Atlantic in 1861.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Is It Too Early To Be Thinking About 2010???

As August wraps up and the Democrats emerge from a month long, town hall meeting inspired, collective freak-out, the punditry is already asking whether the Dems are doomed come next fall. A recent Politico story samples opinion from the likes of Charlie Cook and Nate Silver, both of whom seem to be forcasting dire straits ahead.

All of this seems extremely premature to me. With 14 months to go until the voting we (if we are honest) have to acknowledge that we have no idea what the political and party dynamics will be that far down the road. While the health care debate has been (predictably) ugly, confusing, and divisive, it's also pretty much assured that something will pass. When it does, things will calm down. Perhaps this isn't the best time to be making predictions. Its also useful to put the upcoming election into some broader context.

Toward the end of the Politico story, the issue of retirements comes up. This, I'd argue, is a good place to start. Open seat races caused by an incumbents' retirements have always provided parties with their best opportunity to gain seats. The formidable incumbency advantages of name recognition, legislative record, constituency service, and fundraising might disappear, creating a much more level playing field. Should the out-party manage to field and support a credible candidate they can feasibly gain the seat. A crucial variable in their ability to do this, of course, is the underlying nature of the district itself. A Democrat retiring from a solidly liberal district isn't going to be likely to change, whatever the Republican candidate does. To look at the role that retirements play in assisting party gains, I created the following chart, focusing on the House of Representatives. Senate races have a much more individualistic dynamic that we'll explore over the coming months.

The above chart shows each party's success in gaining seats for each congressional election cycle since 1960. Column 2 indicates the total number of House retirements for that particular cycle. Column 3 provides the total number of Democratic retirements, followed by the number of those retirements lost. Column 5 provides the percentage of retirements lost. Column 6 notes the total number of Democratic losses (open seat losses plus incumbents defeated). Column 7 (based on the Republican numbers) shows how many of the Democrats' total gains for that year were the result of their capture of open seats. The remaining columns provide the same data for Republicans over this period.

So what do we see? First, both parties are quite successful in defending the seats of their retirees. Both parties lost, on average over the length of this data set, 29.5% of their open seats. Thus, if a party wants to rely on retirements to make big gains, they are going to need an extremely large number of retirements from the other side. The best example of this is 1994. I've highlighted 1994 in the chart (as with 2006) to show what happens during cycles when the party majority switches. In '94, Republicans managed to win 21 of the 28 vacancies created by Democratic retirements. These wins gave them 38% of the seats they captured that year. While they managed to unseat a very large number of incumbent Dems, these open seat wins were crucial.

A second trend that jumps out is that the Democrats have been more reliant on open seat wins to make their gains than Republicans have been. The Dems have averaged 46.5% of their gains through open seat wins as opposed to the Republicans 39%. Thus, for the Republicans in 2010, the data would seem to point to their need to knock of Democratic incumbents--at least given past trends. For them to do this, though, they'll need to target vulnerable Dems--probably those from moderate to Republican leaning districts. Hence, we've seen how the Blue Dogs have been at the center of the current hand wringing. One thing I've wondered about, as a result of how well the Democrats have done in the past two cycles, is whether the party is at its high water mark in terms of seats. In other words how many more districts, even under the most favorable circumstances, could possibly go Democratic? It's hard to think of many. Thus, any gains that the Republicans might make next year might be the result not of voter backlash against health care or Obama, but rather a natural correction in the electorate, a return to equilibrium if you will. Rather than doing so poorly now, it may be that the Democrats did too well in '06 and '08.

Looking ahead to 2010 with attention on retirements, what do we know at this point? Currently, 16 House members have announced their retirements (10 Republican and 6 Democrat). Looking at the range of this data set, one sees that even allowing for more retirement announcements in the future, 2010 doesn't seem like it will be a year with a large number of retirements--hence opportunities--for Republicans. With a new majority and now a President of their party in the White House, Democrats have an incentive to stay in office and push their policy agenda. One can also be sure that party leaders are pushing their members to stay put rather than retire or seek higher office. Thus, should some of these early prognostications materialize, they would seem to have to be driven by incumbent defeats. Not only are these difficult to produce individually, but to do so in large number and across numerous regions requires extremely unusual circumstances. While the current health care debate has certainly gotten some House Democrats scared, we shouldn't automatically assume that 2010 is going to be the equivalent of 1994 or 1966--years that saw the minority party make huge gains. A lot more would need to happen.