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.

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