For South, a Waning Hold on National Politics
VERNON, Ala. — Fear of the politician with the unusual name and look did not end with last Tuesday’s vote in this rural red swatch where buck heads and rifles hang on the wall. This corner of the Deep South still resonates with negative feelings about the race of President-elect Barack Obama.
What may have ended on Election Day, though, is the centrality of the South to national politics. By voting so emphatically for Senator John McCain over Mr. Obama — supporting him in some areas in even greater numbers than they did President Bush — voters from Texas to South Carolina and Kentucky may have marginalized their region for some time to come, political experts say.
The region’s absence from Mr. Obama’s winning formula means it “is becoming distinctly less important,” said Wayne Parent, a political scientist at Louisiana State University. “The South has moved from being the center of the political universe to being an outside player in presidential politics.”
One reason for that is that the South is no longer a solid voting bloc. Along the Atlantic Coast, parts of the “suburban South,” notably Virginia and North Carolina, made history last week in breaking from their Confederate past and supporting Mr. Obama. Those states have experienced an influx of better educated and more prosperous voters in recent years, pointing them in a different political direction than states farther west, like Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi, and Appalachian sections of Kentucky and Tennessee.
Southern counties that voted more heavily Republican this year than in 2004 tended to be poorer, less educated and whiter, a statistical analysis by The New York Times shows. Mr. Obama won in only 44 counties in the Appalachian belt, a stretch of 410 counties that runs from New York to Mississippi. Many of those counties, rural and isolated, have been less exposed to the diversity, educational achievement and economic progress experienced by more prosperous areas.
The increased turnout in the South’s so-called Black Belt, or old plantation-country counties, was visible in the results, but it generally could not make up for the solid white support for Mr. McCain. Alabama, for example, experienced a heavy black turnout and voted slightly more Democratic than in 2004, but the state over all gave 60 percent of its vote to Mr. McCain. (Arkansas, however, doubled the margin of victory it gave to the Republican over 2004.)
Less than a third of Southern whites voted for Mr. Obama, compared with 43 percent of whites nationally. By leaving the mainstream so decisively, the Deep South and Appalachia will no longer be able to dictate that winning Democrats have Southern accents or adhere to conservative policies on issues like welfare and tax policy, experts say.
That could spell the end of the so-called Southern strategy, the doctrine that took shape under President Richard M. Nixon in which national elections were won by co-opting Southern whites on racial issues. And the Southernization of American politics — which reached its apogee in the 1990s when many Congressional leaders and President Bill Clinton were from the South — appears to have ended.
“I think that’s absolutely over,” said Thomas Schaller, a political scientist who argued prophetically that the Democrats could win national elections without the South.
The Republicans, meanwhile, have “become a Southernized party,” said Mr. Schaller, who teaches at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “They have completely marginalized themselves to a mostly regional party,” he said, pointing out that nearly half of the current Republican House delegation is now Southern.
“They’ve maxed out on the South,” he said, which has “limited their appeal in the rest of the country.”
Even the Democrats made use of the Southern strategy, as the party’s two presidents in the last 40 years, Jimmy Carter and Mr. Clinton, were Southerners whose presence on the ticket served to assuage regional anxieties. Mr. Obama has now proved it is no longer necessary to include a Southerner on the national ticket — to quiet racial fears, for example — in order to win, in the view of analysts.
Several Southern states, including Arkansas, Louisiana and Tennessee, have voted for the winner in presidential elections for decades. No more. And Mr. Obama’s race appears to have been the critical deciding factor in pushing ever greater numbers of white Southerners away from the Democrats.
Here in Alabama, where Mr. McCain won 60.4 percent of the vote in his best Southern showing, he had the support of nearly 9 in 10 whites, according to exit polls, a figure comparable to other Southern states. Alabama analysts pointed to the persistence of traditional white Southern attitudes on race as the deciding factor in Mr. McCain’s strong margin. Mr. Obama won in Jefferson County, which includes the city of Birmingham, and in the Black Belt, but he made few inroads elsewhere.
“Race continues to play a major role in the state,” said Glenn Feldman, a historian at the University of Alabama, Birmingham. “Alabama, unfortunately, continues to remain shackled to the bonds of yesterday.”
David Bositis, senior political analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, pointed out that the 18 percent share of whites that voted for Senator John Kerry in 2004 was almost cut in half for Mr. Obama.
“There’s no other explanation than race,” he said.
Race was a strong subtext in post-election conversations across the socioeconomic spectrum here in Vernon, the small, struggling seat of Lamar County on the Mississippi border.
One white woman said she feared that blacks would now become more “aggressive,” while another volunteered that she was bothered by the idea of a black man “over me” in the White House.
Mr. McCain won 76 percent of the county’s vote, about five percentage points more than Mr. Bush did, because “a lot more people came out, hoping to keep Obama out,” Joey Franks, a construction worker, said in the parking lot of the Shop and Save.
Mr. Franks, who voted for Mr. McCain, said he believed that “over 50 percent voted against Obama for racial reasons,” adding that in his own case race mattered “a little bit. That’s in my mind.”
Many people made it clear that they were deeply apprehensive about Mr. Obama, though some said they were hoping for the best.
“I think any time you have someone elected president of the United States with a Muslim name, whether they are white or black, there are some very unsettling things,” George W. Newman, a director at a local bank and the former owner of a trucking business, said over lunch at Yellow Creek Fish and Steak.
Don Dollar, the administrative assistant at City Hall, said bitterly that anyone not upset with Mr. Obama’s victory should seek religious forgiveness.
“This is a community that’s supposed to be filled with a bunch of Christian folks,” he said. “If they’re not disappointed, they need to be at the altar.”
Customers of Bill Pennington, a barber whose downtown shop is decorated with hunting and fishing trophies, were “scared because they heard he had a Muslim background,” Mr. Pennington said over the country music on the radio. “Over and over again I heard that.”
Mr. Obama remains an unknown quantity in this corner of the South, and there are deep worries about the changes he will bring.
“I am concerned,” Gail McDaniel, who owns a cosmetics business, said in the parking lot of the Shop and Save. “The abortion thing bothers me. Same-sex marriage.”
The saddest part in this is that these are voters who, minus religion, should naturally be progressive. Appalachia voters are the most likely of any group of whites in the US to lack education, economic resources, and are exactly the kind of people who you would never imagine voting for a group whose concept of economic populism is to advocate a capital gains tax cut. And yet, there they are, voting 70-80% Republican in those areas. I teach in one of those counties, which voted 79% for McCain (75% for Bush in 2004). I have little illusion why McCain received four extra percentage points of the vote, when he lost amongst every other group in this country compared to the GOP ticket in 2004.
To say that white people in the South, particularly the rural South, are culturally and politically consumed by race would be an overstatement (religiosity is much more likely to be a culprit these days), but it is nevertheless an undercurrent issue. Probably the biggest fear, amongst those students who have been honest enough to talk to me and tell me what they really think, is that with the election of a black president the country is somehow going to be taken over by black people. This is the same fear that lead so many white Southerners to fight in the Civil War, to violently suppress its freed slave population after Reconstruction, and to rebel against the civil rights movement. It is the fear that if black people have power, it will come at their expense and, I suspect in their minds, that whites will be forced to pay back for all the crimes their ancestors have committed in the past. This is the same mentality that propelled and perpetuated the political careers of George Wallace, Strom Thurmond, and Jesse Helms, all of whom successfully played on the racial fears of white Southerners. That none of this has happened in the 140-plus years after the end of slavery never seems to occur to these folk in the old Confederacy.
What interests me, more than the racism in itself, is how can people allow themselves to be fooled into thinking this way? I understand the importance of one's upbringing, socialization, peers, and all of these play a big role. However, when you are an adult, at some point, reality has to set in. It has to occur to anyone that when your fears do not come true, and this can be on anything, that it is time to reassess your attitudes.
For those conservatives who think I am being too critical, I have had several of students recite some of the things they were told about this election (as well as their own thoughts), and what I heard really illuminated me. Not just the racism, but even religious fundamentalism (such as, "I was told in church that if Obama was elected, the anti-Christ may come," as well as other sad proclamations, "He's half-black, we're all Americans. I'm so sick of hearing about race," and "I heard he will make us have gay marriage and abortions."). On the one hand, I do not want to denounce them because I want them to speak out without fear, even though they know I do not share their values, but I somehow cannot fathom that adults in this day and age can sincerely feel this way.
When I reminded my students that both candidates had many issues in which their views were similar (including, unfortunately, gay marriage, the death penalty, and even the Wall Street bailout), it was of no consequence. Deep down, their opposition seemed to be tainted not just by a religious attitude but the thought, however deluded, that the man may actually have Quran scriptures emblazoned on our currency bills. This is what I find most fascinating. What goes into making a mindset like this, like one of the believers at a madrassa in rural Pakistan. It interests me because it is in understanding the methodology of the human mind that you have a better understanding of your own. After all, we share 99.9% of the same DNA.
Ultimately, though, the problem with all of this conceptualization of the loss of the white South is that it assumes this is a phenomenon of the white South. It is not. Maybe it is somewhat more predominantly an issue (i.e., fundamentalism) among white Southerners, but there are many whites and even some non-whites outside of the South who experience this same set of values. One cannot blame white Southerners for the Proposition 8 vote in California (passed in large part, ironically, by majority votes from the African American and Latino communities). Not only that, the antiabortion votes by state legislatures have taken place in the Midwest as well as the South. This orthodox mentality is a part of the human condition, and the rebellion against the modern world by people who fear their loss of control over their lives and their communities, and that split is more forcibly split between those who are religiously observant and those who are more secular, which is sadly an affliction of the human condition (just look at the mayoral race in Jerusalem, which is every bit as stark as finding a rural white Obama voter in the Bible belt).