Politics and Society in the South
Reconciling prodigious change with stubborn intransigence is a familiar problem of southern history. Solutions are rarely brought off without some sleight of hand. On the one hand “old” Souths (rarely lasting more than half a century each) continue to multiply while on the other a “new” South is forever being proclaimed, celebrated, or deplored. The new one defined in the book by Earl and Merle Black, political scientists at the state universities of South and North Carolina, respectively, is the latest of the new Souths. It only began toward the end of the 1940s and succeeded the one that took shape in the early years of the century.
The newest South is comparable with the new South produced by the Civil War for the extent and depth of revolutionary change over the old order it replaced. The order overturned, was, in political terms, the Solid South of white supremacy and one-party politics with an electorate of native whites and a voter turnout of around 25 percent in presidential elections. This was an electorate from which blacks were excluded by disfranchisement, white primaries, or other means, and women took small part. The politics of the Solid South generation were largely the product of a rural and small-town culture with an agricultural economy of one-crop, one-horse farmers. The only cities of any size were New Orleans, Birmingham, and Atlanta, and none of them had a population of half a million before 1930. Three-fourths of the American blacks, mostly rural, still lived in the South. Yankees constituted only a tiny percent of the population.
The classic account of Solid South politics and the starting point and inspiration for all accounts of the period following is the work of V.O. Key, Southern Politics in State and Nation, published in 1949. In the era he treated Key concludes that “the hard core of the political South—and the backbone of southern political unity—is made up of those counties and sections of the southern states in which Negroes constitute a substantial proportion of the population.” And the “fundamental explanation of southern politics is that the black-belt whites succeeded in imposing their will on their states and thereby presented a solid regional front in national politics on the race issue.”1 That meant subordinating, segregating, and disfranchising blacks and keeping federal intervention in their behalf at bay.
The momentous transformations of recent decades in the South’s economy, demography, and race relations would seem to have been enough to undermine and by now entirely destroy the previous political structure. In place of the three cities of the 1930s the South of 1980 had forty-five large metropolitan complexes. Instead of furnishing one in twenty of the region’s votes for president, the big cities in 1980 accounted for 54 percent. The rural and small-town voters have shrunk from four-fifths to three-tenths of the South’s electorate, and their influence has eroded proportionately. A new middle class (disproportionately white, of course), now more numerous than the working class, constitutes more than half the population. It is said by the authors to be twenty-three times greater than the old agrarian middle class, “a quantum change.” In their view, “elements within the new middle class have replaced the plantation elite as the paramount factor in the emerging southern politics.” Members of this middle class hold “most of the region’s political offices, dominate its key decision making institutions in the private sector, and control most of its communications and mass media,” in addition to furnishing “the society’s most conspicuous models of success and achievement.” Joining this class were many of the newly arrived millions of immigrants from the North.
Added to all these changes was the sudden emergence of the new Negro and new race relations. Granting the importance and enduring achievements of the civil rights movement, culminating in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the authors remind us that concrete results were slow in coming. When they did arrive they only “destroyed the most conspicuous elements of the outer color line in most of the South.” Left intact were “intermediate color lines” of economic opportunity and quality education and beyond them the inner lines against fellowship, intimacy, and marriage.
The civil rights movement began to disintegrate in 1965 when white support recoiled against the Black Power racist strategy, and during the following summers whites were repelled by the arson, vandalism, and looting in nearly three hundred riots. Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968 marked the abandonment of the middle ground and the end of an era. Nevertheless the gains scored provided “the grand turning point…for the reentry of blacks into southern politics.” Eligible blacks estimated to be registered to vote soared from 3 percent in 1940 to 59 percent in 1984, and never dropped below 50 percent after the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
While the increase in black voters was important and helped reduce old-fashioned racism, white voters increased at the same time and in 1984 made up 83 percent of the southern electorate. The impact of the black minority, which votes much more cohesively than whites, is seen in the electoral strategies required to form a majority coalition. While in most elections the black vote is not large enough to be decisive, it is sizable enough to be taken seriously. In effect a party must calculate what minimum percent of the white vote is essential in view of the size and cohesiveness of the black minority. Republicans in these circumstances require landslide white majorities, and Democrats need virtually all the black vote and enough of the white vote to produce a majority.
This pattern has had some liberalizing effects, but has by no means produced a triumph of liberalism or opened the prospect of a stable, biracial, liberal—much less radical—coalition in the South. Democrats get by with some mixture of progressive and conservative themes, and Republicans flaunt blatantly conservative appeals. The number of black elected officials has substantially increased, and they have symbolic importance, but most of them are tiny minorities on local governing bodies. True, each of the South’s four cities with a black majority—Atlanta, Birmingham, New Orleans, and Richmond—had a black mayor in the 1980s. But no state has elected a black governor, and the important question in most elections is still not which race but which whites will rule.
On another racial front, impressive social changes have been won against segregation in the schools. By 1970 the percentage of black students attending desegregated schools in the South exceeded that in the North and the West. In economic status blacks shared improvements in income the South enjoyed but on a highly inequitable level. The gap in economic development and welfare between the South and the rest of the country has certainly been reduced in recent decades, but the South remains the poorest region of all, and the blacks distinctly the poorest part of its population. The percentage of impoverished people among them was almost four times as great as the percentage among white Southerners and nearly six times as great as among nonsouthern whites. The percentage of southern blacks below the poverty line is about twice as great in the South as in the North.
Traditional conservatism in the South would seem to be threatened by discontent in several quarters. Poor blacks are now concentrated in cities; they are enfranchised, back in politics, and organized by leaders to the left of white opinion. Forty percent of all southern labor in manufacturing work in low-growth, low-wage industries, and the 60 percent employed in fast-growing, normally high-wage industries work at lower wages and under worse conditions than in other parts of the country. What with a greatly expanded and diversified electorate, a huge increase in turnout of voters, and the revival of two-party competition, political conditions would seem to be riper than ever for the expression of discontent at the polls and the building of biracial coalitions of have-littles and have-nots. And yet in spite of all this, the South is far from being absorbed into a homogeneous American political culture. In many ways the values of traditional southern political culture persist and conservatism prevails.
One huge conservative advantage in the South is the unique degree of contentment that exists across class, race, and party lines throughout the region. Measured by polls that asked for agreement or disagreement with the statement that, all things considered, the respondent lived in the best state and best community, three-fifths of the Southerners and only 43 percent of non-Southerners professed to agree. The variations between South and non-South were enormous, ranging from 70 percent of North Carolinians (and nearly as many Alabamians) as against only 29 percent in New York state, which was grouped at the bottom with Massachusetts and Illinois. The poll suggests the conclusion that, despite the negative image of backwardness Northerners have of the region, Southerners like it where they are better than any other Americans. The correlation between a state’s score of contentment and its rank in an index of social, economic, and religious diversity is extraordinarily high, accounting for some 90 percent of variance in scores. That is, the lower the diversity the greater the contentment and vice versa, with the homogeneous southern states being the most satisfied and the heterogeneous northeastern states, with the greatest ethnic diversity, the least content. Within the South, Florida, Louisiana, and Texas, states with the greatest diversity in populations in the region, registered its greatest discontent.
For various reasons race was not included in the diversity index, but it would have appeared to make little difference since both blacks and whites mainly associated with members of their own race, people essentially like themselves. Southern blacks registered an even higher contentment with their home base than southern whites. They were also less likely than the whites to have finished high school, traveled outside the South, or lived in states in which they were not raised. Only 26 percent of nonsouthern blacks professed satisfaction with their state and community as compared with 65 percent of those in the South. About half the sample of nonsouthern blacks had left the South for the “promised land,” and only a quarter of them believed they had found it. The authors of this study find that “the reentry of black southerners as voters did not fundamentally reshape the ideological balance” in favor of a more liberal politics. Very few southern whites or blacks mentioned economics or politics when explaining what they liked about the South, and among both races education was inversely associated with contentment. What lower-class Carolinians are telling us, the sociologist John Shelton Reed concluded in his own study of the region, is “that it’s better to be poor and ignorant in North Carolina than in any other state.”2
In general the popular convictions that the present way of life is satisfactory is good news for conservatives and bad news for liberals. Such uncritical loyalists have little disposition to challenge those in power or question the system in existence. The consequences that Key saw for his time are not very different from the consequences now:
The upper bracket that goes unchallenged develops privileges and repressions destructive of mass morale and often restrictive of the potentialities of the productive system. And ruling groups have so inveterate a habit of being wrong that the health of a democratic order demands that they be challenged and constantly compelled to prove their case.3
In the opinion of Earl and Merle Black, “The failure of southern liberalism is not simply a matter of well-financed conservative elites adroitly deploying multiple symbols” and cajoling an ignorant and credulous people to vote against their own interests and preferences. The frustrations and dilemmas of the liberal elite are more complicated. They include an electorate too often genuinely disposed toward conservative views and too few progressive whites to combine with blacks in most states to assure majorities for liberal candidates. Barring dramatic shifts such as occurred during the Great Depression and the New Deal, conservative political victories appear to stretch into the foreseeable future.
That prospect is also encouraged by the decline of the Democrats and the rise of the Republicans. There is no majority party in the present South. The Democrats are simply one of two minority parties now—this as compared with 1952, when by self-identification they outnumbered Republicans almost eight to one, and among native whites ten to one. Party identifications in 1984 among whites were 33 percent Democrats and 29 percent Republicans, with blacks overwhelmingly Democratic. Southern ties to the old party could not survive Lyndon Johnson’s Civil Rights Act of 1964. Republican gains, however, were not commensurate with Democratic losses. The chief beneficiaries of Democratic decline were independents; thus the party system was for some years splintered into three minorities—more a “dealignment” than a realignment.
Jimmy Carter’s candidacy for president in 1976 gave his party a temporary rebound in the South, but that did not last his term in office. The precipitate Democratic collapse continued. Republican gains, led by the educated and prosperous and augmented by millions of northern immigrants, were staggering. “It would be difficult,” the authors believe, “to find comparable instances in American political history of such a rapid and comprehensive desertion of an established majority party by an entire region.”
Not since Lyndon Johnson’s election has a Democratic candidate for president carried a majority of white Southerners. The proportion of reliably Democratic counties fell from 55 percent to 14 percent between 1968 and 1980. The last stronghold of white Democratic loyalty is among the least educated, and their ranks are being thinned by Republican strategy with such issues as school prayer, busing, and abortion. Republicans have more trouble with state politics of senatorial and gubernatorial races in the “split-level” realignment of the South. Democrats need only about 40 percent of the white vote so long as they can count on the blacks. Even with these difficulties Republicans are seen to have good prospects for electing more governors and senators.
In presidential elections the South appears to the authors to be more and more of a sure thing for Republican candidates. For this they give Ronald Reagan much of the credit and consider his presidency, which nearly doubled Republican voters among native whites, “a critical turning point.” Reagan told Southerners “exactly what they have wanted or hoped to hear from their national leaders,” while presidential nominees of the Democratic party “have mainly campaigned against the grain of conventional white wisdom.” The Blacks go so far as to say that Reagan is “much more conventionally ‘southern’ in his style and practice of politics than either Lyndon Johnson or Jimmy Carter.”
Shrewdly blending themes from the entrepreneurial individualistic culture and the traditionalist heritage, Reagan’s positions on most issues—with the glaring exception of his administration’s massive federal deficits—appear eminently reasonable to most middle-class southern whites.
They predict that the Republicans “can be expected to carry most, if not all, of the region’s states in presidential politics in the foreseeable future.”
It seems unfair for historians to be forever chiding political scientists for trying to keep up with the latest headlines and then blaming them for not being able to do so. And yet that is virtually what I am now, with apologies, about to do myself. I simply cannot avoid wondering if our political scientists would have been quite so positive about “the foreseeable future” of Republican fortunes in the South had they stopped the press to await the outcome of the disastrous Republican senatorial campaigns in the South last fall and to ponder also the outcome of grave charges of misconduct of foreign affairs in the Reagan administration that followed hard on the elections. It is true that the authors hedge their bets with references to the possibilities of “spectacular Republican incompetence or misfortune” and the chances that “Republican presidents blunder in provocative and disastrous ways.” They do not say how “spectacular” the incompetence and misfortunes have to be or how “provocative and disastrous” the presidential blunders have to appear in order to call off the bets and alter the fateful course of political trends. But as blunders and instances of incompetence go in the annals of American politics it would not be easy to match those still being revealed in Washington.
Not to seem ungrateful, however, it must be acknowledged—if it has not already been made evident—that we are much indebted to the political science here practiced for bringing us up to date (almost) on southern politics with a revealing and timely book. If so much hangs on the outcome of the presidential primary elections in the South next year, and if the outcome of the election of 1988 depends heavily on the ability of the Democrats to carry the southern states, this book will be of more help in understanding the course of events than any other on the subject.
V.O. Key, Jr., Southern Politics in State and Nation (reissued by the University of Tennessee Press, 1984), pp. 5, 11.↩
One South: An Ethnic Approach to Regional Culture (Louisiana State University Press, 1982), pp. 159, 160.↩
Key, Southern Politics, p. 310.↩