The Corner

Demonize The South

That’s the advice for the Democrats of Rick Perlstein and, more specifically, Thomas Schaller. Pearlstein has an interesting piece in The New Republic laying out the argument (mostly behind a firewall, alas). It’s provocative — the central claim is that the South is simply racist and Democrats should say so in order to make the GOP a purely regional party. Perlstein also argues that the northeastern elite media has made bashing the South taboo. Of the two propositions, I actually find the second more implausible than the first (though I’ve got problems with the whole argument). It seems to me that there’s a lot of anti-southern bias out there if you’re paying attention. Anyway, when my decks are clear, Schaller’s book looks like its worth visiting (and I feel a bit beholden to Schaller because he responded to a blog challenge of mine years ago and for purely boneheaded reasons I never posted his response. Long story.).

One quick reason why I think demonzing the South the way the GOP  demonizes the coasts won’t work, particularly for the Democrats, is that  the coasts aren’t merely regions of the country, they are bastions of the economic and media elite. An economically populist party would find it hard to attack poorer regions of the country in ways that didn’t sound simply snobbish. And, let’s face it, while anti-racism surely plays a significant part in  Northeast and West Coast liberalism’s anti Southernism so does plain snobbery. 

Anyway, here’s a, long, relevant excerpt:

Schaller speaks ill of the South. The very heart of his argument is a taboo notion: that the South votes Republican because the Republicans have perfected their appeal to Southern racism, and that Democrats simply can’t (and shouldn’t) compete.

But, among scholars, this is hardly news. Schaller builds this conclusion on one of the most impressive papers in recent political science, “Old Times There Are Not Forgotten: Race and Partisan Realignment in the Contemporary South,” by Nicholas Valentino and David Sears. Running regressions on a massive data set of ideological opinions, Sears and Valentino demonstrate with precision that, for example, a white Southern man who calls himself a “conservative,” controlling for racial attitudes, is no less likely to chance a vote for a Democratic presidential candidate than a Northerner who calls himself a conservative. Likewise, a pro-life or hawkish Southern white man is no less likely–again controlling for racial attitudes–than a pro-life or hawkish Northerner to vote for the Democrat. But, on the other hand, when the relevant identifier is anti-black answers to survey questions (such as whether one agrees “If blacks would only try harder, they could be just as well off as whites,” or choosing whether blacks are “lazy” or “hardworking”), an untoward result jumps out: white Southerners are twice as likely than white Northerners to refuse to vote for the Democratic presidential candidate. Schaller’s writes: “Despite the best efforts of Republican spinmeisters … the partisan impact of racial attitudes in the South is stronger today than in the past.”

What’s more, if Republicans have succeeded by openly baiting a region of the country not really American (the latte-swilling Northeast), Schaller says, “The Democrats need their own ‘them,’ and the social conservatives who are the bedrock of Southern politics provide the most obvious and burdensome stone to hang around the Republicans’ neck.” Democrats should cite “Southern obstructionism as a continuing impediment to the investments and progress the country must make in the coming century.” There’s just one problem: You can’t do that on TV.

Once upon a time, of course, pundits used to say what Schaller says: The South, sometimes, is backward. Since the late ’60s, however–not coincidentally, around the time Kevin Phillips rose to fame–a new, unspoken set of rules evolved.

It happened in a moment of trauma. After the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, all the top news executives sent a wire to Mayor Richard J. Daley protesting the way their employees “were repeatedly singled out by policemen and deliberately beaten.” Such was their presumption of cultural authority they couldn’t imagine how anyone could disagree. Then Mayor Daley went on Walter Cronkite’s show and shocked the media establishment by refusing to apologize to the beaten reporters: “Many of them are hippies themselves. They’re part of this movement.” Polls revealed 60 percent of Americans agreed with Daley. For the press, it triggered a dark night of the soul. In an enormously influential column, the pundit Joseph Kraft, shaken, wrote, “Mayor Daley and his supporters have a point. Most of us in what is called the communication field are not rooted in the great mass of ordinary Americans–in Middle America.”


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