A Liberal Dixie? What You May Not Know About the Changing South

News & Politics

The following piece first appeared in the American Prospect. 

The final rally of Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign took place on symbolically charged ground: the rolling fields of Manassas, site of the first major battle of the Civil War. It was the last stop on an election eve spent entirely in the South: Jacksonville, Charlotte, and finally Northern Virginia. In the autumn chill, an estimated 90,000 people spread out across the county fairgrounds and waited for hours to cheer a new president—and a new South.

By this point, Virginians knew Obama well. In February, he had beaten Hillary Clinton 2 to 1 in the state’s Democratic primary, a blow to her floundering bid. After clinching the nomination, he’d kicked off his general-election campaign in rural Virginia and been a frequent visitor since. Bucking conventional wisdom, Obama’s team had invested heavily in three Southern states: not just perennial battleground Florida but also Virginia and North Carolina, which had not voted Democratic for president since 1964 and 1976, respectively. No Democrat—not even Bill Clinton—had made a serious attempt to win North Carolina or Virginia since Ronald Reagan claimed it in 1980. But Obama was gambling on an emerging South—one that is younger than the rest of the country, far more ethnically diverse than the old black-and-white paradigm, and more liberal-leaning than any Southern generation to precede it.

That emerging South was arrayed in the dark hills around Obama as he flashed into the spotlight. On soil where whites once fought to the death for the right to enslave blacks, this throng had gathered to hail the soon-to-be first black man to be elected president. The next day, Obama carried all three of his Southern targets—55 electoral votes for the party. For Southerners, the message was unmistakable: The future has arrived. The Solid South is dead.

When Americans talk about the South, they tend to be talking about the past. When they talk about Southern politics, they tend to be talking about the old, stereotyped “Solid South”—that uniformly conservative, racist, anti-union, snake-handling cluster of former Confederate states that voted en masse for Democrats from the pre–Civil War through civil rights, then switched their allegiance to the former “party of Lincoln” beginning in the 1970s. Once LBJ and the Democrats betrayed the cause of white supremacy and Richard Nixon cooked up the “Southern Strategy,” the region became as solidly Republican as it once was Democratic. End of story.

Southern politics has never been quite so uncomplicated as that. It took decades for Republicans to outnumber Democrats, and Republican control of the region has never matched the Democrats’ former hegemony. The South has been contested ground for 40 years, with the GOP dominating federal elections and gradually cutting into the Democrats’ hold on state and local offices—culminating in 2012, when Arkansas’s legislature became the last to go Republican. (Virginia’s Senate has a partisan split.)

Over the next two decades, it will become clear to even the most clueless Yankee that the Solid South is long gone. The politics of the region’s five most populous states—Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, and Texas—will be defined by the emerging majority that gave Obama his winning margins. The under-30 voters in these states are ethnically diverse, they lean heavily Democratic, and they are just beginning to vote. The white population percentage is steadily declining; in Georgia, just 52 percent of those under 18 are white, a number so low it would have been unthinkable 20 years ago.

By the 2020s, more than two-thirds of the South’s electoral votes could be up for grabs. (The South is defined here as the 11 states of the former Confederacy.) If all five big states went blue, with their 111 electoral votes, only 49 votes would be left for Republicans. (That’s based on the current electoral-vote count; after the next census, the fast-growing states will have more.) Win or lose, simply making Southern states competitive is a boon to Democrats. If Republicans are forced to spend time and resources to defend Texas and Georgia, they’ll have less for traditional battlegrounds like Ohio and Pennsylvania. Even if Democrats aren’t competitive in those states for another decade, they will benefit from connecting with millions of nonvoters who haven’t heard their message. They are building for a demographic future that Republicans dread: the time when overwhelming white support will no longer be enough to win a statewide election in Texas and Georgia.

Republicans will not give up easily. Their counter-insurgency began soon after Obama’s three Southern victories. It was propitious timing. The Tea Party, a mostly Southern phenomenon, was turning Obamaphobia into a political movement. Big conservative donors, their money freed up by Citizens United and other court decisions, were ready to spend unprecedented amounts on obscure state assembly races and judgeships (to elect those fired-up Tea Partiers, in many cases). Republicans recognized that 2010 might be their last great chance to expand their gains in the South. They made the most of it.

In a bad year for Democrats nationwide, it was a disaster in the South. Two years after North Carolina voted for Obama, both chambers of the general assembly went Republican for the first time in 120 years. In Florida, the Tea Party launched Marco Rubio into the U.S. Senate. The year before, in Virginia’s off-year elections, right-wing Republicans had been elected governor and attorney general. Republicans now controlled all but four legislative chambers in the region.

With those statehouse majorities, the GOP had won the larger prize it sought: control of legislative and congressional redistricting. The party redrew the maps with gusto, giving it favorable districts for the next decade. The trick is watering down the impact of minority voters by moving them from competitive districts into those that are already minority-held. That way, the blacker and browner districts get blacker and browner, and 60 percent Democratic districts become 70 percent Democratic. The white districts, in turn, get whiter—and more Republican. In North Carolina, which ended up with the South’s most egregiously misshapen map, half of the state’s black population of 2.2 million was drawn into one-fifth of its legislative and congressional districts.

Civil-rights and civil-liberties groups argued that Republicans were using race illegally as the primary basis of redistricting. But the courts mostly upheld the maps, and the results were startling. In 2012, Republicans won legislative majorities in every former Confederate state for the first time. (In Virginia, the Senate is evenly split by party, 20-20.) Overall, the South had now elected 222 more Republican legislators than it had in 2008. Georgia’s Democrats made up 47 percent of the statewide vote in 2008 and 2010, but after redistricting they could only elect a maximum of 31 percent of statehouse members. The gerrymandering was just as effective in congressional elections. In Virginia, Obama won by 4 percent statewide, but Republicans captured 10 of 13 seats in the U.S. House.

Southern politics is more fractured than it’s ever been. Obama threw down the gauntlet in 2008, and Republicans answered in 2010 and 2012. The voters are moving left, while the state governments are lurching right. The only safe prediction is that after 150 years of being largely ignored in national elections, the South is about to become the most fiercely contested, and unpredictable, political battleground in America.

It’s been almost four decades since journalist and historian John Egerton famously declared the South “just about over as a separate and distinct place.” He was writing about a newly integrated 1970s South that was suddenly teeming with suburban tracts and office parks, urbanizing so rapidly that it could hardly be recognized. To this day, Americans still think “rural” when they think “Southern.” But there’s nothing very rural about the South anymore. Florida is 91 percent urban, Georgia and Virginia 75 percent, and in probably the biggest surprise, Texas is 85 percent urban.

With the suburbs and office parks came new Southerners. At first it was mostly Northern professionals, who began moving down in the 1950s and 1960s for low taxes, affordable homes, and jobs in banking (Charlotte), energy (Houston and Dallas), technology (the Research Triangle Park and Austin), and government-contract work (Northern Virginia). Many of the “relocated Yankees,” as they were sometimes fondly called, were registered Republicans—but they were more moderate than their Southern partymates, especially on culture-war issues. Those transplants became swing votes, and they haven’t stopped coming.

The demographic big bang didn’t begin in earnest, however, until the 1990s. Large numbers of African Americans had begun moving South in what would become known as the “great remigration.” From the early 20th century until the 1960s, more than seven million blacks fled the Jim Crow South in the Great Migration to pursue a better life, mostly in the industrial North. It was the largest domestic migration in American history. Now hundreds of thousands are returning. Last decade, 75 percent of the growth in America’s black population was in the South. Atlanta and its endless suburbs gained 491,000 African Americans in the past decade, more than any other city. Some are middle-class blacks whose families once relied on government jobs up North that are now disappearing. Some are caring for older relatives left behind in the Great Migration. Some are simply coming home to reunite with their families, finding a region that has undergone seismic changes since the South’s segregated “way of life” finally came to a merciful end.

While blacks were remigrating, Latino populations were expanding rapidly. Birth statistics tell the story: By 2010, 49 percent of newborns in Texas were Latino. Among the big five Southern states, Virginia has the lowest rate at 12 percent. Hundreds of thousands of young Latinos become eligible to vote in the South every year, and that number will be climbing for decades. At least for now, this strongly favors Democrats, who win Latino votes by large margins. Florida used to be the exception, because first-generation (and often second-generation) Cuban Americans were staunch, anti-communist Republicans. But younger Cuban Americans have joined a new immigrant population in Central Florida to help flip the state in the Democrats’ favor.

The key is getting Latinos to the polls—and it’s been a challenge in most Southern states. In 2010, for instance, Latinos were 38 percent of Texas’s population. But just 16 percent of eligible Latinos voted as Republicans won historically big margins in both legislative chambers. The poor turnout is partly a factor of youth. Latinos are, on average, a decade younger than Anglos. Most are not in the habit of voting. If they live in a state like Texas or Georgia, it’s likely that nobody has ever courted their vote.

Once Latinos begin to vote in proportion to their population, the change that they will bring to Southern (and American) politics won’t be limited to a shift in party loyalties. It will be manifested in a new progressivism as well.

Republicans like to talk about how Latinos are “hardworking, religious, family-oriented,” as if those qualities automatically made people conservative. In fact, an exit poll from 2012 showed the opposite: Latino voters are not only more liberal than Republicans; they’re sometimes more liberal than Democrats. On same-sex marriage, 59 percent said yes, against 48 percent of all voters. Should abortion be legal? Sixty-six percent said yes, against 59 percent overall. On economic issues, Latinos’ liberalism tends to be even more pronounced (the same is true for African Americans). Fifty-five percent said last year that they have a negative view of capitalism. They want more spending on public schools. They want universal, public-run health care. They want government to take a strong hand in the economy. Taxes? Raise them, if it means better social services. The same goes for every part of the South’s emerging majority—African Americans, Asian Americans, and under-30 whites who voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012.

Given the progressive tilt of the South’s coming majority, it’s no wonder that Scott Keeter, head pollster at the Pew Research Center, calls the region “a ticking time bomb for Republicans.” The Southern GOP is 88 percent white, and the white population is aging. Republicans will buy some time with their friendly legislative districts buffering any losses. They’ll continue to try to make it harder for minorities and young people to vote—and if the Supreme Court strikes down Section Five of the Voting Rights Act this year, it will be easier to suppress votes in the South.

There’s a cost to the time Republicans are buying. The Tea Party legislators who brought Republicans to power in 2010 are moving the party further right on practically every issue—at the same time that voters are tilting back toward the center. That’s creating the kind of situation that unfolded last year in Virginia. Republican lawmakers pushed a bill requiring every woman who requests an abortion to have an invasive sonogram procedure. In an election year, in a battleground state that is trending Democratic, what sense does such sure-to-be-divisive legislation make? None at all, unless you’re in a state—or a region—that is smack in the middle of a demographic revolution that is fueling a political one. It is a confusing business.

In the South’s new battlegrounds, 2020 shapes up as a pivotal year. If Democrats have gathered enough strength by then to send majorities to Richmond, Raleigh, Atlanta, Tallahassee, and/or Austin, they can tear up the Republican maps from 2011 and make it dauntingly difficult for the GOP to regain its majorities. That’s likeliest to happen in Florida, Virginia, and North Carolina; Democratic majorities could take longer in Texas and Georgia, where Republicans are more deeply entrenched.

But the politics of the big Southern states are all betwixt and between, as natives like to say. If Republicans can find a way to hold on to their majorities through 2020, they will stay competitive, on the state level at least, for another decade. Ultimately, they won’t be able to keep winning unless they can convince Latinos and African Americans to vote Republican. If they do, Southern Republicans could become a model for the national GOP—the states that figured out how to persuade Latinos to vote Republican.

But it will be no quick or easy matter for the Southern Republican Party—built on a Chamber of Commerce foundation and lifted to victory by evangelical Christians—to find a message that can appeal to the South’s new electorate. How do you build bridges to voters whose views would sound, to your average Southern Republican, socialistic and downright un-American?

More likely, destiny will follow demography. The South’s big states could soon be undergirding a durable national Democratic majority that’s capable of lasting as long as the New Deal consensus. Liberalism would have a chance to flourish anew—not just in state capitols but in Washington, D.C., as well. This would be an emphatic break from history. From Teddy Roosevelt’s Square Deal to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal to Barack Obama’s stimulus and heath-care overhaul, the biggest obstacle has always been Congress’s solid white wall of Southern conservatism. That wall is crumbling. In the future, if you can be progressive and win Texas or Georgia, the American political order will transform in ways we can barely comprehend.

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