The Old South is gradually becoming more politically liberal


Bob Moser SAYS changing demographics are changing politics in the Southern states:

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…

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.


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…

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…

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)…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…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…

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…

[D]estiny 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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