Republicans Rise in the South
Professors latest book traces trajectory of the new Southern party
For the first time in more than half a century, this falls elections promise a genuine tug-of-war between parties for control of Congress, and an Emory professor says the South is at the epicenter of this political power struggle. It should come as little surprise to Southerners that their regions political landscape has shifted dramatically in recent years, with the Republican party making unprecedented gains. Merle Black, Asa G. Candler Professor of Politics and Government, and his twin brother, Earl Black, Herbert S. Autrey Professor of Political Science at Rice University, trace The Rise of Southern Republicans in their latest book, the last of a trilogy of Southern political analyses.
Once a staunchly Democratic region, the South has produced an increasingly more complex mix of voters since the 1960s. The Blacks credit this transformation largely to what they call the two Great White Switches. Not surprisingly, the brothers write, The central political cleavage, as ancient as the South itself, involves race.
The first switch took place in 1964, when Republicans nominated Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater as their presidential candidate. Goldwater, who boasted a strongly anti-civil rights record, attracted scores of racist white voters while virtually severing the already-tenuous ties between Republicans and African Americans. In a shift that upset a hundred-year-old apple cart, more Southern whites voted Republican than Democrat in that election, setting a new precedent that has held for every presidential contest since.
The second switch occurred midway through Ronald Reagans presidency. Up to that point, ex-Union states still shared a political identity largely carved out more than a hundred years ago by the Civil War, the Blacks argue. Born in the North to Lincoln and his ideological successors, the Republican party held sway in the Northeast, the Midwest, and the West, but the South was solidly and impenetrably Democratic. In the 1980s, however, more Southern whites began to identify as Republican rather than Democrat.
The growth of the Republican party in the South was stimulated enormously by the Reagan presidency, Merle Black said, at a May breakfast forum hosted by Emory, where he appeared with his brother. This was one of the most striking examples of partisan realignment ever, and it was a huge change for the South. At this point the Democrats really got religion that they were indeed the minority party. White conservative Democrat became almost a contradiction in terms.
Between them, the Black brothers possess an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the people, political races, and polling trends that contributed to Republicans recent Southern success. Through colorful text and graphs they literally chart the partys remarkable progress in the South over the last fifty years.
In 1950, for instance, there were no Republican senators and just two Republican representativesof 105 from the South in Congress. In 2000, Republicans made up the majority of the Souths elected voice in Congress: fourteen of twenty-two officials in the Senate and seventy-one of 125 in the House.
The result, says Earl, is that For the first time in a century, we have a two-party system that is nationalized. This has tremendous implications for national politics . . . and the South is the epicenter of this struggle for control. In the South, either party is perfectly capable of winning any election in any state. This is a very competitive situation.
A newly competitive South, according the the Blacks, means a newly competitive nation. Since the Great Depression, Democrats have reigned supreme in Congress. But this years congressional races guarantee nothing but unpredictability. What this rise of Southern Republicans means for both regional and national challenges like race relations, class division, and economic and political health, only time will tell. P.P.P.