Once upon a time, and not so very long ago, general elections didnt
matter in the South. There was never any suspense on the first Tuesday
in November about who would become the next congressperson from
North Carolina, the next senator from Alabama or the next governor
But it was not apathy that rendered general elections meaningless;
it was instead the simple Southern fact of life that candidates
fates were decided not on Election Day, but on Primary Day. Becauseonce
upon a timethe Democratic primary was the election, and that
whole business in November was just a formality.
Times sure have changed.
And The Rise of Southern Republicans, published in May by
Belknap Press (a unit of Harvard University Press), documents just
how much theyve changed. Written by the Black BrothersAsa
G. Candler Professor of Political Science Merle Black and his twin
brother, Earl Black, Herbert S. Autrey Professor of Political Science
at Rice Universitythe book illustrates how the Grand Old Partys
inroads into Southern precincts have transformed American politics
and given the United States its first national two-party system
since the heyday of the Whigs in the 19th century.
The Democratic party has always been a national enterprise,
commanding durable strength in both the South and the North,
the brothers wrote. Traditionally, the Republican partys
geographic reach was quite different. Apart from the short-lived
Reconstruc-tion era, for many generations southern Republicanism
scarcely deserve[d] the name of party. It waver[ed] somewhat
between an esoteric cult on the order of a lodge and a conspiracy
for plunder in accord with the accepted customs of politics.
But beginning with the advent of the civil rights movement in the
1950s, white Southerners slowly began to identify themselves more
and more with the Republican party, and when Ronald Reagan was elected
president in 1980, that movement gained steam.
Its one of the most startling cases of party realignment
Ive ever seen, Merle Black told a gathering of Atlanta
political reporters in May, saying the shift reached its peak with
the 2000 election, as Southern white conservatives migrated in droves
to the Republican ticket. For white moderates, theres
been a dealignment: the breakdown of the Democratic
majority without another majority taking its place.
Citing survey and exit poll data, the Blacks show that fully 70
percent of white conservatives identified themselves as Republicans
in 2000; just 32 years ago, barely 20 percent of white conservatives
identified with the GOP. Over the same period, the percentage of
white moderates identifying themselves as Democrats has dropped
from nearly 60 percent to just over 30 percent.
What all this means for national politics is that, to win national
elections, the Republi-cans no longer are forced to draw massive
majorities in Northern states to offset their equally large deficits
in South. With more than 84 million people already and more arriving
each day, the South is largest region of the country; three out
of every 10 Americans live in the 11 states of the Confederacy.
Whats going on here in the South is important [regionally],
but it has tremendous implications for national politics,
Earl Black said. The Republican party was invented as a party
of the Northto unite the North to fight against the Southbut
now, for the first time since the 1830s and 1840s, we have a national