Emory Report
April 2, 2007
Volume 59, Number 25

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April 2, 2007
Merle, Earl Black discuss ‘Divided America’ and ’08 presidential race

by carol clark

Renowned political scientists Merle and Earl Black are once again making the national scene, this time to talk about their latest groundbreaking book “Divided America: The Ferocious Power Struggle in American Politics,” and how that struggle is affecting the dynamic field of candidates already cropping up for the 2008 presidential contest.

“You need to understand regional dynamics to understand what’s going on in national politics in America today,” said Merle Black, who is Emory’s Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Politics and Government and the twin brother of Earl Black, Herbert S. Autrey Professor of Political Science at Rice University.

“We use the term ‘ferocious’ in the subtitle and in the first sentence of ‘Divided America,’” said Earl Black. “I don’t think that’s an exaggeration of the tone of modern American politics, although most of us who are old enough remember a time when that was not the case.”

The foremost authorities on Southern politics, the pair have co-authored four books, including 2002’s “The Rise of Southern Republicans,” which The Economist called “the definitive work on that important shift.”

Merle and Earl Black are also among the most respected political commentators in the country. “Between them, they have conducted — by our best estimate — 10,000 interviews with local, national and international news media,” noted Beverly Clark, Emory’s assistant director of media relations, at a recent joint appearance the brothers made for Atlanta journalists. “Who here hasn’t called them on deadline?”

“Divided America” analyzes U.S. presidential, senatorial and congressional elections over the past 50 years and shows how partisan warfare has essentially reduced both major parties to minority status. It is the first book to emphasize how changing demographics and the enormous party shifts in the nation’s five principal geographic regions have driven this contemporary trend of fierce partisan battles.

Not that long ago, the Northeast was a Republican stronghold and the South was a Democratic stronghold.
“Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal were enormously popular in the South,” Merle Black said, since Roosevelt was “the first president who was really putting millions of dollars into the region.” Due to the region’s poverty, few Southerners were paying federal income taxes so they were “literally getting something for nothing. That’s the greatest political bargain the world has ever known,” he said.

Urbanization, the rise of the middle class and “the Reagan realignment” of white conservatives were among the factors contributing to the shift of the South to the Republican Party, according to the authors’ analysis. Ronald Reagan’s presidency also played a key role in converting the Mountain/Plains states from primarily Democrat to Republican.

Democrats, meanwhile, concentrated their efforts in the Northeast and the Pacific Coast, which now form the two Democratic strongholds.

The Midwestern states make up the swing region that can tilt either way. The most important swing state is Ohio, which the Democrats narrowly lost in the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections.

The past two presidential elections were probably the closest in U.S. history, and that trend is likely to continue for a while, Earl Black said. “Whichever party holds the majority in Congress can easily lose that majority in the next election. That makes it hard to compromise, and it makes it very difficult to govern in the U.S. today.”

The ideological divide between the two major parties has deepened and politics have become more confrontational, Merle Black said. “That’s compounded by all the media that follows each wave on the political ocean — 24 hours, around the clock. People settling scores and grudges on cable TV is a continuous process.”

What does all this mean for the 2008 presidential elections?

Former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, an Italian-Catholic divorcee, is “the most interesting Republican candidate from a regional perspective,” Merle Black said. He noted that Giuliani’s personality plays well even in some key states that have a majority of Democrats, such as New York, New Jersey and California. “Giuliani has a very optimistic speaking style and Americans really respond to optimistic leadership.”

Merle Black cited former U.S. Senator Fred Thompson of Tennessee as a good vice-presidential candidate, to balance Giuliani on the Republican ticket and help pick up more votes in the South.

Although New York Senator Hillary Clinton is currently the front runner for the Democrats, and has the money and political organization to make a serious bid for the presidency, she has “high negatives,” particularly among male voters, Merle Black said. “And she’s never campaigned against anybody like Barrack Obama.”

Obama is the “most interesting phenomenon,” he added. “He brings a fresh face to the Democrats — although he’s never run against anyone like Hillary Clinton and the Clinton organization. If Obama’s on the ticket, I think we’ll have the largest African American turnout we’ve ever seen in American politics.”

Some statistics from ‘Divided America’

• Although the 13 Mountain/Plains states contain only one-tenth of the national population, they account for one-fourth of the U.S. Senate.

• From the 1870s until the South overtook it in the 1980s, the Midwest was America’s most populated region. (By 2030, the South is projected to contain nearly 40 percent of the U.S. population.)

• Virtually all-white electorates, the reality everywhere in America in the 1950s, have vanished. Racial and ethnic minority groups now account for 30 percent of Southern voters and 20 percent of Northern voters.

• In the 1950s, the Democratic Party was evenly balanced between men and women, but by 2004 the Democratic Party had shifted to 60 percent women. In contrast, the Republican Party shifted from 55 percent women in the 1950s to an even gender balance in 2004.