The Southern Value of Being a White Southerner

From a surprisingly and refreshingly non-craptacular piece by Byron York on Bill Clinton’s potential effect on the Arkansas Senate race:

Cotton is appealing to lots of Arkansans who once voted for Clinton, either as governor, or president, or both. To some of those voters, there’s a certain continuity between supporting the moderate Democrat Bill Clinton, beginning when he was first elected governor in 1978, and supporting Cotton today. In a state that has rapidly switched from blue to red, they believe they have stayed the same, while the Democratic Party has changed.


“I voted for Clinton as governor and president,” said Hardy Herrington, who with his wife Tabitha was among the 60 or so who came to see Cotton at a small park on Main Street. “Of course, Clinton dabbled in the left, but he had enough sense to come back to the center and won a second term.” […] Hardy went on to say that after Clinton left office, his party changed. “When the Democratic Party made a sharp turn to the left, they left me behind,” he said. “I didn’t leave them. They left me. They just no longer support the values that I cherish.”

Which values do Democrats supposedly no longer cherish? And in what ways was Bill Clinton all that more conservative than Barack Obama? Barack Obama was much more effective in his two years with a Democratic Congress than was Bill Clinton, but that was partly due to more liberal and larger Democratic caucuses than Clinton had to work with. Obama in 2014 is more liberal on social issues than were Bill and Hillary Clinton in 1992, but so are Bill and Hillary Clinton. For a national Democrat Clinton was at best indifferent toward labor, while Obama, though not a big labor guy, has been better than OK. So there’s a difference. But I doubt what pushed Mr. Herrington away from Democrats was the Speaker Pelosi-led House passing the Employee Free Choice Act.

The differences between Barack Obama and Bill Clinton are much smaller than the differences between Bill Clinton and any Southern Republican of the last 40 years or so. But the “continuity” Arkansans perceive between Bill Clinton and Tom Cotton does exist in a way important to many white Southerners: both are themselves white Southerners, who, as one of their own, white Southerners trust more than they trust white Northerners to protect the status–and if not that at least promote the interests–of white Southerners.

The South was nearly exclusively controlled by the Democratic party from the end of Reconstruction; most general elections had only a Democrat on the ballot. But even before the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, in presidential elections it had been decades since the so-called “Solid South” had been solidly Democratic. In 1924 Democrat John W. Davis garnered only 28% of the popular vote, and lost every non-Confederate state except Oklahoma, yet Davis won every Southern state by huge margins. Not coincidentally, it was the last time a Democratic presidential candidate was a public advocate of segregation; thirty years after his defeat, in a companion case to Brown v Board of Education, Davis defended segregation before the Supreme Court. As a West Virginian, he was technically not a Southerner, but Davis was about as close to a Southerner as could appear on a national ticket.

1924, however, was arguably the last hurrah of the Solid South. In 1928 Catholic New Yorker Al Smith ran 12 points better than Davis nationally, but he lost Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Florida, and nearly lost Alabama. FDR won every Southern state all for times, but outside the Plains and northern New England, he also won almost every other state all four times. But by the late 1930’s the Southerners in Congress regularly aligned with the Republicans to thwart anything they deemed too liberal, especially anything they believed threatened white dominance of the South. In 1948 Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond won four states, and in 1952 and 1956 Eisenhower won a smattering of Southern states. In 1960 Nixon lost every Southern state, but “undeclared” won Mississippi, and Kennedy and Johnson’s margins in several Southern states were within a few points. That was the last time a non-Southern Democratic presidential nominee didn’t run worse in the South than he did in the national popular vote.

Goldwater’s Deep South success in 1964 was therefore not, as many have argued, a portent of Republican success in the South, but rather a continuation of a trend going back to 1928. In 1968 that trend continued. Humphrey squeaked out a win in Texas with 32% of the vote, but Nixon or George Wallace won every other Southern state. In the 1960’s the South was not yet becoming more Republican, but with repeated Southern protest votes, it had definitely become less Democratic. In 1972–despite the efforts of the McGovern’s campaign’s top Texas staffer, Bill Clinton–Nixon ran stronger in the South than he did nationally. The South, in presidential elections, appeared to have turned a corner and was finally become Republican.

Then the Democrats nominated Jimmy Carter.

Unlike Johnson, who was as much a Westerner as a Southerner, Carter was from the Deep South, and he reversed the trends and briefly turned the South back in to a Democratic stronghold. In 1976 he won every state of the Confederacy except Virginia, as well as every one of the formerly slave-holding border states. Other than Mississippi, his wins in Southern states were larger than popular vote margin of victory. In 1980, though Reagan won an electoral vote landslide and a ten point popular vote victory, his share of the popular vote was only 50%. In the South, only Virginia, Florida and Texas gave Reagan more than 50%. Carter won Georgia, and his other Southern losses were by less than five points.

The Republican realignment of the South appeared back on track when in the next two elections Democrats nominated Northerners and performed worse in the South than the nation overall. Then Bill Clinton came along, and like Carter, he reversed the trend. In 1992 he won his state of Arkansas and Al Gore’s Tennessee, along with Louisiana and Georgia, and came within five points everywhere else except South Carolina, Alabama and Mississippi. In 1996 he lost Georgia but picked up Florida, and was within seven points in the rest of the South. And because the Perot vote was much less in the South than elsewhere, even where he lost by solid margins, his share of the vote was within a few points of his national percentage.

Although he got more votes than George W Bush in Florida, Southerner Al Gore lost the entire South. It was the first time since Reconstruction that a Southern Democrat lost a presidential race. But it was also the only time both parties had nominated Southerners.  Despite being born in Greenwich Connecticut, where his grandfather was a Senator, George W. Bush was the first Republican presidential or VP candidate raised in a Confederate state. In 2004, when he lost by two points nationally, John Kerry lost Florida by five and Virginia by eight; every other state went for Bush by over ten points. In the post-George W elections Obama won in Southern states with large percentages of African Americans, immigrants and transplanted Northerners–Virginia, North Carolina and Florida. But with no Southerners on the ballot, the rest of the South reverted to the pattern, giving Obama over 10% less of the vote than he got nationally.

Which brings us back to Mr Herrington. I can’t prove which values are cherished by Mr. Herrington that he believes have been abandoned by post-Bill Clinton Democrats. But, if not for him specifically, for many Southerners like him there are two obvious possibilities.

First, within the South, the Democratic party is no longer seen as a white party, or even a white party with some blacks. It’s seen as a black party. Since Bill Clinton left state politics in Arkansas, the rise of majority-minority districts, and the fading white loyalty to economically populist but socially conservative white Democrats, has resulted in many more black Democrats holding office, far fewer white Democrats, and the white vote largely being Republican now even for local and state legislative races. In most of the South more Democratic votes come from black voters than from white voters. The party that tries to keep black Southerners from voting and exercising power is no longer the Democratic party, it is the Republican party. And whether they consider it a feature or a bug, white Southerners are more than willing to vote for Republicans trying to restore a modicum of the white dominance they enjoyed prior to federal intervention to enforce civil (and voting) rights.

The other big change in the Democratic party since Bill Clinton is seen by looking at presidential elections back to 1924. The change is rooted in what for many native-born white southerners an unchanging priority that transcends partisanship: Southerners choose Southerners over Northerners for president, and if there are no Southerners, or both candidates are Southerners, they choose the candidate most inclined to support states’ rights, to speak of the federal government as a threat to the liberties of (white) Southerners, and to support breaching the wall between government and conservative evangelical protestantism. Today those candidates are always Republicans. And in Congressional and Senate races, the Republicans try to make the contest in to a proxy conflict between North and South.

They are Republicans, in fact, like Tom Cotton. Molly Ball’s terrific profile of Cotton describes Cotton’s rise from Arkansan farm boy whose parents supported Bill Clinton to an ideological warrior and frequent Mayflower Hotel dining partner of William Kristol, and the tensions between his ideological purity and the parochial (and perfectly reasonable) interests of Arkansans. Democrats and the Pryor campaign have hammered Cotton for voting to deny federal money for Arkansan hospitals and farmers. It’s a problem for Republican ideologues: it’s impossible for Republicans to maintain fiscal purity without eventually screwing over their states and districts.

Ideological purity (and the personal charm of a commissar) may keep Cotton from the Senate. But if he makes it, it will probably be by playing the Southern Card. Cotton justified his vote against Sandy relief as blunt sectionalism: “I don’t think Arkansas needs to bail out the Northeast.” Pryor, whose father was a popular Senator, emphasizes his bonds with Arkansans. Cotton is countering by equating Pryor with Barack Obama, which is probably also intended to keep discussion from his own connections to elite institutions and networks rooted in the North:

I heard this loathing for Obama frequently in several days traveling around Arkansas, often from voters who described themselves as lifelong or former Democrats. Some also were unimpressed by Cotton’s credentials: “I don’t have much in common with a Harvard lawyer,” said Jill Hatcher, a 48-year-old city councilwoman from Shannon Hills who nonetheless planned to vote for him. Judy Curry, a 68-year-old hairdresser from Pine Bluff and a Democrat of long standing, recoiled as if stung when I asked if she’d voted for Obama. “Heavens no,” she said, adding, “I don’t think he’s one of us Americans.” She had voted for Pryor in the past and thought he was someone who “works for the people,” but was reconsidering based on his support for Obamacare.

The ironies pile up. Mark Pryor–student at Little Rock Central High School, two-time graduate of the University of Arkansas, son of a popular Arkansas politician–has to take the focus off his ties to a black president from Chicago who’s seen by white Southerners as alien and hostile to their values. If he fails, Pryor will be defeated by a graduate of Harvard College and Law, whose career has been nurtured by Republican elites in Massachusetts, California and Washington DC. If he succeeds it will probably be with the help of a man many Arkansans see as one of them, as the quintessential Arkansan…even though he attended Georgetown, Oxford, Yale, now has an office in Harlem, a home in suburban New York, runs a foundation focused on matters beyond our borders and which takes him around the globe, and whose wife is the favorite for the 2016 Democratic nomination for President…but was defeated in 2008 by the black President that so many white Arkansas, even Democrats, revile.

The South is not destined to always and everywhere be dominated by fealty to “Southern values” too close to the values underlying Jim Crow. After all, Obama did win North Carolina once and nearly twice, Virginia is no longer a Republican stronghold, and Florida has voted for the Democrat in four of the last five presidential elections. The social and demographic changes that have made North Carolina and Virginia winnable for moderate and liberal Democrats may end the Republicans’ effortless dominance of Georgia and even South Carolina. Texas is becoming a more Southwestern than Southern state, where the key racial/cultural divide is not white/black but Gringo/Latino. But in the interior and Gulf South, what’s associated more with the North than the South, or is thought more pro-black than pro-white, will be seen by white Southerners as hostile to their Southern values. And while the party allegiances have changed over the last nearly 100 years, a core value of white Southerners is to be different from, block interference by, and thwart progress in the North.

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