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Contemporary Themes in Southern Politics

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For the umpteenth time, let's talk about the South and look at some important political developments in this part of the country.

I have dealt with the South and southern politics in previous posts; so we are not going to break major new ground here. But I think it is worthwhile to update what some of today's experts are saying about the South and its role in American democracy and history.

A hundred academic specialists from all over the country met and shared research about this intriguing region at the recent Citadel Symposium on Southern Politics in Charleston, SC. Here are a few examples of what these scholars said about southerners and their politics.

Defining the South.

Jamie Monogan (University of Georgia) raised an old problem for southern scholars and presented some new ideas relating to this issue: i.e., how do you define the South? Monogan called our attention to the fact that however one defines the South determines our analysis and conclusions about its distinctive character and politics. For example, as he said and demonstrated, we can expand the South from the 11 states of the Old Confederacy to other states that legislated Jim Crow society, greatly impacting our findings about state-referenced policy regarding welfare, immigration, and other such variables.

Changing Role.

Thomas F. Eamon (East Carolina University) has kept us informed over the past few decades about the changing role of this region in national politics. According to Eamon, the South used to be a key region in presidential politics; however, his latest report was that "The South, as a whole, is not vital in electing Presidents." However, he added, "Republican dominance in recent southern Congressional elections has kept the GOP alive as a major force in Washington. But for its strong southern base, the party might be relegated to second-rate status."

Regional Influence.

John M. Bruce (University of Mississippi) took this conversation in different directions. He asserted that the collapse of the Democratic Party and the growth of the Republican party represents a striking and abrupt change in American history. However, he said it is a mistake to view the Republican Party as a regional party; perhaps a better analysis is that the GOP is "southern dominated". He concluded with a warning for Republicans: continued reliance on this region "may further reduce the ability of the party to compete on a broader stage."

Current Developments.

Several analysts tried to generalize at the Charleston conference about southern politics of the past and present.

Region, Race, and the 2012 Presidential Election. Jonathan Knuckey (University of Central Florida) reported on the role of racial resentment and racial prejudice in questions regarding the religion and citizenship of Barack Obama. Knuckey concluded, based on his analysis of data from the American National Education Study (2012) that bigotry continued to blind a sizable number of Americans just as it did almost a century ago. While conspiracy theories about Obama were most evident among southern whites, Knuckey said that "Both racial resentment and old-fashioned racial prejudice were found to shape evaluations of Obama among southern and non-southern whites."

Religious Advertising in the South. Perry F. Austin, Laura R. Olson, and Jeffrey A. Fine (all Clemson University) surveyed students to see if Mitt Romney's TV commercial emphasizing his Mormon religious background might engender negative reaction (the "Pharisee effect) among southerners. Their conclusion? "In general, study participants who viewed Mitt Romney's 'Be Not Afraid' television advertisement were significantly more likely to view him as religious than were those who did not view the ad." However, "Romney might have driven away precisely the voters whose support he needed the most in swing states: Catholics and mainline Protestants."

Southern Party-Switchers. Seth C. McKee (Texas Tech University), Antoine Yoshinaka (American University), Keith Lee (University of Florida), and Richard McKenzie (University of South Florida) examined the fates of southern "party switchers" over the past couple decades. They found that, despite the risks in switching, many partisan voters are receptive to the politicians. "The fact that after an initial reluctance, many are willing to embrace a former foe suggests that voters may have a short memory -- and this may ultimately be good for politics in America."

Unhyphenated Southerners. Brian Arbour (John Jay College, City University of New York) offered an interesting thesis about how identity politics impacts political change in the Upper South in ways that are different from the Deep South. He focused on "unhyphenated" West Virginians -- whites who identify ancestrally with the United States rather than a European country; and he reported that that counties with concentrations of these voters have shifted heavily toward the Republicans in the past few decades. Furthermore, he said, "The shift of the Appalachian South toward the Republicans confounds our conventional explanations of the shift of the South to the Republican Party. His conclusion: "While I can only speculate at this point as to the reasons for this move, the move is robust and has strong implications for contemporary politics."

Southern Race-Speak. Stephen A. Borrelli (University of Alabama), utilizing a very complex methodology, compared southern Whites and non-southern Whites in terms of their racial conversations. Research in the past has indicated that some respondents, while harboring racist sentiment, are concerned about how their comments might be interpreted; and they attempt to hide their true feelings by expressing themselves in socially acceptable ways. Borrelli investigated whether southerners might engage in this practice more so than non-southerners. However, he found no regional difference; "In sum, there is no evidence that hailing from the South is correlated with a greater concern for the impressions one gives to others, and only the faintest evidence that southernness may be correlated with lesser concern." Borrelli speculated that perhaps we need to rethink how we assume, conceptualize, and measure differences in racial attitudes between southerners and non-southerners.

Goldwater's Southern Legacy. Dan Ruff (Midlands Technical College) tried to determine Barry Goldwater's legacy in the contemporary South. "Goldwater showed principle, political calculation, and pragmatism in a prelude that set the stage for a shift by the South to the GOP... Those inspired by his movement are fading away with the passage of time... As much as things change, remnants of the past never totally change, but merely evolve. At this writing, a 1964 'Goldwater Girl' from Illinois, Hillary Rodham Clinton, is a tentative prohibitive favorite to be the first woman president as a prospective Democratic candidate for 2016."

Commentary.

These presentations on contemporary themes and scenes in southern politics reveal that South-watchers are ever interpreting and re-interpreting this peculiar part of America. While the passage of time continuously narrows the gap between South and non-South, it will be a long time before this region loses its stature as "different" from the rest of the country.

In my next post, I will provide some field reports from the southern states.

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AUTHOR NOTE: This column is part of a series of posts about Southern politics. These posts derive from the 2014 Citadel Symposium on Southern Politics, a gathering of regional specialists in historic Charleston, SC. This Symposium has been held every other year since 1978; and it has become a main event for serious South-watchers from around the country. A hundred specialists -- representing scholars from about 50 academic institutions -- participated in the most recent conference, March 6-7, 2014. In this series, I will attempt to incorporate pertinent aspects of the presented papers and some of my own comments into various themes.
Jonathan Knuckey,

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