- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 4, 2002

In 1988, I turned to my boss, Lee Atwater, campaign manager for George H.W. Bush's victorious presidential campaign, and said, "It's a Solid South now a Republican Solid South." That was wordplay on the obsolete cliche of a solidly Democratic Dixie. But Atwater, a South Carolinian, shrugged. Yes, Republicans had swept the region in three consecutive presidential elections, but that proved nothing about the future. "The South'll never be solid again," he predicted, citing the influence of "demassifying" factors, such as television and the baby-boom vote.
Atwater died too young not long afterward, but his prescience survived him. In 1992, a baby-boomer Democrat, Bill Clinton, carried four of the 11 states of the old Confederacy, repeating that performance in 1996. And Republican solidity in the South in the 2000 election was just 537 votes thick in Florida. Now, providing data for this drama, Earl and Merle Black, professors at Rice and Emory universities, respectively, have published "The Rise of Southern Republicans," which could just have easily been titled "The Rise and Fall and Partial Comeback of Southern Democrats."
The Blacks' story begins with a consideration of blacks. And whites. In 1880, blacks were 41 percent of the population of the South, but just 3 percent of the rest of the country. So even without the blight of slavery, the demographics and economics of Dixie the poorest and most rural region would have given the South a most peculiar politics. In that dichotomously static and rustic environment, the party of whites, the Democrats, devoted much of its energy to crushing the party of blacks, the Republicans.
Then came modernity. As the Blacks observe, while the New Deal brought Southern Democrats to power giving them committee chairmanships and ladling rights to unprecedented amounts of federal pork it also augured their ultimate marginalization; Dixiecrats went from being the majority faction within a minority party to a minority faction within a majority party.
Meanwhile, as capitalism generated wealth and the welfare state spread it around, the trend toward national homogenization was accelerated; poor blacks moved north, and affluent whites moved south. Whereas in 1880 the South had a black percentage more than 13 times greater than the country as a whole, by 2000 that ratio had fallen to less than 2 to 1. But in between, as the Blacks note, the Democrats had a helluva ride.
In the 2,565 congressional elections held in the South in the first half of the 20th century, the Republicans won just 80. Indeed, Capitol Hill was the citadel of Dixie Democracy; from the election of Georgian Charles Crisp as speaker in 1891 to the death of Speaker Sam Rayburn of Texas in 1961, Southerners accounted for 10 of the 12 men who served as either speaker or minority leader during those seven decades.
At the presidential level, the Democratic South started desolidifying in 1952, the year of Republican presidential candidate Dwight Eisenhower. But the big breakthrough for the Southern GOP came in 1980, thanks to the non-Southerner who graces the book's dust jacket, Ronald Reagan. As the authors assert, "Reagan appealed to the emotions, aspirations, and interests of the region's conservative and moderate white voters." And from the Gipper's first national victory through Georgian Newt Gingrich's "Contract with America" in 1994, it seemed that history had turned upside down; the white party still ruled the South, but its symbol was the elephant, not the donkey.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the emerging Republican majority: Southern Democrats made a comeback. "The Republicans turned against the newly emerging black electorate," the authors assert, and "they anchored their future success to winning levels of white support that were frequently unrealistic." Here was the weakness of the GOP's "Southern Strategy." Their delegation in Congress peaked in 1996; today, Democrats control six of the 11 Southern governorships.
One might wish for more yeast and reach in the Blacks' style, in the tradition, for example, of the legendary Southern political scientist V.O. Key. But that's the rhetorical road not taken. Instead, the Blacks have devoted 442 pages, including 146 charts and graphs, to showing that Southern Republicans have climbed high, only to find themselves stalled now on that plateau. Although the region tilts to the right, "There are no safe Southern states," the authors conclude, "for either Democrats or Republicans."
Which is to say, Dixie has joined the rest of the country, swinging between the two parties like the nation as a whole. What was predicted by Lee Atwater has now been restated, and footnoted, by the brothers Black. That the Solid South is no more may seem like a small point to make, but since Dixie is now the largest region in the country, its now uncertain political future will determine the fate of both parties.

James P. Pinkerton, columnist for Newsday, contributor to the Fox News Channel and a fellow at the New America Foundation, worked in the Republican presidential campaigns of 1980, 1984, 1988 and 1992.


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