Wednesday, December 15, 2004

The political ironies of the Civil Rights movement

This LA Times article documents at a fine degree of granularity the lock that the GOP has developed on the South over the last generation, but especially with the ascendency of George Bush. In the election last month, Bush "carried nearly 85% of all the counties across the region — and more than 90% of counties where whites are a majority of the population." The tendency of the South the vote as a bloc has of course made it very effective at getting its way despite representing views out of the step with the a majority of the country. It's worth pondering why the South, of all regions, has once again emerged as a place of such polar and solid political loyalties, just as it was for the century after the Civil War for the Democrats.

The effect of "the Solid South" on the Presidency is also an interesting subject. Since the Civil Rights era began in the 1960s, the only non-Southerners who have won a presidential race have been candidates from California: Nixon and Reagan. That's interesting because between the Civil war and the 1960s, the White House was occupied exclusively by Northerners (with the possible exception of Woodrow Wilson, a Virginian by birth who made his career in the North) -- largely because Southerners were out of step with the mores of rest of the country, and therefore incapable of winning national office. Before the Civil War, of course, the Presidency had largely been occupied by slaveholders and other Southerners.

What the Civil Rights movement did was to pull the South's race laws, if not its social attitudes, into line with those of the rest of the country. At the same, however, the South (somehow, for some reason) managed to retain its unity and "exceptionalism," permitting it to re-assume its historic hegemony over the White House and the country. By hiding from view the most visible aspect of the South's core "values," the Civil Rights laws allowed Northerners to feel comfortable with Southerners as Presidents for the first time in a century. Thus the ironic result of the Civil Rights movement was to allow Southern whites, with their only partially reformed social attitudes (think: Trent Lott), to once again assume disproportionate national influence.

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