Who killed Dixie?

Few parts of the world are as loved and loathed with the intensity that is felt for the American South. Thanks to a long line of contributions to the popular culture from Gone with the Wind to Borat, via Deliverance, Dixie, the great muggy swath of the southeastern United States, from Washington DC to Texas, has a firm grip on the imagination of Americans and foreigners alike.
To its detractors it is a terrifying and contemptible land full of racist rednecks, Bible-toting hypocrites and downtrodden blacks. To those of a more romantic disposition, and certainly to most of its inhabitants, it is a land of blue-tinged mountains and old-world courtesies, of rich comforting food and the unshifting loyalties of friends and family, and the place that gave birth to the sole truly American cultural innovation – jazz.

Neither stereotype ever had it right. It has always been more diverse than that, as anyone who has ever taken the two-and-a-half-hour flight from the oilfields of Texas to the Washington suburbs of Northern Virginia, or driven from the Florida beaches to the southern Appalachians, will know. But its friends and enemies can agree on one thing: the South has exercised a remarkable sway for the past few years.

It is not a stretch to say that the ascent of the South has been the single most important development in US politics in the past 50 years. Beginning in the mid-1960s, with fitting irony, almost 100 years after the collapse of the Old Confederacy in the Civil War, the South has steadily grown to a remarkable dominance over America’s politics.

The passage of civil rights legislation marked the start of the long decline of the Democratic Party in the South. The national party’s championing of civil rights undercut the old “Dixiecrats”, socially conservative Democrats across the South, and weakened the party’s appeal to Southern white voters.

The trend was accelerated by the decision by the Supreme Court to legalize abortion in 1973. Evangelical Christian conservatives, in large numbers in the South, abandoned their old reluctance to get involved in politics and campaigned hard to reverse cultural progressiveness.

The effect was extraordinary. Though the population of the states of the Old Confederacy never numbered much more than a quarter of the US population, its geographic concentration and broadly monolithic political culture gave it an outsized role in the nation’s decision-making. It provided the impregnable base of the Republican domination of the presidency in the past 40 years – when the party has won seven of the last ten elections.

Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan were based in California, but they were the first Republicans to win a majority of Southern states. Though George Bush Sr was a Connecticut Yankee of impeccable pedigree, he took up residence in Texas and did his level best to hide his hopelessly exquisite manners by eating pork rinds and showing up for meetings in cowboy boots.

Even more remarkable was the degree to which Democrats focused on the South. The last three Democratic presidents were Southerners – Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. Every time the party picked non Southerner presidential candidates – George McGovern in 1972, Walter Mondale in 1984, Michael Dukakis in 1988 and John Kerry in 2004 – they lost. Al Gore in 2000 was from Tennessee, and also lost, but in a striking affirmation of the Southern ascendancy, he lost all the Old Confederacy states – including his own. If he had won a single one of them he would have been president.

The broader consequences of this Dixification have been clear. The political values of the South have become in many respects the values of the nation. The South has the strongest religious sentiment, the strongest support for the military, the strongest opposition to social permissiveness, to abortion and gay marriage. When most foreigners think in clichéd terms of the “typical” American, they are probably thinking of someone with the worldview of a citizen of the Carolinas.

By the beginning of the 21st century the Dixification of America was more or less complete. Bill Clinton, from Arkansas, had handed over the presidency to George Bush, a Texan. Congressional Republicans were led predominantly by Southerners. The governing agenda was low taxes, the revival of conservative moral standards and a hardened foreign policy.

But now consider this. Just six years later, Dixie is in eclipse. With the Democratic victory in the mid-terms last year the leadership in Congress has passed into the hands of Westerners from California and Nevada with an agenda – antiwar, liberal on abortion and gay rights – wholly at odds with the South.

Even more striking, the Democrats look likely to nominate as their presidential candidate someone from outside the South – Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama – and, at least on current form, she or he is the firm favorite to win next year.

The one Democratic contender from the South is John Edwards but the former South Carolina senator has gone out of his way to oppose most of what his fellow Southerners believe – from the war to socially conservative values. And how many good ole boys have paid $400 for a haircut?

The Democrats don’t feel they need a southern strategy. They can easily win the presidency with a combination of the Northeast, the Midwest and the West. In fact, the South now looks less like a solid Republican base and more like a Republican ghetto.

Even Republicans seem to have cooled on the Old South. Their leading presidential contenders are a multiply-divorced Catholic social liberal from New York (Rudy Giuliani) and a Mormon from Massachusetts (Mitt Romney). Two Southerners are in the field – Fred Thompson, from Tennessee, and Mike Huckabee, from Arkansas, but their Southerners doesn’t seem to be helping them much.

Who killed Dixie? Demographics played a part – the nation’s center of gravity continues to move westwards, increasing the relative power of the Rockies and the Pacific Coast states. So too did politics – a decade of mismanagement by Republicans has hardly been an advertisement for Southern-flavored government. The nation’s ideological balance is shifting also, as the influence of religious conservatives wanes. Whatever combination of factors is responsible, the Strange Death of Dixie America will have powerful implications for years.

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