Buy this versatile poster now! Conveniently doubles as both a map of the 1924 Election and the Civil War (Wisconsin WILL rise again).
The age of “public intellectuals” is upon us. In an era where more and more Americans turn to cable news to guide them through a confusing world, one no longer needs to utter things that bear any resemblance to reality in order to be widely read and lauded. The most recent consistently-overrated pundit to hold an unreasonably inflated view of their knowledge and test this new tendency even further, Andrew Sullivan, recently opined,
“I think America is currently in a Cold Civil War. The parties, of course, have switched sides since the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The party of the Union and Lincoln is now the Democratic party. The party of the Confederacy is now the GOP. And racial polarization is at record levels, with whites entirely responsible for reversing Obama's 2008 inroads into the old Confederacy in three Southern states. You only have to look at the electoral map in 1992 and 1996, when Clinton won, to see how the consolidation of a Confederacy-based GOP and a Union-based Democratic party has intensified - and now even more under a black president from, ahem, Illinois.”
Although Sullivan sounds very pithy, witty, and dare I say, even “intellectual” to the average high school student who just scraped a 3 on his AP US History test after writing an eloquent essay about the dastardly Iraqi attack on Pearl Harbor, there's one problem with this: it's complete bullsh*t. And I do not use the term lightly. One must literally have no understanding or experience with American political history to try to spin such bullsh*t as legitimate historical commentary with a straight face.
Sullivan's psuedoargument has several blatant historical falsehoods (read: bullsh*t). First, yes, Mitt Romney may be able to eke out a 50-47 victory in Virginia. He might be able to pull out a 51-46 victory in North Carolina. And perhaps in the deep, dark den of the former Confederacy, South Carolina, he could even pull out a 56-41 victory. Maybe he'll even win all of the eleven former Confederate states (along with all of the Great Plains, much of the Midwest, almost all of the Rocky Mountains, and perhaps New Hampshire, but we can ignore that for now). Clearly, after the overwhelming majority of Republicans helped push through the 1964 Civil Rights Act over the objections of outraged Southern Democrats, the GOP blossomed into a neo-Confederate Party, with a solid lock on the South in a sectionally polarized America. Clearly.
His assertion of a new “Solid South” completely ignores what the actual Solid South resembled and how unsurprisingly solid it actually was. Mitt Romney's impending 10-20% victory in South Carolina wouldn't have impressed Southern Democrats of the ye olde days. In 1924, when Republican Calvin Coolidge crushed his Democrat opponent John Davis by over 25%, Davis still managed to best Coolidge in South Carolina, 96.56% to 2.21%. Davis also won every single former Confederate state as well as no other states (polling either in the single digits or low double digits), as the election in every non-Southern state was between former the Republican governor of Massachusetts and the former Republican governor of Wisconsin.
Second, his impression of a Civil Rights-driven alignment that caused the two parties to undergo a geographic switcharoo is also bullsh*t. For one, barring major demographic change or socioeconomic upheaval, almost every single historically Republican region is still solidly Republican. Nowhere can this better be seen than in Eastern Tennessee, one of the most Republican regions in America today. Notable for being a bastion of the South where slavery was very rare (having much more in common with Appalachian West Virginia than the Mississippi Delta), East Tennessee was first a bastion of the Federalist party due to its long-held antipathy towards Southern planter Democrats. After the Federalists' collapse following the Hartford Convention, East Tennessee swung to largely support the Whigs (who had absorbed many former Federalists). After the collapse of the Whigs, East Tennessee became solidly Republican territory and during the Civil War, took up arms against the Confederacy in an ultimately failed attempt to secede from the State of Tennessee and rejoin the Union. In 1932, when FDR crushed Herbert Hoover by 18% in the wake of the Great Depression, Eastern Tennessean Johnson County proudly delivered 84.51% of its vote to Hoover, a stronger preference than even my native Berkeley, California will show for Obama. In contrast, in the previously mentioned Republican landslide of 1924, the Democratic candidate received in South Carolinan Edgefield, Marlboro, Kershaw, Horry, and Marion counties 100%, 100%, 99.86%, 99.7%, and 99.68% of the vote respectively. Even if we inject race into the equation, somewhere around a fourth of White Southerners still vote reliably Democratic, a far cry from the 2-3% (at best) of White Southerners (mostly “carpetbaggers”) who reliably voted Republican in the ye olde days.
Third, in seeking for excuses to pin the racist label onto the Republican Party, Sullivan (and most left-wing political pundits) also ignore the explanation of shifting Southern voting patterns that would have been most obvious if they were evaluating a nation they didn't already hold clear ideological biases about. If the pre-Republican Solid South was an independent nation (let us assume it rose again), it would probably be an extremely popular FSP location for Dartmouth students due to the fact that Dartmouth students could display how much they “care about the developing world” without actually having to learn a real foreign language. Perhaps the dramatic transformation of the 1920's South from an overwhelmingly rural, underdeveloped, and impoverished region with a standard of living either barely on par or even exceeded by Soviet Russia into a largely suburban, developed, and reasonably wealthy region on par with Western Europe today might have tweaked its voting patterns just a little.
The same obvious culprit is also effective in explaining why once Republican Vermont became such a liberal stronghold, without resorting to intellectually bankrupt metaphors invoking the Civil War. Between 1960 and 2000, the population of Vermont ballooned from 390k to 610k, largely as yuppies from New York and other analogous urban areas flooded into the state due to its “pristine environment” and what not. Vermont still has several Republican strongholds, areas which correspond extremely well to the parts of Vermont where these new migrants didn't move into. Old Vermont, although hardly characterized by fire-breathing moralism, is still tinted red, even if its voice may be drowned out by New Vermont's flood of blue.
Fourth, his depiction of the Democrats and Republicans simply “switching sides” after 1964 falls into a fairly predictable leftist pattern: the tendency to pretend that Jimmy Carter never existed, almost unpersoning the former president ala Winston Smith. And not merely Jimmy Carter the president, but Jimmy Carter the presidential candidate. Jimmy Carter, the presidential candidate ran as a social moderate, won a majority of Southern Whites, and rode a wave of Southern enthusiasm to the White House. What a shock – the inconvenient truth that Democrats do better in more cultural traditional regions of the country when they run closer to the social center. Jimmy Carter besides, the South still reliably churned Democrats to Congress until 1994. For example, in 1992, Democrats took twelve out of Georgia's thirteen congressional seats. They fell short in Georgia's 6th congressional district, where a feisty Republican named Newton Leroy Gingrich surprisingly won by a few hundred votes. Of course, Southern Democrats (excluding VRA district representatives) took a beating in 2010, but Obama's 2010 thumping was more of a national (excluding California) phenomenon than a Southern phenomenon.
Lastly, the recent chorus of pundits opining about Romney inaugurating a new era of “racial polarization” doesn't simply reveal bullsh*t-driven ignorance of history – it reveals an ignorance of extremely recent history that partially explains why so much history-related opining fails to go beyond naturally assuming how every failing in the current administration was Bush's fault because Republicans are evil or something (read: bullsh*t). They point to many polls showing Romney leading with non-Hispanic White voters by around 20% and Obama leading among Hispanic/Black voters by around 30% and 85% respectively. However, none of this is anything new whatsoever. In 1984, Ronald Reagan trounced Walter Mondale, winning non-Hispanic whites by 32% (!!!) despite losing Hispanic and Black voters by 32% (!!!) and 82% (!!!) respectively. In 1988, George H.W. Bush trounced Michael Dukakis, winning non-Hispanic white voters by 20% while losing Hispanic and Black voters by 40% (!!!) and 78% respectively. And even as recently as 2004, John Kerry fell only inches away from defeating George W. Bush and still lost white voters by more than 17%. Whether current voter patterns constitute racial polarization or not is an interesting discussion (and a discussion that may force us to look abroad, reminding some that yes, there is a world outside of coastal 'murika and Yurop), but regardless, they are not an inconceivable deviation from historical patterns. It's also fascinating that to many commentators, 2012 Romney winning among white voters by 20% is depicted as a harbinger of racial polarization and rise of a neo-Confederacy, while Obama's 91% triumph among Black voters in 2008 was naturally a harbinger of racial equality and progress that brought tingles up people's legs. It's almost as if they were in the tank for one party.
One last caveat about the race itself – the declaration of the GOP as finally transitioning into a neo-Confederate phase doesn't actually match where the race actually is. Although both campaigns have a pretty good vested interest in bullsh*tting you about where the race is at and one presidential candidate has called out the other for being a “bullsh*tter”, we used to believe we could expect more from our journalists. Polling shows Obama and Romney in roughly a dead heat, indicating that Romney has improved on McCain's margin by around 7% or so. Assuming this tie, it is tremendously improbable (read: 0% probability) that Romney is improving by 7.2% in the Deep South. If anything, Romney has improved Republican support most among White Northerners – as indicated by polling showing Romney seemingly improving by double digits (far more than 7.2%) in states like Connecticut, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, Iowa, and Minnesota. In addition, states like Virginia and Florida are hardly Southern (polling indicates that a clear majority of whites in these states do not identify as Southern, although ironically, a commanding majority of blacks do) and the regions within them where Romney has most forcibly competed are even less Southern. I can say with utmost confidence that neither a government contractor from Hampton Roads nor a retired Jewish grandmother from the South Florida will be paying homage to Jefferson Davis if they decide to vote for Mitt Romney.
Of course, I quite obviously won't be giving a rebel yell this November either.
-- Kirk Jing