Artur Davis: Are Republicans Destroying the New South?

Thomas Edsall’s column on the South’s racially polarized politics is so many clichés—the notion that thinly disguised bigots are astride the region’s Republican Party, that they have meanly pushed black state legislators to the margins, that they are presiding over some modern reign of terror on the black and poor, and that the Supreme Court has just made it fundamentally worse by setting aside a major provision of the Voting Rights Act.

But he is not wrong about a premise that lurks throughout his argument: more than any place in America today, the South is a zone where ideology and party do correlate almost entirely with racial identity. Measured against the backdrop of a national electorate where Barack Obama actually exceeded four of the last five Democratic presidential performances with whites, the South’s “white equals Republican” reality is jarring. To a disconcerting degree, routine ideological debate over spending priorities, education, and voting requirements turn into a perpetual argument over whether the intent of every policy is to disadvantage minorities. It’s a stultifying kind of environment.

At the risk of repetition, I’ll mention one more time that liberal critics like Edsall miss the perverse contributions that racially gerrymandered districts have made to the marginalization of black political interests: by guaranteeing that black voters are cordoned off into their own singular political communities and have only a marginal presence elsewhere, courts have ensured that those interests will never really be elevated outside black voting precincts. And the meme that it is malicious Republicans who have driven those gerrymandering trends ignores altogether the extent to which African-American Democrats and federal courts have sanctioned, actually demanded, those district lines.

It’s also worth reiterating another observation I have made in these pages. The Democrats whose fortunes have declined so precipitously in the region since 2008 are still only recently out of power in the Deep South, at least at the legislative level, and have a mixed to poor record of alleviating a range of sins Edsall and most liberals complain about, from tax systems that over-burden the working class, to bargain basement Medicaid programs, to thin levels of social services, to weak environmental protections.

davis_artur-1To be sure, southern Republicans can go depressingly tone deaf in their choice of priorities, from North Carolina’s rollback of criminal procedure protections in a state where weak employment is surely something more voters are fixated on, to Alabama’s meat-ax approach to illegal immigration, to the lack of GOP support in most of these states for the kind comprehensive education reform that might boost the region’s abysmal rankings in data that measure the quality of life for children. And yes, the South certainly lacks its share of imaginative, Mitch Daniel type Republicans who see entrenched poverty as the kind of dilemma conservative ought to be engaged in addressing.

But to the extent that minority southerners are, in Edsall’s terms, “hindered from shaping the policies that determine social and economic mobility and the overall quality of life”, the reasons are more complex than the cause effect that Edsall suggests. The solutions have as much to do with ending a bipartisan accommodation to special interests that are averse to cutting edged innovations as they do with taking Republicans to task. Of course, had Democrats not squandered capital on expanding casinos, and soft-pedaling clear-cut evidence of corruption within their own ranks, they might well have found a high ground that stanched their bleeding with at least suburban, educated whites who might be receptive to a progressive platform. And if the all too recent Democratic rule over southern legislatures had really produced the “New South” that Edsall and others are claiming is under siege, he might have a moral point rather than a partisan political one.


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