March 2012 Archives

If one picture can be worth a thousand words (depending, of course, on the relative quality of both picture and words), the same is surely no less true of a map.  I regret that it was so late in my career when I truly began to understand the illustrative power of a good map.   Take the following example, drawn from Dave Leip's Atlas of Presidential Elections, which is the very best political map site out there in my doubtless insufficiently humble opinion. (Be advised, though, that old Dave does the switcheroo on the traditional pattern in these parts by using red for the Democrats and blue for the Repubs, apparently following the approach common in Europe and elsewhere.)

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What we have here is a juxtaposition of county-level voting patterns from the 1960 and 1964 presidential elections in Georgia. That's in literal terms, however, for what it really amounts to is a snapshot of the GOP's coming-out party in Georgia, an event simultaneously celebrated and bemoaned in four other southern states in 1964.   Striking as it seems, even in retrospect, this day had been coming since the late 1930s when white southerners began to cast a wary eye toward the national Democratic party's increasingly cozy relationship with organized labor and northern blacks, whose ranks had been swelled by a flood tide of southern in-migrants seeking greater freedom and opportunity, but also fleeing a place where they could not vote for one where they could.  Sparked by a new civil rights plank in the Democratic platform, the 1948 Dixiecrat insurgency bled over into significant crossovers into the Eisenhower camp in 1952, when the GOP claimed four of the old Confederate states and 1956, when it picked up five.  The Republicans' economic conservatism had also begun to resonate with white-collar whites in the urban and emerging suburban South by the end of the 1950s.

  In the 1960 vote, which very much suggested Republicanism was on the march in Georgia, albeit not exactly at double-time,  Republican Richard M. Nixon actually  bested his former boss Dwight D Eisenhower, who had captured close to one third of the popular vote in Georgia in both 1952 and 1956.  Nixon's 37% percent showing primarily reflected the growth of Republican support in Georgia's urban counties, especially Fulton.  Although he ran a bit better than Ike in some rural counties as well, his numbers hovered around 27% in South Georgia and the Black Belt.  The caption for this illustration, then, might well read "What a Difference Four Years Can Make!" This is true especially when that span marks the explosive emergence of the sure enough, in your face, in-the-street and in-full-view of the cameras "protest" phase of the civil rights movement.  The stubborn and sometimes openly violent resistance that met the Freedom Riders, the Sit-Inners, and other demonstrations against economic and social discrimination and denial of the right to vote finally forced an extremely reluctant John F. Kennedy to stop simply talking about civil rights and finally do something. Sending troops to Ole Miss and Birmingham and dispatching brother Bobby to sprint to the head of the March on Washington in 1963, pretty much did "the Kennedys" in with a great many white Southerners, and the actions in 1964 of the traitorous Texan, Lyndon B. Johnson, in pushing through the most far-reaching piece of civil rights legislation in American history would assure that his observation that the Democrats had likely lost the South "for a generation" quickly earned a prominent place in the Understatement Hall of Fame. 

This became clear enough in the 1964 presidential campaign in which Republican Barry Goldwater vowed to "go hunting where the ducks are" by using his vote against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to persuade white Southerners to abandon the party of their hallowed forefathers.  Goldwater disdained any effort in the South even to retain the support of a vestigial core of middle-class black Republicans that dated all the way back to Reconstruction.  Hence his 87 percent tally in Mississippi amounted to what was virtually an all-white landslide in that state.  Although white voters in Georgia manifested more resistance to his charms, the dramatic about-face in voting was shocking even to seasoned political observers.  Where his Republican predecessor claimed 37% of the Georgia vote in 1960-- including the majority of black votes in Atlanta, Goldwater, with hardly a black supporter to his name grabbed 54 percent of the ballots cast. In South Georgia and the Black Belt, the curmudgeonly Arizonan captured better than 60 percent of the vote, more than doubling Nixon's numbers.  In many individual counties, Goldwater's share of the vote approached and in some cases even exceeded Kennedy's from four years earlier. In Calhoun County, for example, Kennedy had claimed 79 percent of the vote in 1960 but 86 percent went to Goldwater in 1964. The Voting Rights Act would not get on the books until the following year, and thus only 6 percent of the voting age black population of the 60 percent black county could even cast a ballot in 1964.  Twenty years later, black voters would see to it that Calhoun County gave a solid majority to Democrat Walter Mondale, a liberal Mr. Rogers to Goldwater's conservative Cookie Monster.  If, however, the Democrats hoped to offset their losses from white defections with newly enfranchised black loyalists, they were sorely disappointed, for nearly 3 million more whites than blacks registered to vote in the South over the course of the 1960s, and even with one of their own heading the ticket in 1976, the majority of this greatly expanded white electorate would never cast another Democratic vote in a presidential election.

For a time, to be sure, many of these folks insisted "I never left the Democratic party. It left me." The most telling evidence of Ronald Reagan's impact on southern politics may be that while only 40 percent of southern white conservatives identified themselves as Republicans in 1980, eight years later, that figure stood at 60 percent. Reagan's persuasiveness and charm clearly played a key in selling a less blatantly racialized version of  the old Goldwater southern strategy, one that emphasized maximizing and safeguarding the fruits of  individual achievement (as measured by economic success) over fostering social responsibility.  It also favored neighborhood autonomy (suburban neighborhoods that is) over equality of opportunity or access, all the while casting the central city and the federal government as the principal threats to the freedom of honest, God-fearing whites to enjoy the rewards attendant to their accomplishments. As the twenty-first century began, there were arguments that the old "southern strategy" had now become instead a "suburban strategy" that worked in white neighborhoods surrounding not just Atlanta or Birmingham but any number of northern cities as well. This explanation helped to explain the GOP's appeal to southern white suburbanites, but it failed to account for the continued Republican appeal to whites living beyond the southern metropolis. The raw numbers behind recent Republican majorities in the South may have come from the suburbs, but the intensity of GOP support was arguably greatest among white voters with lower incomes living in rural areas and towns too small to incorporate true neighborhoods.

Across the South in 2004, George W. Bush averaged 55 percent of the vote in metro counties and 60 percent in rural counties; his poorest showings were in urban core or central city counties and rural counties with relatively large black population percentages. Support for Bush along the I-85 corridor between Atlanta and Charlotte fit a national pattern--voters in counties just outside metropolitan areas voted for him at higher percentages than those actually within the areas themselves. His most ardent supporters in this part of the South, however, were whites in rural counties even farther from metro areas, where he collected 63 percent of the vote.   Of the eight Georgia counties that gave John McCain at least 80 percent of their votes in 2008, five were 100 percent rural; one was 99 percent and another 94 percent. A Republican strategist may have been correct in assuming in 2004 that "if you drive a Lincoln or a BMW and you own a gun, you're voting for George Bush," but the most loyal and dependable support that Bush enjoyed in the South came from voters well acquainted with guns but more likely to be struggling to make the payments on a Ford or Chevrolet pickup than cruising contentedly around in a Lincoln or Bee-mer.  In 2008, the correlation between white household income and support for McCain in Georgia counties was actually slightly negative.  On the other hand, the percentage of all households that were white was far and away the best single predictor of a county's GOP proclivities.  This combo map (Dark Green=Whiter,more Repub,) courtesy of the wonderful folks at the Georgia Statistics System--check'em out, you'll see what I mean--is a window not just on the politics of Georgia, or even the South, but on the nation.

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 Purely and simply, here in Georgia and damn near everywhere else in this great nation of ours, the most Republican places are most likely anywhere that's overwhelmingly rural and white.    The Repubs may be preaching to the 'burbs nowadays, but, even if the text has been upgraded, the folks out in the boondocks know the real message hasn't changed.

In the forty-three years that the Ol' Bloviator has taught United States history in both state universities and the public schools, he has done his dead-level best to resist the temptation to turn his lectern into a "bully pulpit" for proselytizing  his own political gospel according James.. Not surprisingly, the OB also gets his back up when others, with no particular preparation in the field but a truckload of ideological axes to grind, attempt to prescribe both the content of historical curricula and the lessons that are to be drawn from them. A textbook example of such an effort to control the textbooks is Georgia Senate Bill 426, introduced by Sen. William Ligon (R., Brunswick) and others and  currently under subcommittee review. "The Teach Freedom Act" seeks to "modify requirements for instruction" in U.S. history and other related social studies disciplines. In keeping with the spirit of a similar initiative launched with Tea Party backing in Tennessee, this legislation is premised on the belief that "a positive understanding of American history and government is essential to good citizenship." The problem from the get-go here is that the bill seeks a positive understanding rather than an informed one. Hence, it would require teachers to impart "an understanding of the mandate of the British government that required slavery in the colonies and the actions of various Founders who always opposed slavery, as well as early civic and religious movements to end slavery, and the self-correcting constitutional language the Founders included to allow the nation to end the institution of slavery...."

This item is particularly distressing because it suggests first of all that the sponsors of this bill are themselves poorly informed of the history of their own state. If there was a British "mandate" requiring slavery in the colonies, how was it that in 1735 the House of Commons passed a resolution affirming the initial decision of Georgia's Trustees to ban slavery in the colony? Likewise, the "self-correcting constitutional language" supposedly drafted by the Founders "to allow the nation to end the institution of slavery" actually applied not to slavery itself, but to "the Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit," i.e., the international slave trade, and even then it prevented Congress from taking action against that trade for the next twenty years. President Thomas Jefferson supported the act of Congress that forbade further international commerce in human property after 1808, but for all his public display of angst over the issue, like several of the other founding fathers who are described in SB 426 as "always opposed to slavery," he proved extremely reluctant to free more than a few of his own bondsmen. Ironically, in combination with the rising demand for labor sparked by the introduction of the cotton gin in 1793, the ban on further importation of Africans actually helped to boost slave prices, thereby proving quite the financial boon for Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, and other slave-holding presidents and prominent statesmen.  The fact that these men held slaves does not mean that they deserve no credit for their various contributions to our infant republic, but covering up that fact simply clouds our understanding of  how slavery managed to hang around so long in a nation ostensibly dedicated to freedom and equality.

The proposed bill's off-kilter references to slavery barely scratch the surface in revealing its manifold inaccuracies and unsubstantiated generalizations about the often complex and by no means consistently orthodox attitudes of our early leaders toward religion, "free enterprise," and the "democratic process." There is also reason for concern in its rigidly prescribed, severely front-loaded version of American history, which leans so heavily on the first six presidential administrations that only two of the documents it stipulates for inclusion in the accepted curriculum appear to bear directly on events that transpired after 1832. There is also the provision that "instruction, activities, and curricula in United States history, particularly in the high school curriculum, shall be taught chronologically...." History is more than a mere succession of events. It typically happens across broad expanses of time and not necessarily in linear fashion. Students may like the idea of simply memorizing the main events of each year from 1776 to 1787, but such an approach promises little in the way of a comprehensive understanding of developments such as "growing dissatisfaction with the Articles of Confederation," a mandated point of emphasis in SB 426.

The framers came up with a pretty remarkable document in 1787, but surely not even their most ardent admirers could credibly contend that either they or the words they put to page actually anticipated the many roadblocks and circuitous detours that our nation would encounter on its way to where we are now, any more than the most prescient currently among us ( Are you listening, Newt?) have the faintest clue about what things will be like in the year 2237. Regardless of whether it best serves the agenda of Glenn Beck or Jesse Jackson, to institutionalize such a one-dimensional and misinformed narrative of the past based on a heavily ideologized perspective on the present is to encumber future generations with a version of history that they may hardly recognize, much less find instructive.

(An earlier version of this harangue ran on Maureen Downey's excellent  blog  at the AJC. If you go over there, don't miss the comments.  They include such

gems as :  Well, at least Cobb had the decency to name his blog

appropriately - Cobbloviate indeed. To say that Cobb is a bit "full of

himself" is an understatement. Holy cow.)

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