Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Republican Southern Strategy

Nicholas Valentino and David Sears reported on their study about white racism in Southern voting patterns in "Old Times There Are Not Forgotten: Race and Partisan Realignment in the Contemporary South" American Journal of Political Science 49:3 (July 2005). They concluded that what pretty much everyone involved with politics assumes is actually demonstrably true: that appeals to white racism among Southern white voters played a decisive role in the shift of national voting patterns to the Republican Party since the mid-1970s.

Their article is a reminder, though, of how challenging it is to measure the actual effects on voting patterns of a factor like racism, which doesn't translate easily into numerical factors, in contrast to a factor like income levels or occupation.

I won't try here to recite the various results of their regression analysis. But they tried to differentiate between what they call "Jim Crow racism" and "symbolic racism", which roughly translate to, respectively, support for explicit official segregation and emotional racism. They note of "symbolic racism":

In recent years, ... it has consistently been conceptualized and measured in terms of four themes: the denial of discrimination, criticism of blacks' work ethic, and resentment of blacks' demands and treatment by the broader society, which together form a logically, psychologically, and statistically coherent belief system ...
They also tried to differentiate between racial attitude and more general ideological attitudes in Southern whites' voting patterns. They state their findings this way:

This result is consistent with the conventional wisdom about the increasing regularization [i.e., alignment] of ideology and party in the South. What we add is that the impact of specifically racial conservatism on party identification also has been growing in the white South. ...

The regional difference in the effects of symbolic racism, but not in the effects of ideology, suggest that specifically racial attitudes have structured the Southern-based partisan realignment of the past four decades. ...

We would conclude that racial conservatism seems to continue to be central to the realignment of Southern whites' partisanship since the Civil Rights era. [my emphasis]
They make an important point, though their explanation doesn't make it jump out at the reader. But what they found is that during the three-decade period under review, white racism had become increasingly important in the South in attracting white voters to the GOP.

They also found:

... that at the end of the Civil Rights era Southern whites were more racially conservative than whites living elsewhere. More important for our purposes, the regional gap in racial conservatism has not closed since then, despite the sharp drop in Jim Crow racism. Southern whites remain more racially conservative than whites elsewhere on every measure of racial attitudes ordinarily used in national surveys. ...

Racial policy attitudes were more closely linked to the vote in the South than elsewhere in the 1990s, but nonracial policy attitude yielded no such regional differences.[my emphasis]
They caution, however, that their study may have over-controlled for the effects of non-racial ideology, and therefore they may have "underestimated the effects of racial conservatism." (my emphasis) In other words, "seemingly race-neutral conservatism may itself have become partially racialized" in a way that they approach couldn't adequately distinguish.

Part of the evidence for the salience of racial issues among Southern white voters comes from Lost Cause/neo-Confederate themes:

... a number of quite heated and largely symbolic racial issues have arisen in the South. Several states have witnessed roiling debates about the use of Confederate battle symbols on public insignia. The NAACP organized a boycott of tourism in South Carolina in 2000 until the state legislature voted to remove the Confederate battle flag from atop the state house. The victory for opponents of the flag was limited, since the agreement provided that it be flown near a Confederate monument on the statehouse lawn. A similar flag controversy played out in Mississippi in 2001. Georgia's flag controversy may have contributed to the victory of the state's first Republican governor since Reconstruction, Sonny Perdue.

The Southern parties today are split quite decisively along racial lines. Republicans are almost all white, and blacks are the dominant core of the Southern Democratic party ... [my emphasis]
They make these informed speculations about the reasons for the larger role of white racism in Southern politics:

We have argued that racial conservatism has been a significant contributor to party realignment in the white South. But what have been the mechanisms by which this has happened? At the level of the individual voter, the primary cause of the persistence of these regional differences is presumably the transmission of a broad culture of racial conservatism in the South across generations. For example, lifelong white Southerners seem to be more racially conservative than in-migrants ... and even young white Southern adults were consistently more racially conservative than their counterparts in other regions in the late 1980s ... Beyond that, our reasoning suggests that the linkage between racial attitudes and political preferences should be strongest for the youngest white Southerners, who were socialized as the parties were realigning. In-migrants to the South in the latter half of the twentieth century may also have adopted partisan identities consistent with their racial attitudes prior to, or following, their migration. It is also possible that race continues to be more salient in Southern culture than elsewhere, which might explain the added potency of racial attitudes there. These questions go beyond the scope of this article, but they are important for understanding the persistence of regional cultures and the dynamic processes underlying partisan realignments. [my emphasis]
They called it a presumption. But in many cases, it's a cold fact, and one that still gives me a particularly sad feeling, though it's not surprising at all: "the transmission of a broad culture of racial conservatism in the South across generations." Racial conservatism is, of course, in plain English, white racism.

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