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The South just isn’t what it was

A handful of Sons of Confederate Veterans gather in Montgomery, Ala., at a memorial on a day last week that nationally celebrated Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and in a few Southern states, Robert E. Lee’s birth.

Associated Press

A handful of Sons of Confederate Veterans gather in Montgomery, Ala., at a memorial on a day last week that nationally celebrated Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and in a few Southern states, Robert E. Lee’s birth.

Shortly after Barack Obama won the presidency, the gleefully snarky Web site Gawker.com trumpeted "North Finally Wins Civil War." Speaking on behalf of what Sarah Palin and other conservatives famously dismissed as the "un-American" parts of America, Gawker rejoiced that the South is no longer the big dog of national political discourse, citing the New York Times and other respectable news outlets, which claimed Obama's new Midwestern wave drove old Dixie down.

Certainly Washington is minus the likes of Newt Gingrich, Tom DeLay, Bob Graham and Elizabeth Dole. President Obama's Cabinet will have the fewest Southerners since the Kennedy administration. The Arkansas exuberance and Texas braggadocio that ruled the capital for 16 years have been replaced by no-drama Obama reserve.

Still, it's tough to be left out. U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston of Georgia complained, "Where is the South in this administration?"

Actually, Obama's press secretary Robert Gibbs comes from Alabama, new EPA head Lisa Jackson from New Orleans, and environmental adviser Carol Browner from Florida. Yet while there's something delicious about a white Republican fussing about a lack of representation with the nation's first African-American president in the White House, the congressman's question raises another: Is the South over?

A postelection analysis dated Nov. 11, 2008, in the New York Times asserted that the South and Appalachia had "decisively" abandoned the mainstream. Writer Adam Nossiter pointed out that while 43 percent of whites nationally had voted for Obama, less than a third of Southern whites did. Democrats owe much of their recent success to unions, the thinking goes, so naturally the antiunion South will be left behind in favor of Rust Belt strongholds.

The Christian Science Monitor and others reported that Obama had considered some well-connected, long-serving Southerners such as Reps. James Clyburn of South Carolina and Georgia's Sanford Bishop Jr. for administration posts, but passed them over in favor of Westerners and Midwesterners.

The dissed, deflated and diminished South is fast becoming conventional wisdom. The Southernization of American politics is "absolutely over," according to Thomas Schaller, author of the 2006 Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South. Obama may have triumphed in three states of the Old Confederacy, but Schaller calls that "a decided New South victory" and "not a NASCAR victory."

True, most working-class white Southerners are not progressive Democrats. So should Democrats write off the South? In an editorial for Texas Observer on Dec. 12, 2008, Bob Moser thinks not: "A growing number of Anglos in Dixie are willing and able to punch their ballots for not only a Democrat but a Democrat of color."

Moser's new book Blue Dixie: Awakening the South's Democratic Majority, is a kind of rejoinder to Schaller, arguing that far from being a rump Republican backwater, the South is emerging as an engine of national change. Chris Kromm, director of North Carolina's Institute of Southern Studies, agrees. "The South's political clout is growing."

Kromm acknowledges that there are fewer prominent Southerners in Washington post-2008: "The lack of Southerners in Obama's Cabinet is actually out of step with where the nation's center of political gravity is located."

But he points out that 10 of the 13 Southern states boosted voter turnout in 2008 — Virginia and North Carolina by 7 to 8 percent — and Southern blacks and Latinos participated in the process as never before. Moreover, he says, Obama's "biggest losses with white voters were not in the South but in Idaho, Utah and Wyoming."

Kromm cites Census Bureau figures suggesting that Georgia, Texas, Florida and North and South Carolina will pick up nine congressional seats in 2010. Even though the recession has slowed the rate of growth, he says, long-term trends show the South gaining in all areas.

The region is urbanizing faster than anywhere else, and attracts an increasing number of Latinos. Indeed, Latinos made a difference for Obama in Florida: He won 57 percent of their vote. Latinos helped Democrats win in North Carolina, too, not just putting Obama over the top but kicking out incumbent Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole, too. "I'm surprised at how rapidly North Carolina has become competitive," says Schaller.

Of course, these supposedly startling changes in Southern voting behavior prompt discussions of what counts as the South. Reacting to Barack Obama's poll lead in some Southern states during the campaign, John Warner, then Virginia's senior senator, explained that his state, North Carolina and Florida are "different," not really Southern.

"Every time a Southern state starts voting for Democrats, people say, 'Oh, that's not the real South,' " says Kromm. When Barack Obama won North Carolina, Virginia and Florida, some "wanted to magically declare them somehow un-Southern."

The "Southern" parts of the South seem to be shrinking, at least to those who define "Southern" as white right-wingers who say "y'all." Virginia isn't Southern because of all those D.C. suburbs full of transplants who don't hunt, don't eat grits and associate Manassas with a mall rather than a Civil War battle. Yet those people voted for the gun-toting, Bible-quoting, self-defined "Scotch-Irish Southern" Democrat James Webb, now Virginia's senior senator.

North Carolina isn't Southern because it's attracting Midwestern retirees, Latinos and tech types. Plus, there's the Research Triangle, the constellation of great universities, labs and libraries so despised by Sen. Jesse Helms. Real Southerners don't cotton to book learning.

As for Florida, it's full of Yankees, Spanish speakers and refugees from the snow-shoveling states. Never mind that Latinos from the former plantation cultures of Cuba and Puerto Rico have much in common with the traditional "Southern" persona (obsession with the past, over-defined gender roles, flamboyant hospitality, a cuisine based on pork and corn). Never mind that in social attitudes, race relations, spending on education, etc., Florida's peer states are not New York or California, but Alabama and Louisiana. Never mind that Florida was the third state to secede from the union in 1861.

At this rate, the South could soon consist only of Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee and South Carolina — minus Huntsville (too many rocket scientists), Memphis (too many transplants), Columbia (too many professors). Or maybe we need to redefine "Southern."

For a long time (and still for some TV political pundits), "Southern" meant white. It often also meant socially conservative evangelical Christians who love, as Rush Limbaugh said, "babies, guns and Jesus." Certainly there are still plenty of them underfoot: Florida's anti-gay marriage amendment passed last November, after all. But what about African-American Southerners, Cuban-American Southerners, Asian-American Southerners, gay and lesbian Southerners, Southern Greens, Southern feminists, Southern Jews, Southern Muslims?

Even in Alabama, the state the New York Times chose to illustrate the South everyone thinks they know — complete with white ladies scared of "aggressive" black men and good ol' boys worried about the new president's "Muslim name" — more people voted for Obama in 2008 than for John Kerry in 2004. The South looks to the past, yes, but perhaps not as much as before.

"To deny this," says Kromm, "is to say that the South is forever mired in history. But the South is dynamic."

Thomas Schaller acknowledges that Democrats can compete in "New Economy areas with a lot of nonnative Southerners." The South, he says, is "losing its monolithic identity and the degree to which it does so is the degree to which it regains its political clout."

Or it may be that Virginia, North Carolina and Florida aren't Southern aberrations but the beginning of a new New South — that New South we've been promising ourselves since 1865. Kromm says, "There will be hiccups, there will be backsliding. The South will not be on a straight line up to enlightenment. But the overall trend is change. We are changing."

Diane Roberts, a former member of the Times editorial board, is professor of English at Florida State University.

The South just isn’t what it was 01/24/09 [Last modified: Saturday, January 24, 2009 3:30am]

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