Op-ed: The Southern lie

  • By Rich Lowry
  • Sunday, June 28, 2015 4:28pm
  • Opinion

It is telling that the South Carolina governor who called for the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the grounds of the state Capitol is a woman, an Indian-American — and a Republican.

The rush to efface the Confederate symbol from the South in the wake of the Charleston shootings, with Gov. Nikki Haley among the leaders, is a lagging indicator. The region has been transformed over the past 50 years, from an institutionally racist backwater to a part of the American mainstream more alluring to African-Americans than less dynamic parts of the country.

Dylann Roof is many things: a racist and a terrorist, pathetic and hellishly cruel. But he is not a representative Son of the South.

The left has nonetheless been channeling a less tasteful version of former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel’s old dictum: Never let a hideous massacre go to waste. It has pointed fingers at the GOP’s Southern strategy and at the South more generally, distorting the partisan history of the region and ignoring changes there since the 1950s.

Gerard Alexander of the University of Virginia, Sean Trende of RealClearPolitics and Jay Cost of The Weekly Standard all have written against the idea that the Southern strategy was racism incarnate. There was undoubtedly a racial component to the region’s partisan shift, but among other things, the South simply got richer. It’s amazing what earning enough money to have a substantial tax bite will do to your politics.

The father of the Republican Southern strategy was that racist old coot Dwight Eisenhower, who — is it possible to wrap your head around the enormity? — wanted to begin to win some Southern electoral votes. Ike won four Southern states in 1952 and five in 1956, when he won the popular vote in the region. And he did it while supporting civil rights.

How was this possible? The GOP had begun picking off the less uniformly Democratic areas of the New South. As Alexander writes, the GOP’s Southern electorate “was disproportionately suburban, middle-class, educated, younger, non-native-Southern, and concentrated in the growth-points that were, so to speak, the least ‘Southern’ parts of the South.”

So 1964, when Barry Goldwater opposed the Civil Rights Act, wasn’t a point of radical departure. The Republicans steadily gained strength as the Old South figuratively and literally died off. Republicans didn’t take a majority of Southern congressional seats until 1994. Not until 2010 did they gain unified control of the Alabama state Legislature.

The left doesn’t expend much energy complaining about the South’s contribution to the most important progressive electoral victories of the 20th century — the elections of Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt — but obsesses over Republican strength in a region that, morally and politically, is light-years from the Solid Democratic South of yore.

Of course, the South still lags in many ways, and there are parts of Southern exceptionalism that are distasteful. Consider one key indicator, though: Blacks are voting in favor of the South with their feet by migrating from elsewhere in the country, in a reversal of the Great Migration of the 20th century.

The region is no longer characterized by its system of vicious racism but its diversity. According to the Population Reference Bureau, “Among large metropolitan areas with a total population of 500,000 or more, the least segregated metros were located in the faster-growing South and West.”

It no longer deliberately blights the prospects of blacks but affords them opportunities not available elsewhere. The urban expert Joel Kotkin ranked metropolitan areas by homeownership, entrepreneurship and median household income and concluded: “Today, Dixie has emerged, in many ways, as the new promised land for African-Americans.”

This is an American triumph. One of the most extraordinary things about the reaction to the horror of Charleston on the ground was the unity and civility that characterized it — another wonder of a transformed South that, in many ways, is better than its hidebound and blinkered critics.

Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com.

More in Opinion

A resident casts their vote in the regular municipal election Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2020 at the Kenai Peninsula Fairgrounds in Ninilchik, Alaska. (Photo by Megan Pacer/Homer News)
Alaska Voices: Break the cycle of failure, debt in 2022

Today, all Americans are coerced, embarrassed or otherwise influenced into one of two old political parties

A sign designates a vote center during the recent municipal election. The center offered a spot for voters to drop off ballots or fill a ballot out in person. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire File)
Opinion: The failure of mail-in voting

The argument that mail-in balloting increases voter participation never impressed me

Charlie Franz.
Point of View: Election integrity is not anti-democratic

The federalization of elections by the Freedom to Vote Act infringes on the constitutional right of states to regulate elections.

Snow blows off Mt. Roberts high above the Thane avalanche chute, where an avalanche blew across the road during a major snowstorm. (Michael S. Lockett / Juneau Empire)
An Alaska winter of discontent

It’s been a hard winter throughout the state.

A Uncruise Adventures cruise ship, with a fleet of kayaks in the water behind it, in the Tongass National Forest. Uncruise, a boutique local cruise ship operator, has been vocal about the importance of the intact Tongass National Forest, or SeaBank, to its business. (Photo by Ben Hamilton/courtesy Salmon State)
Alaska Voices: The dividends paid by Southeast Alaska’s ‘Seabank’ are the state’s untold secrets

Southeast Alaska’s natural capital produces economic outputs from the seafood and visitor products industries worth several billion dollars a year

teaser
Opinion: The pulse of fealty

Let’s be honest. Trump’s demands go beyond his one stated condition.

Former Gov. Frank Murkowski speaks on a range of subjects during an interview with the Juneau Empire in May 2019. (Michael Penn / Juneau Empire File)
Alaska Voices: Permanent fund integrity in peril?

Alaskans need to be kept informed of what the trustees are doing with their money.

A cast member holds up a cue card in Soldotna High School’s production of "Annie" on Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021. (Camille Botello/Peninsula Clarion)
Voices of the Peninsula: Is theater dead?

“It will not be an easy task, performing CPR on this theater, but imagine the joy that you could bring to the students.”

Bjørn Olson (Photo provided)
Point of View: Homer Drawdown moves forward with climate-change solutions

Two years ago, a small group of concerned citizens decided to use this book as a guiding document

A “Vote Here” sign is seen at the City of Kenai building on Monday, Sept. 21 in Kenai, Alaska.
Voices of the Peninsula: Fight for democracy

When the Insurrection occurred on Jan. 6, 2021, it was a direct attack on our democratic rule of law.

Former Alaska legislator and gubernatorial candidate Les Gara is seen in this undated photo. (courtesy photo)
Alaska’s great oil giveway

We can do better than giving away billions in oil company subsidies