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.

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