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The Mind Of The South

Momentarily doffing my business-beat hat, I want to highlight a strange article in the New York Times this morning. “For South, a Waning Hold on National Politics,” reads the headline, and the gist of the piece is that Southern voters, by backing McCain this election, have proven that their backward ways are increasingly irrelevant to the American scene. There are lots of good quotes from the usual suspects—Merle Black, Tom Schaller—and lots of interesting anecdotes. But the accompanying graph, a county-level map showing left-right voting levels in 2008 relative to 2004 (hues of blue if the counties tilted more Democratic this time around, hues of red if they tilted further to the GOP), seems to belie most, if not all, of the article’s premise. Across the “Deep South”—South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and northern Louisiana, what the rest of the country talks about when it talks about the South—the map is almost entirely blue. Pretty much all of Texas is blue, too. That means that Obama, even if he didn’t win these states, still did better than Kerry. Instead, the red splotches center in eastern Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and southern Louisiana; northern Alabama is pretty red as well. (Interestingly, these are places where Democrats tend to do well, historically, on the local and state level.)

What this all points to is not a waning South, but a fissured and rapidly changing one. Perhaps the most frustrating thing for southerners, and those who study the South, is to watch observers pinch and pull at the region’s boundaries to fit their argument. Sometimes it’s everything from Delaware El Paso; sometimes it’s just rural Georgia. The fact that Obama won three southern states, did better than Kerry in counties across the region, and invigorated a substantial number of minority voters—black southerners are southerners, too, remember—complicates the picture of the South as some sort of static geographic-demographic bloc of racists. What is really surprising is not how stalwart the South is in its ways. It’s that broad swaths of the region look just like the rest of the country.

--Clay Risen