GOP Dominance in South No Sure Thing, Liberal Scholars Claim

By Shannon Augustus | July 7, 2008 | 8:30 PM EDT

( - In losing one of the closest presidential races in American history four years ago, Democrat Al Gore failed to win a single southern state. Still, a group of southern historians, activists, civil rights attorneys, law professors and theologians dismisses the idea that President George W. Bush and the Republican Party have a lock on the region.

"The country should not think that we are anomalies of the South. Neither should this country assume that the South has fallen wholesale in the arms of conservatives," said Janisse Ray, one of the essayists contributing to the book, Where We Stand, Voices of Southern Dissent .

In the 2000 election, Bush and running mate Dick Cheney won all thirteen southern states, including Gore's home state of Tennessee. Gore won big on the West Coast, East Coast, and in the industrial Midwest.

"We need to face the fact that the South ... throughout history has been the seatbelt of division in the United States," said essayist Leslie Dunbar. She and the others involved in Where We Stand, Voices of Southern Dissent believe the Bush administration is "steering the world in the wrong direction."

On the environment, the war in Iraq, civil liberties, social issues, and the gap between America's rich and poor, Bush is wrong, the southern liberals claim.

"The environmental policies of the Bush administration are retrogressive and they are weakening all the environmental controls," said Sheldon Hackney, professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania and essayist. "If there wasn't more opposition, they would be drilling in Alaska."

The decision to go to war in Iraq, Hackney said "was a strategic error of immense proportions." The money spent trying to rebuild Iraq will also cause an "under-funding in education" in the United States, he insisted.

Essayist Dan Pollitt, retired professor from the University of North Carolina, criticized the Bush administration for allegedly abusing the constitutional rights of Americans.

"We have the Fourth Amendment which protects our privacy, and then we have the Patriot Act," said Pollitt. "They have a 'sneak and peak provision' where you can sneak into someone's house without a search warrant."

The political success of Republican candidates in the South may be endangered by the party's opposition to homosexual marriage and its support of a U.S. constitutional amendment defining marriage as an act between one man and one woman, said essayist Dan Carter.

"The dilemma, I think for them, is the growing uneasiness on the part of moderate middle class voters," Carter said. "I think the harder they play the homosexual issue, or social issues, the harder it is going to be for them."

But William Moore, professor of political science at the College of Charleston in South Carolina, said the Republican Party has succeeded in the South because its conservatism, especially its emphasis on states' rights, caters to the region.

"The big switch to the Republican Party occur[ed] in the 1980s when Reagan emphasized this anti-Washington theme," said Moore. "The conservatism of white southerners has basically been very much an anti-government, and certainly an anti-central government ideology."

Moore said the Republican Party's conservatism on social issues like homosexual marriage also appeals to the religious values of many blue-collared southern voters, "who might find themselves attracted to the economic policies of the Democratic Party, but cultural issues have become more important to them, so they vote on the basis of that."

2000 Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore could not muster a single victory in the South, but the region was much kinder to former president Bill Clinton, who won five southern states in each of his victories over George H.W. Bush in 1992 and Bob Dole in 1996.

"Bill Clinton was a break-through," said Moore. Clinton and Gore did well in the South because both were from the region, and Clinton "took a more moderate position" on a number of economic issues, which allowed him to be seen as a "middle of the road Democrat," rather than a liberal, Moore added.

Hackney explained the political calculus he said is necessary for the Democratic ticket of John Kerry and John Edwards to win the South in the 2004 election.

"The formula for Democratic victory is to get a big turnout of the black vote, which seems to be about 90 percent Democratic," Hackney said. But Kerry and Edwards need to increase their share of the white vote from 35 percent to around 40 percent, he added.

"The margin of Republican dominance in the South is really quite narrow. That is why I think Edwards will help the ticket a bit in the South, but it depends very much on turnout in the Deep South."

But Moore does not believe the Kerry-Edwards ticket will be as fortunate in the South as was the Clinton/Gore team. "John Kerry would be lucky to win two southern states," he said, speculating that those states might be Florida and Arkansas. "I would be very surprised to see Kerry win more than two, if he even wins those two."

"He is perceived as too liberal by southerners. I think the impact of Edwards will be fairly minimal in terms of the South. It would obviously impact some voters, but I don't think the numbers will be large enough to really have a significant impact in terms of switching people over on the Democratic Party," Moore said.

Hackney has a more optimistic view of Democratic chances this fall. "The Republicans are going in the wrong direction; we need to get them out of power, so they can think about who they are and change their ways. And maybe they can win elections in the future and not do harm to the country," he said.

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