Rick Perlstein: Whistling Past Dixie

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Rick Perlstein is the author of Nixonland: The Politics and Culture of the American Berserk, 1965-1972, which will be published next year.]

In the days after the 2004 election, the same CNN exit poll was on every pundit's lips: Asked about their most important issue, a plurality of voters cited "moral values." Eighty percent of that plurality voted for George W. Bush--no matter that cooler heads soon demonstrated these findings to be statistically meaningless. For "most of the last 100 years, politics has been defined by economic interests," Bill Clinton's former press secretary, Dee Dee Myers, pronounced on MSNBC. "That's no longer true." And so, a refrain developed: Without making significant inroads among churchgoing Southerners, Democrats could never hope to win a governing majority.

But this month's election yielded data that, unlike CNN's exit poll, was irrefutable: For the first time since 1953, the party that dominates the South is the minority party in Congress. November 7, 2006, may well go down in history as the day the modern Republican Party became a mere Southern faction. There's only one problem: No one's talking about it on TV. Instead, Heath Shuler became the cable news bookers' new favorite guest, as if the election of a pro-life Democrat from North Carolina was the election's most important trend: As Bob Schieffer announced, "These Democrats that were elected last night are conservative Democrats." Meanwhile, the one man whose book predicted the election's actual revelation--that the South and its conservative ways were irrelevant to the Democrats' victory--has been shut out. "I managed to squeeze onto Chris Matthews once," says Thomas F. Schaller, a professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, "but we didn't even talk about the book."

Schaller's book is Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South. Published this October, it argues, "The South is likely to become more Republican in the decades ahead," that Democrats can make and keep the Republicans a mere regional party, and that the best shot at a Democratic majority "in the immediate term is to consolidate electoral control over the Northeast and Pacific Coast blue states, expand the party's Midwestern margins, and cultivate the new-growth areas of the interior West." That's exactly how it went down November 7. The last prognosticator of structural shifts in American politics this accurate--Kevin Phillips, in his 1969 book The Emerging Republican Majority--became a household name. But, because he is a friend, it pains me to have to make a prognostication of my own: Tom Schaller will never become a household name. The reasons are ideological.

The people who have paid most attention to Schaller have been hysterics. Former Representative Glen Browder, a founder of the Blue Dog Democrats, was asked in the Anniston Star what he thought of Whistling Past Dixie. Browder, also a Ph.D. in political science, replied that Schaller was spouting "foolishness," but that "fortunately, most national leaders today understand that the road to the magic 218 number inevitably runs through this region." He said this oblivious to the fact that Schaller's "foolishness" had, in fact, just come true.

Still, Browder will always have an easier time winning a seat alongside Schieffer on Face the Nation than Schaller. TV punditry is not a meritocracy. Points aren't awarded for being right. (If they were, how many talking heads who saw only rosy things ahead in Iraq would still be on air?) It is an ideological system, with perverse ideological rules. And Browder has just honored one of them: Glorify what the French call l'Amerique profunde--the "heartland," of which the South is the sacred center.

Schaller speaks ill of the South. The very heart of his argument is a taboo notion: that the South votes Republican because the Republicans have perfected their appeal to Southern racism, and that Democrats simply can't (and shouldn't) compete.

But, among scholars, this is hardly news. Schaller builds this conclusion on one of the most impressive papers in recent political science, "Old Times There Are Not Forgotten: Race and Partisan Realignment in the Contemporary South," by Nicholas Valentino and David Sears. ...

comments powered by Disqus