The Democrats will rise again in the South, but the political scientists don’t see it happening any time soon.
Will Rogers’ celebrated crack — “I am not a member of any organized political party; I am a Democrat” — applies in spades around here these days. The Democrats are clearly in worse disarray than they were in Rogers’ day, for they had the Southern states sewn up before he was born in 1879 until years after he died in 1935.
The reversal of the situation was completed Saturday with the defeat of Louisiana’s U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu at the hands of Congressman Bill Cassidy. She is the only Deep South Democrat in the Senate, and the only one in a Louisiana statewide elective office. Congressman Cedric Richmond, of New Orleans, being a black Democrat, meanwhile, is the odd man twice over in the Louisiana delegation.
The current ascendancy of the GOP must have the Democrats of yore turning in their Confederate tumuli. When they ruled the roost, they called themselves “the white man’s party.”
There was a blip in 1920, when the 19th Amendment finally gave the ladies permission to bother their pretty little heads with politics, but it took decades for external forces to secure the constitutional rights of black people. When that started to happen, George Wallace famously denounced the liberal intellectuals of the civil rights movement as “pointy heads,” which always seemed an unfortunate turn of phrase given how many of his party had worn Klan hoods.
The most famous foes of integration in the South — such as Wallace, Bull Connor, Lester Maddox, Ross Barnett and Orval Faubus — were all Democrats, but their national party took the blame for the civil rights movement, paving the way for President Richard Nixon’s Southern strategy.
The theory behind it was that the GOP had no need to court black voters in the South because “negrophobes” switching their allegiance from the Democrats would be enough to change the balance of power. There is no denying that it worked.
It would be a bit of a stretch to attribute the current dominance of the GOP to long-ago Nixonian machinations, but race is clearly a factor. As Pearson Cross, of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, puts it, “We now have an almost completely racialized political party system.” We are a one-party state again, but it’s the other way around.
An analysis of the returns from Saturday’s election by Ed Chervenak, of UNO, paints a highly polarized picture. Landrieu received “nearly universal support” from black voters, but only 15 percent from whites. Turnout was 37 percent white to 33 percent black, a much smaller disparity than normal, presumably because GOP voters stayed home, with polls for weeks having indicated the election was in the bag.
Given that Landrieu was sufficiently beloved to have been thrice elected to the Senate, and could point to a proud record of bringing home the bacon, her defeat can only presage a long spell in the wilderness for the Democrats. Perhaps the racial divide was particularly wide this time, given that the GOP’s big knock on Landrieu was her alleged record of voting “97 percent” of the time with President Barack Obama.
Indeed, during the campaign, Republicans pilloried Landrieu when, asked to explain the president’s low ratings, she noted, “The South has not always been the friendliest place for African-Americans.” No, they didn’t regard that as a ludicrous understatement; they suggested, with a straight face, that it was a bum rap.
Still, that was a shocking thing for Landrieu to say. She has been in politics long enough to know she can’t get away with telling the truth in public.
It took the GOP a long while post-Nixon to tighten its grip, and not until 2004 did Louisiana elect David Vitter as its first Republican U.S. senator since Reconstruction. But now that Republicans are in control, they must take the blame for whatever goes wrong when, as dominant parties always do, they overplay their hand.
Right now it is hard to imagine a Democratic resurgence, but surely the aspirations of black and white voters are not so different these days as they were, say, just after World War II when Louisiana Republicans seemed to be history.
James Gill’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.