The Economics of Southern Politics

Politico has an article today entitled "Obama's problems in the South." They talked to some of the right people, but it appears that most of them manifestly fail to understand the economic mechanism at work behind the political division.
But it’s not merely racism that explains why the South remains as politically polarized now as it has ever been. [Not merely. Thanks, guys. --Grim]...

“I worry about where we are,” said Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), who has written extensively on the politics of race and culture.... Asked what exactly the president wanted to address, Webb paused before responding: “My observation is that, how can it be that in the party of Andrew Jackson, only 28 percent of white working males support the Democratic Party? It’s difficult to talk about these things.”...

Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), the civil rights hero who bled in Selma, echoed Graham’s concerns.

“It does bother me to see such a division in the South,” Lewis said, adding: “It’s not healthy to have so few white Democratic members from the South.”
The reason the piece fails is demonstrated in its comment about "why the Democratic convention is being held in Charlotte, the prototypical New South city." To understand the mechanism at work in the South, you need to know that the prototypical New South city isn't Charlotte, it's Atlanta.

Atlanta was the "New South" a hundred years ago, and for the same reason Charlotte is today: it's an urban area that serves as the headquarters for finance, large corporations, and a model of production borrowed (like the money that funded it) from the North. It was a place where, in 1880, bankers from Wall Street could come and feel comfortable. People who lived there agreed to adopt the North's basic social and economic system in exchange for access to Northern capital.

Atlanta is no hotbed of liberalism today, although there are enclaves within the city that are. Charlotte won't remain one for the same reason. Once that external capital -- formerly Northern, now international -- generates enough wealth, others will come from around the rest of the South to set up small businesses to serve those enjoying the wealth. As the small businesses become successful, they will give rise to a political class with wealth and leisure to promote their own values -- small business values.

Atlanta is now surrounded by concentric rings of people who aren't part of that core system that was funded by Northern money, and which bound itself to Northern values. In Charlotte, finance is the big business, and that's now led by people with the internationalist mindset that rides behind the World Bank and the UN instead of the old Wall Street leadership. But there are far more Southerners in the South than internationalists, and as they become plumbers or restaurateurs, they will likewise become wealthy enough to be politically active.

With the collapse of large-scale manufacturing industries like the textile industry, too, "white working class" voters in the South work for these small businesses. They know the owners intimately. They understand that their job and the ability of their boss to give them a raise is connected to these same interests. And, more likely than not, they go to the same church.

That's the TEA Party movement in a nutshell: its core is made of small business owners and their families, who are defending the values and interests of small business owners. Those values are the traditional values of the Christian work ethic (now supplemented by many who follow the surprisingly similar Hindu or Chinese work ethic), and the family unit as the locus of social support and success. Their interests are low taxes and cutting back on the regulatory state.

That's also why the TEA Party isn't a Southern movement: you see it across the country, embracing the same set of folks. The movement is just stronger in the South because the South is where the main large-scale industry collapsed first. Textile mills and sewing factories were once a major employer of the white working class in the South, and they're all gone to Mexico. The unions are gone too.

So Virginia might remain a swing state because of the massive number of Federal workers, and those whose interests lie with a rich and powerful Federal government. North Carolina isn't going to remain a swing state: Charlotte is just the next Atlanta.

If Jim Webb and John Lewis want the South back, it's available: the Democratic Party just has to return to supporting the values and interests of the voters. Those are, broadly speaking, Christian values, low taxes, and less regulation. They are opposed to broad-scale social experimentation, government-based social programs that require high taxes to fund them, and crony capitalism that favors large companies and international finance. This includes regulatory schemes that raise the bar of entry so that smaller businesses can't afford to compete. It just happens to be the case that, right now, the Democratic Party is unified behind all those projects that Southerners dislike.

I think Jim Webb is right about Jackson: Southerners also want a strong military, and a leader they can look up to as an exemplar of personal honor. It wouldn't hurt to nominate somebody who felt the same way.


Texan99 said...

My observation is that, how can it be that in the party of Lyndon Johnson, only 5 percent of black voters support the Republican Party? It’s difficult to talk about these things without wondering whether some kind of obsession with race-over-substance is a deciding factor in the voting patterns of people who happen to suffer from that obsession.

I don't see what the mystery is. If a party champions affirmative action, we shouldn't be surprised if there develops a voting pattern based on whether people are within or without the preference groups. No one has to be a racist to get that to happen, once you get past the inherent racism of the affirmative action that got it started.

Grim said...

I'm sure that anti-affirmative-action is a factor in Southern white attitudes as well; but as you say, there's a ready economic explanation for that also. Especially for Southern white males, affirmative action programs are pure barriers to entry (especially to Federal jobs, as we've discussed). Even Southern white females benefit to a lesser degree than any other sort of female.

But also, notice, small businesses don't generally 'do' affirmative action in the way that large-scale organizations do. They employ Joe (or Jane) from church, whom they know to have a good work ethic and good values, and to be someone they can trust with their dollar. Thus, workers for small businesses don't benefit from affirmative action; and from the perspective of small-business employers, they're merely another potentially intrusive regulation. All they see is being forced to hire someone they may not know, and can't be sure they can trust in the same way that they can trust a known acquaintance.

Economic interest thus accounts for the whole observed effect; there's no need to speculate about how much "racism" is involved.

Texan99 said...

I don't even have to assume that white males are voting GOP because they resent affirmative action. All we need to say in order to explain the voting pattern is that the black vote goes almost in lockstep to Dems as a result of support for affirmative action, while white males split GOP/Dem on something much closer to a 50/50 basis for any of the many other reasons people have for disagreeing on party lines, such as unions, economic freedom, abortion, environmental issues, national defense, etc.

The point is that white male voters are a lot less in lockstep than black voters, so I have a hard time seeing why the pattern shows more racism in whites than in blacks. I don't think it has much to do with racisim. I think it's a question of government incentives directed at ethnic groups, which are more strongly supported by Dems than by the GOP, because the Dems are the party that is much more strongly focused on identity politics.

E Hines said... can it be that in the party of Lyndon Johnson.... and ... government incentives directed at ethnic groups, which are more strongly supported by Dems than by the GOP....

This also is impacted by who more successfully controls the message. LBJ's Great Society would have died in Congress but for a higher per centage of Republicans, in each house, voting for it than Democrats. Jim Crow Democrats were active and more overtly so than today.

...broadly speaking, Christian values, low taxes, and less regulation. They are opposed to...crony capitalism that favors large companies and international finance.

Some of this is a result of greater skill at communicating, too: the Democrats have no lock on crony capitalism; Republicans do this, too. Both parties do this in spades.

...the TEA Party isn't a Southern movement....

No, it's an American movement. The first Tea Party event occurred...somewhere. But it didn't spread from there; the movement coalesced out of the atmosphere, like a cleansing, refreshing rain coalesces around particulates and falls over a large area. It's more closely aligned with the Republican Party because that's the one that at least pretends to be about the individual. It's also more closely aligned that way, despite originally being explicitly separate from any political party, for a couple of reasons: early on, they recognized that the path to real influence in DC was not as a third party, but through picking candidates in primaries and pushing them--and the Republican primaries were more suited to that than were the Democratic primaries (they tried a couple of Democratic primaries in 2010). There may be another reason, too: a WSJ(?) article suggested earlier this week that the Tea Party was becoming establishment--and taking over the Republican Party.

This also may relate to why there aren't as many blacks--or Hispanics--in the Tea Party as in the Democratic Party. The Tea Party will have nothing to do with affirmative action or other sorts of non-merit preferences. Thus, there is no ethnic or racial gain to be had by joining a Tea Party movement. And that choice has nothing, of necessity, to do with race--it's a purely economic decision.

Eric Hines

Grim said...

There's nothing about the TEA Party that is in principle opposed to Hispanics or blacks, though -- if they are small business owners (or family farmers, which is a similar but traditionally separate category). A Mexican family that legally emigrates, works hard, buys a farm and begins to become successful has exactly similar economic interests, and very similar values. So too for an Indian or a Chinese family, both of whom are in Georgia in force these days: quite hard working, quite family-oriented, and increasingly successful at establishing family wealth through small business.

E Hines said...

There's nothing about the TEA Party that is in principle opposed to Hispanics or blacks, though....

That was my point. The Tea Party's discriminants aren't based on the trivia of skin or ethnicity. The relative lack of blacks or Hispanics is due entirely to the latters' self-selection choices.

Eric Hines

douglas said...

Curiously, I think we may start seeing the 95% black Democrat vote becoming a thing of the past, not because of economic issues, primarily, but because of religion and family issues. The recent speaking out of black pastors against gay marriage, and supporting Chick-fil-a, and to a lesser extent the forcing of the Catholic church to provide abortifacients and birth control against their moral reservations, are things that resonate with a group that is strongly tied to their churches and their biblically rooted beliefs. The fact that the economy's problems are also hurting them the most, and that they are among those who have to compete with illegal immigrants for jobs will only add to their discontentment with the Dem hierarchy and their leftist bent.

I think the recent party switch by Artur Davis might also be a bellwether of such a shift.

At least, I hope so.

Anonymous said...

It was a reporter for CNBC at the Chicago Board of Trade, Rick Santelli, who first said that the US needed another Tea Party in response to taxes. He gave a name to what had been bubbling up, Glen Beck and others served as publicity and hey presto! The TEA Party movement appeared. It is certainly not limited to the South, since the first well-publicized, openly TEA Party supported politician seems to have been the lady who challenged Harry Reid in 2010.


bthun said...

"It was a reporter for CNBC at the Chicago Board of Trade, Rick Santelli, who first said that the US needed another Tea Party in response to taxes."

And so it was indeed.

In fertile soil and from the smallest kernel of a rant doth grow the mighty oak.