Is There Still a South? And Does it Matter?

Is There Still a South? And Does it Matter?

Books discussed: The End of Southern Exceptionalism: Class, Race, and Partisan Change in the Postwar South, by Byron E. Shafer and Richard Johnston; Divided America: The Ferocious Power Struggle in American Politics by Earl Black and Merle Black; Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South by Thomas F. Schaller; The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South by Matthew D. Lassiter; White Flite: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism by Kevin Kruse.

BOOKS DISCUSSED IN THIS ESSAY
The End of Southern Exceptionalism:
Class, Race, and Partisan Change in the Postwar South
by Byron E. Shafer and Richard Johnston
Harvard University Press, 2006 220 pp $39.95

Divided America:
The Ferocious Power Struggle in American Politics
by Earl Black and Merle Black
Simon & Schuster, 2007 286 pp $26

Whistling Past Dixie:
How Democrats Can Win Without the South
by Thomas F. Schaller
Simon & Schuster, 2006 356 pp $26

The Silent Majority:
Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South
by Matthew D. Lassiter
Princeton University Press, 2006 276 pp $35

White Flight:
Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism
by Kevin Kruse
Princeton University Press, 2005 352 pp $35

THE TRANSFORMATION of the solid Democratic South to the predominantly Republican South after the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of the mid-1960s is one of the most critical developments in American politics and only a handful of dyed-in-the-wool conservative Republicans have denied the important role that race played in triggering this process. But perhaps the pundits, the politicians, and the scholarly experts all have it wrong. Could it be that class or—to put it another way—economic self-interest drove the process of political transformation, with white backlash playing a distinctly secondary role in the process? What if Southern suburbanites are just members of America’s rising GOP middle class on the make with a bit of a drawl? That, in a nutshell, is the central argument of two distinguished political scientists in The End of Southern Exceptionalism.

How did we get it all wrong? According to Byron Shafer and Richard Johnston, Americans have been led astray by a generation of scholars and writers on Southern politics who have created an “established literature” that is “charmingly and richly contextualized, but also unsystematic and deeply inbred . . .” (Translation: earlier writers about the South foolishly believed that voters’ political choices spring from a complex mixture of rational decision-making, inertia, prejudice, selfless idealism, ignorance, and deep-seated emotional attitudes that can only be approximated; as impartial social scientists, however, we have constructed statistical models that can differentiate the racial and economic motivations of voters and establish their importance down to the last quarter percentile.) Unlike these earlier writers who assumed that race was central to post-Second World War Southern politics, Shafer and Johnston claim to have approached this issue with an open mind, using systematic voting data on Southern House races (heavily), Senate contests (secondarily), and presidential races (occasionally) to separat...


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