"Mississippi America": Why Our Political Future Is Likely To Be As Polarized As The Magnolia State
Fast forward to 1964 and the politics of the South in general and Mississippi in particular realigned very quickly. I don't have a specific finger on the pulse of the state's culture then and now, but it's folly to think lingering racial animus wasn't a driving force in the polarization of voting habits then and now. But it's also a fair bet that whatever racial polarization that continues to exist today is less overt than it was in the 1960s, and that the divide is now fueled by dog whistles and code words. The "us versus them" driving Southern politics today is less likely to be "black vs. white" than "makers vs. takers", at least rhetorically, but it doesn't take a degree in psychology to discern who the sweet tea-swilling bubbas have in mind when they're raging about "freeloading parasites living off of my tax money!!!!" as inaccurate as the stereotype all too often is.
But what is most disturbing is recognizing that the template is in place for the rest of the country to follow the racial and ethnic political polarization of the Deep South, and in fact we're already likely in the early stages of that kind of political realignment, fueled by a subtle class-based resentment that is playing out largely along racial and ethnic lines. Mitt Romney's "47%" comments were the most tangible dog whistles of the last couple of years representing the rupturing fault line, and from a cynical perspective of purely partisan political gamesmanship, it's brilliant. Millions of voters who are part of that "47%" that Romney is so condescendingly sneering at is certain that Romney's talking about "those people", and rewards his attacks against their livelihood with their political support. They just assume he's speaking to their cultural tribe.
While there's nothing new about exploiting cultural resentment for votes (Nixon introduced it and Reagan perfected it in modern times), it seems as though we're approaching critical mass as a society. Barack Obama won as small of a proportion of white voters in 2012 as Walter Mondale did in 1984, yet because of the country's diversification that statistic represented a decisive four-point popular vote victory for Obama rather than a 20-point defeat for Mondale. Still, the erosion of support from white voters was jarring, and continued to be jarring in the 2014 midterms when it sunk even lower, down to 35% among white males. Yet the Democratic Party continues to be wildly overconfident about its long-term prospects based on fast-rising racial diversification. While on the surface that would seem to portend a brighter future for the Democratic Party electorally, it doesn't seem to cross their mind that the white vote which has been drifting decisively to the Republican Party over the past generation may continue to consolidate in the GOP camp in larger and larger numbers, offsetting Democratic gains among nonwhite voters.
It might be cynical to think this way, but I think the natural downside to a multicultural society is politics that stratifies along tribal lines, even when it doesn't make sense. Mississippi may well prove to be the rule and not the exception when it comes to a racially diverse region, albeit perhaps slightly exaggerated based on the civil rights history. But most concerning is that this brand of tribal politics is already proving itself spreading beyond the South. The best example is in the state of Illinois, and particularly last fall's gubernatorial race. Now the race was complicated some by an unpopular Democratic incumbent, but it was still jarring the extent to which Republican challenger Bruce Rauner, running every bit as a crimson red conservative rather than a squishy moderate, managed to win 101 out of Illinois' 102 counties and pull out a decisive victory. Rauner let it be known in no uncertain terms that crushing the livelihoods of union workers generally and state employees in particular was his top political priority if elected.....yet dozens of heavily unionized downstate counties full of voters who Rauner promised to ruin still voted for him. Why? Because Illinois elections are increasingly becoming a referendum on "Chicago".
Indeed the only county Rauner didn't win was Cook County, home to Chicago and nearly half of the state's population, a pattern that has been showing up with increasing regularity in the last three cycles in Illinois. Rauner's positions on issues scarcely mattered to downstate Illinois voters as it was simply understood that he was on "their side" of the cultural scrimmage railing against "Chicago". Similarly, it doesn't matter what Haley Barbour's positions on the issues are in Mississippi....he'll still have the votes of 85+% of white voters because of an unspoken cultural alignment. He's a member of their fraternity....protecting the "makers" from having everything stolen from them by the "takers".
Even in Iowa where I live, a long-standing center-left state that is recently showing troubling signs of realigning Republican, the Senate race highlighted a maiden voyage into tribal politics. Republican candidate Joni Ernst is nothing more than a slightly less annoying version of Sarah Palin, yet her odious policy platform and nowhere-near-ready-for-primetime resume was ignored as she stitched a crafty campaign yarn selling herself as an "Iowa farm girl" and demagoguing her challenger as an "elitist lawyer". And it worked like a charm, scoring her an eight-point victory that limited Democrat Bruce Braley to 14 of the state's 99 counties, most of them the urban centers. Farm counties and small cities consolidated around Ernst with eyebrow-raising numbers in comparison to the baseline of those counties in other recent elections. Was this a fluke or the new normal in Iowa politics? Sadly, I'm more inclined to think the latter than the former. And if the tribal lines are drawn nationally along racial and ethnic lines, 90% white Iowa will almost certainly drift to the red.
If one looks through the returns from recent election cycles they could compile some formulation of this same pattern in the majority of states, both north and south of the Mason-Dixon line. More than anything else, I think these realignments simply foretell that the American electorate should always be expected to "revert to the mean". The natural state of the country going back generations has been a fairly evenly divided electorate. While there may be a few cycles in a row where one party dominates, the act of governing creates fault lines within the majority party's coalition that the opposition party can exploit and rebuild its own coalition. With this in mind, the irony of the Democrats' smugness about growing its political base with a rising minority population is that the existing majority is starting to see the Democratic Party as defining itself by that minority population, and thus questioning its own placement in the party.
It's hard to defend this philosophy on the merits, but it appears to be happening and begs the question....how low can the Democrats go among white voters? They're already below 40%. Can they drop to 35%? Or 30%? Or even 25%? I certainly think it's possible, particularly with the median ages between the races so divergent and ultimately transcending all racial lines. In a pending era of budgetary scarcity, should we have any expectation that a nation of older whites trying to secure retiree entitlements will see eye to eye on anything with a majority-minority younger generation vying for public funds for education and for assistance to offset the quality of life that the low-wage, McJob economy of America's future fails to provide for them? Such a scenario portends much deeper political polarization a generation into the future and the real possibility of Mississippi-style voting habits where the best indication of your voting tendencies can be deduced by the color of your skin.
Now this is by no means carved in stone. American politics is very unpredictable and issues not even on anybody's radar today could trigger a complete political realignment 20 years from now and completely turn the red state/blue state configuration on its head. But barring a radical change in the issues environment, the likelihood is that the Democratic Party will be made up almost entirely of nonwhites and a small cohort of white liberals from college towns and urban liberals while the Republican Party will be made up of......Middle American whites. Tribal politics never make sense in terms of governance, but we're already in the early stages of an America where the Democratic Party is the party of Lloyd Blankfein and Al Sharpton and the Republican Party is the party of the Koch Brothers and William Jennings Bryan, and every indication we'll continue moving in that incoherent direction.