When the last key vote was taken in the out-going 112th Congress, a marked sectional divide was made clear. Non-Southern GOPers voted in favor of the compromise by 70 to 67. Among the Republicans from the South, however, the vote was overwhelmingly against the deal, only 15 for to 84 against.
While the conservative nature of the GOP as a whole was stark, with an almost two-to-one vote against the deal – 151 no to 85 yes – among Republicans from outside the South, there is a decidedly more moderate, or if you will pragmatic, bent than in the South. Only Florida, arguably the least Southern state in Dixie, had a significant minority for the deal – five votes for to 13 against.
This sectional divide on the Republican side of the aisle was also noteworthy in the members who declined to vote to reelect House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH). Of the 12 Republicans in the lower chamber that declined to vote for Boehner’s reelection as speaker – either by voting for someone else or abstaining – seven were from the South.
(Less noticed, but also interesting, three of the four Democrats who did not vote for Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) were also Southerners who represent right-of-center districts: Georgia’s John Barrow, North Carolina’s Mike McIntyre, and Tennessee’s Jim Cooper.)
That so much of the Republican conservative base is in the South presents several problems for the Grand Old Party.
For reasons both current and historic, ours is not a region prone to compromise. Redistricting – aided considerably by the Voting Rights Act – has created lots of very white and very Republican districts that will reward a representative who sticks to conservative principles without sacrificing them to political expediency. This means that the region’s Republican officeholders are unlikely to give national GOP leaders the wiggle room they might need to appeal to voters not currently inside the party’s not-big-enough tent.
It isn’t just redistricting. If you will pardon ancient history, prior to the Civil War, few Southerners embraced a compromise on slavery that may have saved the Union and much of the South’s wealth, which after The War, was gone with the wind. Similarly, the massive resistance approach to ending school segregation ended up in an all-or-nothing collapse of the old system that ended public education for white children in much of the South’s Black Belt, named for the soil or the large African-American population, depending on who you talk to.
So if the GOP’s future depends on policy changes that will help the party gain votes among young people, women, Hispanics, Asians and African-Americans, as some believe, Southern Republicans may be powerful enough in the party to halt any moderating stance on gay rights, abortion, immigration policy and other hot-button issues.
The other problem for the GOP is that the South is easily demonized by Democrats and by liberals in what Sarah Palin calls “the lame-stream media.” If Dixie GOPers are the lead horse in the party’s national parade, you can be sure they will be called racists, nativists and worse. This is not to say that the charges would be entirely without foundation, but today’s South is far too complex to be characterized by such rhetoric.
If you think this demonizing charge is not accurate, look at the way the – mostly – Southern states’ attempts at reforming the voting laws were defined by Democrats and the media: Vote suppression. Whether such laws are justified or not – and there are arguments on both sides – it mattered not. What did matter was that many of the laws were enacted in states that were part of the old Confederacy. (My guess, and it’s only a guess, is that many GOPers, in the South and elsewhere, hoped picture ID requirements would diminish black turnout, but that in fact, they probably have little or no impact racially. They might, however, impede elderly voters of both races, many of whom have no drivers’ licenses.)
In sum, Dixie’s GOP needs to think beyond its own borders in helping to shape Republican policies going forward. That’s a tall order.
-Hastings Wyman, Southern Political Report