In fact, Johnson’s biggest whiff may have been in expecting Democrats’ slump to last a mere generation. Republicans dominate politics here in the way Democrats once did. The fiercest opposition to President Barack Obama is in the South. Southern state politics is controlled by Republicans. In Alabama and other parts of the old Confederacy, statehouse Democrats are down to a small faction unable to stop a GOP legislative juggernaut.
The start of Obama’s second presidential term has set the chattering class to pondering the South and its politics, especially in an era where a Democratic president can, as Obama did, assemble a winning coalition largely free of Southern whites.
In a long essay in the New Republic, Sam Tanenhaus looks over the nation’s rapidly changing demographics and declares “the GOP is in jeopardy, the gravest since 1964, of ceasing to be a national party. The civil rights pageantry of the inauguration — Abraham Lincoln's Bible and Martin Luther King's, Justice Sonia Sotomayor's swearing in of Joe Biden, Beyoncé's slinky glamor, the verses read by the gay Cuban poet Richard Blanco—seemed not just an assertion of Democratic solidarity, but also a reminder of the GOP's ever-narrowing identity and of how long it has been in the making.”
Pundits are pointing to a political math that may mean Republicans own the South but have a difficult time gaining traction in the rest of the nation. Call it a twist on LBJ’s prediction thanks to a more diverse U.S. population.
“Now the South is becoming isolated again,” writes George Packer in The New Yorker. “Every demographic and political trend that helped to reëlect Barack Obama runs counter to the region’s self-definition: the emergence of a younger, more diverse, more secular electorate, with a libertarian bias on social issues and immigration; the decline of the exurban life style, following the housing bust; the class politics, anathema to pro-business Southerners, that rose with the recession; the end of America’s protracted wars, with cuts in military spending bound to come. The Solid South speaks less and less for America and more and more for itself alone.”
In the New York Review of Books, Garry Wills describes the South as “the distillation point for all the fugitive extremisms of our time, the heart of Say-No Republicanism, the home of lost causes and nostalgic lunacy. It is as if the whole continent were tipped upward, so that the scattered crazinesses might slide down to the bottom. The South has often been defeated. Now it is defeating itself.”
While he probably won’t put it so starkly, Obama’s State of the Union address tonight will likely touch on themes that, either by design or by accident, will once more leave much of the South feeling isolated. There’s a wide division between Obama and Republicans on matters of economics, battling climate change, regulating the purchase of firearms and reforming and U.S. immigration policies.
Don’t expect an encore from Joe Wilson, the South Carolina congressman who shouted, “You lie,” during Obama’s 2010 State of the Union. Yet, the posture from many Southern politicians won’t be much different in style from Wilson’s outburst. Most GOP Southern officeholders fear the wrath of their constituents, who have shown little tolerance for politicians willing to work across the aisle in a bipartisan manner.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Like their counterparts across the nation, Southerners need jobs – a theme that Obama is expected to highlight in today’s State of the Union. The battering effects of climate change won’t pass over the South and its beautiful coastlines. Keeping guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally unbalanced is no less a concern in the South, where deadly gun violence is all too common.
Yet, there’s a trust deficit in the South, one that Republicans have exploited to electoral success and one that Obama has yet to fully address. Both sides have the power to lower the temperature and focus on points of agreement. What remains to be seen is if either will.