Publick Occurrences 2.0

November 16, 2008

Congratulations, GOP, You’ve Won the William Jennings Bryan Coalition

While last week’s NYT article on the South’s waning influence in national elections was one more example of the bigot hunt that the media has been on ever since Barack Obama emerged as a serious contender for the Democratic nomination, it nevertheless makes a good point about the dead end the GOP has rushed into by over-relying for too long on the Southern strategy of somewhat indirectly stirring up the racial and cultural antipathies of southern, rural, and less educated voters. “They’ve maxed out on the South,” political scientist Merle Black is quoted saying in the story, which has “limited their appeal in the rest of the country.” The underlying problem is that while there seem to be NASCAR fans and mega-churches everywhere these days, the South’s fundamentalist political style does not travel all that well, or age gracefully when it does. Non-southerners (and a non-trivial minority of southerners) get tired of being harangued and bullied after a while. More than that, perhaps, the high emotional key and folksy inflection just do not suit voters without the necessary white, rural, evangelical Protestant background/mindset. Life in the big city seems to foster a more complicated view of the world.

What the 2008 Electoral College map shows more than ever is that the Republicans now find themselves with the coalition the Democrats had at the beginning of one of their least competitive periods a century or more ago. That would be the William Jennings Bryan coalition of the Solid South plus the Plains and mining West, the Great Commoner’s ticket to presidential election losses in 1896, 1900, and 1908. While Bryan was far more intelligent and humane than either John McCain or Sarah Palin, he appealed heavily to rural Protestant self-righteousness, building on the remains of the Populist Party, and lost crucial northeastern working-class Catholic votes that the Democrats have always needed to win national elections.  Twisting the Populist platform of economic reform into the nostrum of “Free Silver,” with an assist from western mining interests, the Bryan Democrats were defeated in 1896 by William McKinley and his “Full Dinner Pail” of typical Federalist/Whig/GOP trickle-down economics, which seemed the safe and rational alternative when contrasted with Bryan’s emotionalism.

Far from learning from their mistake, the Bryan Democrats nominated their favorite two more times and saw him beaten even more badly each outing. In his later years, Bryan made his alliance with evangelical Protestantism (and status as a political ancestor of modern Christian conservatism) even clearer by stumping against evolution and taking the anti-monkey (I mean, anti-evolution) side in the Scopes “Monkey” Trial.  Coming from Nebraska, Bryan also forged the political and cultural connection between the Plains states and the South that disappeared for a time at mid-century but reemerged with a vengeance in the the GOP culture wars that have raged ever since the Clinton sex scandals.

Let’s go to the maps. From Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections, here’s the election of 1896 (note the historically correct use of red for the Democrats and blue for the GOP):

Now 2008:

The South’s larger, migration-fueled population in recent times made the Bryan coalition a bit more winnable for the modern GOP than it was for the Bryan Democrats. That is, until one consequence of northern migration below the Mason-Dixon inevitably made itself felt: as educated Northeasterners moved further south down I-95 into northern Virginia and then fanned out into the burgeoning cities of central North Carolina, they brought some of their more tolerant attitudes and modernity-friendly politics with them. This effect is certain to spread in the future. The solid South will go back to its loser status and stay there for awhile as key parts of it become more diverse and break away, and the rest gets more and more offensive to everyone else.

After the jump, a salute to the sort of “culture and heritage” that today’s GOP increasingly follows in the footsteps of:


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