Is the South Really So Different?

Writing for The New Yorker, George Packer has a succinct but excellent look at the South’s political distinctiveness. In short, national trends are creating even more distance between the South and the rest of the country, and this doesn’t bode well for either:

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. […]

Northern liberals should not be too quick to cheer, though. At the end of “The Mind of the South,” Cash has this description of “the South at its best”: “proud, brave, honorable by its lights, courteous, personally generous, loyal.” These remain qualities that the rest of the country needs and often calls on. The South’s vices—“violence, intolerance, aversion and suspicion toward new ideas”—grow particularly acute during periods when it is marginalized and left behind. An estrangement between the South and the rest of the country would bring out the worst in both—dangerous insularity in the first, smug self-deception in the second.

The main thrust of this is on target, but I wonder if Packer isn’t overstating the extent to which the South in a place of stasis. Remember, Obama’s new coalition of young people, women, professionals, and racial minorities extended below the Mason-Dixon line: In 2008, he won Virginia, Florida, and North Carolina and would have repeated the performance last year, if not for a narrow loss in the latter state. Indeed, the South is ground zero for the demographic changes transforming the nation’s politics. Both the Carolinas and Georgia have seen nearly triple-digit growth in their Latino populations since 2000, while states like Virginia and Florida have seen a steady stream of black and white migrants from the North.

Yes, whites in the South are implacably opposed to Democrats, and President Obama in particular. The lack of exit polls for November’s election makes deeper analysis more difficult, but judging from pre-election public opinion polls—particularly those right before the election‚ Obama’s support among white southerners was close to twenty points lower than his support among whites as a whole.

Even still, if the coastal South remains on its current path, it will—at the very least—become a contested political space in national elections. And it’s hard to imagine that this won’t spill over into the actual culture of the South, which is often more fluid and open than it seems from the outside. Cities like Atlanta, Richmond, and Charleston are experiencing a bloom of activity, driven in large part by these new migrants, who are bringing these areas closer to the American mainstream.

All of this is to say that while the future of the South is something of an open question, there is a bit more cause for optimism than what Packer expresses.