Since everyone else is doing it, let me propose a person of the decade: Ulysses S. Grant. Yes, I know he’s been dead for more than a century. But the “aughts” have been his decade—because between 2000 and 2009, the North vanquished the South yet again. Today, when the folks who run Congress come to talk to the folks who run the White House, Barack Obama (Illinois) and Joe Biden (Delaware) sit down with Nancy Pelosi (California), Harry Reid (Nevada), and Richard Durbin (Illinois). There’s nary a Southerner in sight. And not coincidentally, northern values are in ascendancy. The federal government has grown larger, more powerful, and more pro-labor. Racially saturated issues like the death penalty, welfare, and affirmative action have faded from political debate. On the environment, the Obama administration mimics regulatory initiatives born in California. On health care, it draws on the effort to provide universal coverage hatched in Massachusetts.
That’s a far cry from the way power has been arrayed in Washington for most of the last half-century.
A late October poll by Research 2000 found that Obama’s approval rating was only 27 percent in the old confederacy, less than half his approval rating nationwide.
To appreciate the change, you need to start with a little history. From Grant’s time until the 1960s, the North mostly dominated American politics. Until Lyndon Johnson in 1964, no true son of Dixie had been elected president since the Civil War. (Woodrow Wilson, though raised in Georgia, had made New Jersey his adopted home; Harry Truman, from Missouri, was a border state guy). Moreover, from the 1930s through the 1960s, Northern values suffused Washington: The federal government was strong; taxation was progressive; labor unions had muscle. In Congress, Southerners controlled some powerful committees, but their agenda was largely parochial: to milk Washington for the military and agricultural spending that boosted their economically backward region, and to viciously resist any progress on civil rights.
• Matt Miller: The GOP’s New Health-Care Hoax Ironically, however, in the 1960s, when the Dixiecrats finally lost their struggle to preserve legalized racism, their power began to rise. Alienated from the Democratic Party over civil rights, the South began defecting to the Republicans, and under Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan became a key component of the GOP’s emerging political majority. By the 1980s, the political culture of the South substantially shaped the political culture of Washington, D.C. As taxation grew more regressive, the welfare state atrophied, government regulation of business diminished and labor unions faded into near-irrelevance, the federal government increasingly resembled the government of say, Alabama. And presidential campaigns came to resemble political campaigns in the South as well, as Dixie-born consultants like Lee Atwater insured that crime, welfare, busing and other racially polarizing issues took center stage.
In response, Democrats grew obsessed with luring Dixie back into the fold. While for much of the 20th century the major parties had refused to nominate Southerners for president, in the post-civil-rights era, conventional wisdom held that Democrats had to nominate southerners for president. John F. Kennedy turned out to be the last northern Democrat to occupy the White House in the 20th century.
In the 1990s, the most powerful people on both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue hailed from the South. When the Republicans who controlled Congress went to meet the Democrats who ran the White House, Bill Clinton (Arkansas) and Al Gore (Tennessee) sat around a table with Newt Gingrich (Georgia), Tom DeLay (Texas), Richard Armey (Texas), Trent Lott (Mississippi), and Bill Frist (Tennessee).
Southern power reached its apex in 2000 when not only did the Democrats nominate Gore, but the Republicans nominated Texas Governor George W. Bush. And when Bush won, Southern hegemony only grew. In the 1970s and 1980s, the GOP had still boasted strong northern voices, and its political base had been in the West, the region that produced Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. But by Bush’s presidency, northern Republicans were increasingly extinct, and the power balance within the party had shifted from the libertarian West to the moralistic South. Dixie had truly risen again.
Then, in the second half of the aughts, everything changed. As President Bush grew less and less popular, the Republican Party became more and more radioactive outside the South. And as Democrats began seizing control of larger and larger swaths of the North and West, many began to realize that they didn’t need Dixie to win. In 2008, the Democrats held their national convention in Denver—a testament to their growing confidence that Hispanic immigration was giving them a foothold in the interior West. And in Barack Obama and Joseph Biden, they nominated their first presidential ticket in a quarter-century that didn’t include a Southerner. The Obama campaign didn’t entirely ignore the South, of course; it ended up winning Florida, Virginia and North Carolina. But it didn’t need those states to win.
Southerners, unsurprisingly, are unhappy about the way things have been trending. A late October poll by Research 2000 found that Obama’s approval rating was only 27 percent in the old confederacy, less than half his approval rating nationwide. But as long as Obama maintains his support north of the Mason-Dixon Line, there’s not a lot Dixie can do. The secession thing, after all, has already been tried.
Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.