South Without End

South Without End

By Steve Suitts and Allen Tullos

Vol. 5, No. 3, 1983, pp. 1-2

The South has been born again in the gospel of American presidential politics. “The South is the Key” was the shorter catechism which brought the contenders to Atlanta’s Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner late this winter and it is the slogan which we apparently will have to chew on for many coming months. This emerging dogma goes beyond the fact that two-and-a-half Southerners are announced Democratic candidates for president. And, significantly, it has appeared at a time when sociologists and historians have rejoined the now-frayed debate over the very question of the South’s historical continuity, distinctiveness and validity.

Just now, when the South appears to be a region fragmented by Yellow-dog Democrats, suburban Republicans, newly registered blacks and Yankee immigrants who have assumed the garb and gab of the Dukes of Hazzard, just now, we are invited to believe the South is the Key. And, now that the South is being subsumed under the bogus epithet of “Sunbelt” or, more realistically, broken-up into a section of the country which contains several contrasting regions, here come the candidates with their “Howdy’s” and “You-all’s.” For today’s South not only embraces the finely articulated, corporate-government-university oasis of North Carolina’s Research Triangle and surroundings, it also contains the grimiest tailings of nineteenth century industrial capitalism in Birmingham, the lingering plantationism of the Mississippi Delta, as well as the “international” aspirations of Atlanta–a city too busy to wait.

To capture all this in the single garment of One South, much like slipping the tar-baby into polyester coveralls, requires a politician of clearly presidential caliber.

With the passing of the Solid South, with Democratic orthodoxy no longer taken for granted, the section becomes important because it is now willing to be unfaithful to old creeds. Yet, like the wayward Southerners to whom the television evangelists proclaim the miraculous, conversion into anyone’s fold may be rewarded with a flicker of attention (provided you enclose your check) rather than a genuine deliverance.

The South’s attractiveness to the political evangelists began with the rules for selection of the 1984 delegates to

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the National Democratic Convention. Almost one-fourth of all the votes at the San Francisco convention will come from the eleven Southern states from Virginia to Texas. The complex computation of delegate distribution rewards population size and Democratic voting patterns for the last three presidential elections. Although the South has voted Republican as often as Democratic in the last six presidential elections, its loyal support for native son Jimmy Carter exceeded that of other regions. With this advantage and increased population, the South will have an important voice at the convention in San Francisco next fall.

The timing of Southern Democratic primaries next year also supports the new gospel. Within two weeks following the traditional New Hampshire primary at the end of February, five Southern states will select convention delegates. Alabama, Georgia and Florida will hold a public primary on the same day, Tuesday, March thirteenth. Later in the week, South Carolina and Mississippi will probably choose candidates through caucuses. A candidate who does well in all the Southern primaries could lead the Democratic field even if he had not received a delegate in any other state until then.

In an era of televised imagery, the Southern primaries will also offer the first major test of survival. Reuben Askew of Florida or Ernest Hollings of South Carolina must emerge as the South’s choice if their campaigns are to be considered seriously. For other Democrats, Gary Hart of Colorado, John Glenn of Ohio and Alan Cranston of California, Southern primaries offer the important moment to show themselves as “electable.” None of these men have their own state party elections before May. Unless these candidates evidence strength by March, they will have serious problems raising money and building momentum to take to the convention.

Glenn, who has ridden the ultimate stockcar into the heavens, may have already missed his opportunity to impress upon Southerners his candidacy’s link with the region’s most popular spectator sport. He should have’ been in the grandstand, or aboard the pace-car, or awarding the trophy to Richard Petty after the May Day running of the Winston 500.

Certainly. Walter Mondale, now leading in the national polling, needs to demonstrate that his brand of politics can attract Southerners in the March primaries; indeed, his gain of a sizable bloc of delegates from the South could eliminate as many as half of his competitors. He is already doing quite well in Iowa, Minnesota and Massachusetts–states which hold their primaries shortly before the South does.

If several candidates can survive with their own state delegation’s support plus a bit more, the San Francisco convention could be the first one since 1960 where the nominee is not chosen before the opening prayer. The Western states could split between Cranston and Hart; the Midwest could be Glenn’s stronghold; Mondale may be the choice of part of the Northeast and a scattering of other states around his base in Minnesota: the South may choose one of its favorite sons.

With that outcome, it is likely that Southern delegates would be first targets for conversion since their candidates would generally be viewed as “good vice-presidential material.”

Nor is it inconceivable at such a convention that Dale Bumpers of Arkansas, who half-heartedly withdrew from the race in April, would emerge as a brokered, candidate. Bumpers’ open indecision about running for president prompted an unusual, premature national tent revival of blacks, women and white liberal groups who rallied round his candidacy.

The gospel of an important South in presidential politics is by no means limited to Democratic faith. Because of increased population, the South will have additional votes in the electoral college. With its noticeable support for Ronald Reagan in 1980, the section will be especially attractive for proselytizing by Republicans.

As the most consistent Democratic supporters, Southern black voters may find themselves in the front aisles. They are essential in almost any candidate’s projection for party victory in the region. Democrats will need a very high level of support from blacks in the South, especially if that party’s candidate in the general election is not a Southerner. Republicans also realize that a small defection of blacks to their party could deny the Democrats the South.

The one article which remains unclear in the new Southern, dogma is perhaps the most important: if the South delivers the opportunity and the votes that annoint a winning candidate, what does the South gain? And which South? With no regional mandate on substantive issues within Southern borders, the whole experience may be more akin to the clap and trap of television evangelism than to a renewal of body and spirit in the region. Southerners, especially the historically disfranchised, must drive a hard bargain if substance is not to be sacrificed to form.