A long and interesting front page piece in today’s Wall Street Journal: Southern White Democrats Face End of Era in Congress. (If you’re not a WSJ subscriber and if the link doesn’t get you to the full article, sometimes an internet search can turn up an “Article Free Pass”.)
A short excerpt from the very long piece, which focuses on John Barrow’s attempt to hold onto Georgia’s 12th District:
The only remaining white Democrat in the House of Representatives from the Deep South, Rep. John Barrow, is in jeopardy of losing his job in November, which would mark a monumental shift in American politics.
In an stark realignment, voters in the Deep South have divided into an increasingly black Democratic Party and a mostly white Republican Party. Already, Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana are represented in the House solely by white Republicans and black Democrats. Georgia could join that list if Mr. Barrow, who is running in a district redrawn to include more whites and Republicans, loses in November.
Mr. Barrow’s challenge is one measure of a political and cultural divide, echoed less dramatically elsewhere in the country, that is changing the face of the two parties. Minorities and women have become a bigger part of the Democratic contingent in the House, while Republicans increasingly are attracting white Southerners.
It’s worth noting that the WSJ is defining the Deep South as Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina, but there’s a similar racial shift likely on the horizon for Congressional delegations in North Carolina and Missouri.
More from the WSJ:
A loss by Mr. Barrow would quicken the decline of a political archetype, the conservative Southern Democrat—a type who helped forge deals in recent decades on matters ranging from Ronald Reagan’s tax cuts to last year’s debt agreement. They have been a pillar of the Blue Dog Coalition of Democrats in the House, a group that has shrunk from 52 members before the 2010 election to 25 today. Of this remnant, five are retiring, and two have lost their primaries. Seven more, including Mr. Barrow, face tough re-elections.
The loss of centrists, combined with more racially divided parties that see the role of government in different terms, has implications for policy, contributing to the continuing paralysis in Washington that frustrates many voters.
One of the most interesting pieces I’ve seen on this general issue was written way back in 2003 by Jeffrey Toobin for The New Yorker: The Great Election Grab; When does gerrymandering become a threat to democracy? From that 2003 piece, which explores how the Voting Rights Act served the interests of black Democrats, who wanted to see more of their own in office, and at the same time the interests of white Republicans:
“When the civil-rights movement started, you had a lot of white Democrats in power in the South,” Bobby Scott, a congressman from Virginia who was first elected in 1992, said. “And, when these white Democrats started redistricting, they wanted to keep African-American percentages at around thirty-five or forty per cent. That was enough for the white Democrats to keep winning in these districts, but not enough to elect any black Democrats. The white Democrats called these ‘influence’ districts, where we could have a say in who won.” But Republicans sensed an opportunity. “They came to us and said, We want these districts to be sixty per cent black,” Scott, who is African-American, said. “And blacks liked that idea, because it meant we elected some of our own for the first time. That’s where the ‘unholy alliance’ came in.”
The unholy alliance—between black Democrats and white Republicans—shaped redistricting during the eighties and nineties.
While the racial dimensions of the political shifts are impossible to ignore, I think the ideological dimensions have been even more damaging to our system of government. If the 12th District does in fact turn out to be competitive this fall, then that’s the only one out of Georgia’s 14 districts where there’s any doubt about party control. That encourages politicians on both the right and left to tailor messages to their bases rather than to the broader citizenry.
The racial and ideological polarization looks likely to continue for a few more election cycles in Georgia, but changing demographics will eventually shake things up to some degree — probably within a decade or two.