WSJ: “Southern White Democrats Face End of Era in Congress”

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.


  1. CobbGOPer says:

    Hey, the GOP would be much more diverse here in Georgia if they did [expletive deleted]-all to elect women and minority Republicans. But somehow they always get beat by the white guy. Racism? Sexism? I don’t know, honestly. But it can’t be denied that if you are a woman or a minority running in a GOP race against a white man (most particularly at higher levels – General Assembly, Congress, statewide office), you are at an extreme disadvantage in Georgia. Yes there are exceptions, but they are few and far between and not nearly visible enough.

    • wicker says:

      There are pretty much no exceptions. Not only was there the ugliness of the Lynn Westmoreland-Dylan Glenn race (and that choosing the more liberal Johnny Isakson over Herman Cain for Senate seemed like such a good idea) it took a well-coordinated absentee ballot operation ran by the state GOP (at the direction of Sonny Perdue) just to get Melvin Everson elected to the state representative over a RINO. And it isn’t just Georgia. In Colorado, the GOP changed the state constitution in order to stop the lieutenant governor Joe Rogers from running for re-election on the same ticket with the governor … they made lieutenant governor a directly elected office. The reason stated was the need to get rid of Rogers because of scandal and corruption. What was the scandal and corruption? His (failed) attempt to get his brother a low level job with the state pardon and parole board. The TEA Party has done a much better job of getting minorities elected … they were responsible for Allen West, Tim Scott and Nikki Haley. But even a lot of that was in direct response (though it is rarely admitted) to the election of Barack Obama by the Dems. But in Georgia, not even the TEA Party and Sarah Palin could get Karen Handel in office over a guy with known ethics issues and a modest list of achievements in a long politica career. Georgia is well behind Florida, Texas, North Carolina, South Carolina and Mississippi in electing nonwhite Republicans (can’t speak for Alabama or Tennessee, as there haven’t been any high profile nonwhite GOP candidates in those states) and there isn’t a lick of evidence that it is going to change anytime soon. Georgia GOP voters seem to like things the way that they are, and so does the party itself.

      • Baker says:

        The fact that Melvin Everson is not holding elected office right now is pretty messed up.

        On another note, let me restate my thoughts on Mssr. Barrow:

        If Democrats ever want to be viable in Georgia and across the South again, they had better follow the more conservative model of Barrow rather than the more liberal direction some would want them to go. Making one of the most liberal Dems in the country as Speaker suddenly woke people up to the importance of not electing a Dem in your home district. There was a reason anti-Pelosi signs were all over the Jim Marshall race.

        Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) did more to kill the Democrat Party across the South than anything Republicans could’ve ever done. Bring the Democrats back towards the center and maybe they’d have a chance.

        • caroline says:

          The Dems have written off the south and are looking to take the western states away from the GOP which has been happening. The problem with the GOP being a southern party with a fundamentalist bent has hurt the GOP all over the nation.

          Remember electoral rich CA used to be a solid GOP state. The GOP base is largely dying off right now.

          • Baker says:

            Good point. The 2010 election would tend to contradict that (the Dems picking off the rest of the country I mean) but I think on the whole you’re right. I do think though that the rest of the country is equally disappointed with a San Francisco/ Chicago based party than they are with a South-based party (it would seem that both of those options are as far as you can get from a more libertarian view, any resident libertarians have a thought on that?).

            • caroline says:

              Off year elections really don’t translate into anything other than who showed up that particular year. I mean if you go by that and using the 1982 midterm elections it would be indicating that Reagan was not going to be reelected.

          • wicker says:

            Don’t overstate the extent to which the Democrats are taking away the western states. They have California, but primarily because of changing demographics. Keep in mind: the California GOP did what all the national pundits told them to do and moved left by nominating a bunch of liberal Republicans, and it still didn’t work. And California incidentally was never a solid GOP state but a swing state with a huge liberal base. Oregon and Washington: more of the same … swing states at best for the GOP.

            But if the Democrats are making all this progress the other western states, you’d have to provide evidence of it. Other than bungling away Colorado (which again was a swing state that had no problems electing Democrats to governor and Congress) there isn’t much.

            • caroline says:

              Yes, changing demographics but this is happening all over the country not just CA. When you have liberal Republicans pandering to the fundamentalist radicals in the GOP it does not make a difference if you consider them “liberal”. The fact of the matter is that the legislation that they passed is what hurt the GOP. Look at Nevada–used to be solid GOP for example.

              • wicker says:


                California is one of the few states that is now majority-minority, so it is not happening all over the country. “When you have liberal Republicans pandering to the fundamentalist radicals in the GOP it does not make a difference if you consider them “liberal”.” Oh please. Show me one example of the California GOP pandering to the fundamentalist radicals. (And calling everyone who disagrees with you on social issues “a fundamentalist radical” reveals your own mindset.) The California GOP has been liberal on social issues since Pete Wilson in the 1990s. Moving left on social – and increasingly economic – issues hasn’t done squat for the GOP in California or anywhere else. And incidentally, Nevada was never solid GOP. It was a swing state.

                You are way overselling the progress that the Democrats are making out west.

                • caroline says:

                  It is happening all over the country. The country is getting browner all the time. I think 2011 was the first year in the country that Caucasian babies were not the majority of babies born. Pete Wilson’s anti-Hispanic legislation ended the GOP rule in CA and I don’t think that had anything to do with “liberals’ so much as was the far right of the GOP wanted don’t you think? Most “liberal” Republicans tend to be against this type of legislation because they consider it “anti’business”

                • caroline says:

                  Let me ask you this then? Why is the GOP polling so poorly outside of a few select areas? Right now Obama is on track to win a landslide reelection according to the electoral college even though he’s done a pretty crappy job in my opinion. And really I don’t think it’s Romney even though he’s not a great candidate. I can’t think of anyone in the GOP that would be doing any better than Romney.

                  • wicker says:

                    “Why is the GOP polling so poorly outside of a few select areas?”

                    GOP candidates in general are polling great. Romney is the one who is doing poorly, and for two reasons:

                    1) Romney is a bad campaigner (as we saw in 1994 and 2008 … he has actually only won 1 election in his life)
                    2) Romney reminds everyone – including conservative and independent voters – of what they liked least about George W. Bush

                    And California was trending Democrat (due to demographics) long before Pete Wilson’s anti-illegal immigration legislation. And this demographics is precisely why Democrats support illegal immigration. If it were right wing French Canadians (or Cubans) flooding the border, the Democrats would go back to their same position on illegal immigration that they had merely a few decades ago.

                    • caroline says:

                      Actually I just looked at some of the most recent polls for the senate and the majority of them have the GOP losing like in FL, MO, etc right now.

                      I think any Republican would remind the majority of voters of George W. Bush. George W. Bush probably ended the GOP’s national reign for a generation.

                      And I guess you could say the same thing about the GOP–they would be all for illegal immigration if it was Cubans that were flooding the country. I seem to remember them all of a sudden loving the idea of usurping parental rights and illegal immigration when it came to Elian Gonazlez.

    • peachstealth says:

      You forget. We couldn’t do that if we wanted to…Georgia is covered by the voting rights act. We have to have majority minority districts. The byproduct of that is the neighboring districts become more white. So you move Macon (65% black) into Sanford Bishop’s 2nd district which makes it safer for him and the neighboring 8th becomes more white and Republican and safer for Austin Scott.
      Anyway, the map the Republicans drew is a lot more compact that the last one the Democrats drew.

      • Happy Face says:

        Relaxing ballot access is something that is very unlikely to ever happen in Georgia, at least not until it gets so strict that a court strikes down some of the rules.

    • Happy Face says:

      Much easier to do when you have square counties of roughly equal size and few that are densely populated.

  2. dorian says:

    Their used to be southern white democrats under the gold dome, but they all switched parties. Now, they’re just old and tired and vote right along the party line while giving their constituents the middle finger. I fancy myself a republican most of the time, but I’d rather vote for a sock puppet than my republican rep or senator. In fact they both have a lot in common with a sock puppet. For example, to control a sock puppet you stick your hand up its butt.

    In fact, I can pretty much summarize the entire republican agenda in the next legislative session in a few sentences. We’re going to continue to give tax breaks to our friends; we’re going to shaft State employees because we don’t like them (especially teachers), if they were competent they’d have a job in the private sector; we will continue to make counties do more stuff while we cut off their revenue streams; and we want all monies to go into one great pot, but you can trust us to see it goes where it is supposed to go and if we don’t put it there we had a really good reason.

  3. saltycracker says:

    Well it used to be that the difference between a Republican and a Democrat was which side of the check they signed…..then the R’s saw the forbidden fruits of unholy alliances……

    • Happy Face says:

      That’s the problem of unholy alliances, eventually the student becomes the master. The GOP thought they could gain power through getting in bed with the religious fundementalist. And they were right. It worked well but now the social wing of the party is very much in control while the financial side has to spend more time fighting for position in their own party than they do fighting against the Democrats.

  4. SallyForth says:

    @Bill, this is a great post that cogently lays out the history of the last few decades. As I have often referenced, Title V of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 endorsed and encouraged gerrymandering to the detriment of our democracy and actually hurt black communities. It resulted in creating a permanent black minority representation in state legislatures and the U.S. Congress, accompanied by a majority of white Republicans. Surely that was not what MLK and the black political machine had in mind when they were pushing to get the law passed – or was it? White Democrats who were instrumental in accomplishing the VRA signed their own political death warrant.

    From WSJ excerpt: “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.” They missed the timing – the monumental shift in American politics has already occurred, put into gerrymandered place by Republican DOJ’s via their pre-clearance power in 1972, 1982, 1992, and 2002 by the unholy alliance.

    If Barrow, a fine conservative Democrat, bites the dust on November 6th, crank up your old Joan Baez’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.”

  5. wicker says:

    I wish the scapegoating and excuse-making would end. On one hand, the poor showing of Democrats is blamed on LBJ signing civil rights legislation almost fifty years ago when a substantial percentage of the voting population wasn’t alive. On the other, it is blamed on the VRA. The truth is that Democrats are having real problems in places with no history of Jim Crow and where the VRA has never been in effect.

    Now I am not going to claim that race is not an issue, but white Democrats managed those racial issues for decades before the Reagan and Gingrich revolutions. The problem is that white Democrats moved to the left of their voters in a lot of regions on issues that have nothing to do with race. And it isn’t just the national party either. In the last governor’s race, you had Roy Barnes proposing that we deal with the recession by having the state hire people to make our buildings more green. And he is one of our most conservative Democrats! Jimmy Carter: more of the same. Thanks to his going from being a conservative southern Democrat to being a far-left “citizen of the world”, a former governor, president, peanut farmer and Navy veteran can’t even get involved in the party in his own state.

    Democrats in Georgia need to get back to the center, and even to the right on certain issues, if for no other reason than it forcing the Georgia GOP to govern effectively.

    • SallyForth says:

      The “civil rights legislation” IS the VRA, wicker. They are part and parcel, and section 5 is the one that the unholy alliance has used for almost 50 years to gerrymander all across the country, and especially in the South. What we have today is a result.

      Por favour, I think you might find enlightenment by reading some of Jimmy Carter’s books and studying his biography, plus studying the breadth of Roy Barnes life and political career. The whole of a person cannot be found in any single action, and come to think of it, trying to do something to help earth’s environment or walking-the-walk of one’s Christian faith sure aren’t reason to castigate. Barnes and Carter are both solid traditional Georgia Democrats, a pretty conservative breed of cat.

      I agree with you that the current far-left leanings of the Georgia Democratic Party have to go, and the Dem organization move back to the center in order to force today’s GOP to do a better job. The GDP has left traditional conservative Democrats with nowhere to go, and has given the GOP a blank check in this state.

  6. caroline says:

    The south is slow to change. Once when the GOP was a national party the south was still electing Democrats.

    • ChuckEaton says:

      I’m not sure why you think the GOP is a regional party. The majority of the states have Republican Governors, the House of Representatives is controlled by Republicans and the Presidential race is very competitive.

      • caroline says:

        You could say the same thing about Democrats back in the 80’s. Right?

        Right now Romney is looking to go down in a landslide in the electoral college.

        Look at the ideas the GOP supports and look at national ISSUE polling. That’s where you get an idea about all this.

        • ChuckEaton says:

          I was just addressing your premise that the GOP is no longer a national party. Republican Speaker Boehner, who took the reigns from Democratic Speaker Pelosi, a year and a half ago, would disagree with you.

  7. Mrs. Adam Kornstein says:

    It’s an interesting article, while it might all true in regards to the congressional elections- white southern Dem’s still hold a decent amount of power in the party.

    This is evidenced by the fact that the 5 newly elected members of the Georgia DNC Delegation are white. Three men and two women. They were elected yesterday in Columbus.

    Three have served in the seats before, two are new the DNC.

    Hard to say if the elections will be challenged.

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