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The Vital South: How Presidents Are Elected.

Earl Black, Merle Black. Harvard, $29.95. Frustrated by federal orders and intervention, Louisiana Governor Earl Long once shrugged hopelessly: What can a man do now that the feds have the bomb? Black and Black offer a belated answer to Long's question: The feds have the bomb, but the South has the votes.

In convincing detail, the Blacks dramatize the great new fact of presidential politics: The South, composed of the 11 slave states that seceded in 1860 and 1861, is the richest electoral prize in the nation. Solidly Democratic just 40 years ago, the South is now just as solidly Republican in presidential elections. This book is a clear and credible survey of that phenomenon, and it's especially welcome in a year of generalizations about "the Bubba vote." The Blacks' most important point here is that Bubba--a white voter with patriotic sympathies and a distrust of Washington--is everywhere, and the Democrats had better pay attention to him.

The Democrats now enter the presidential campaign with a base of only Minnesota and the District of Columbia--2 percent of the electoral vote. Thirty-nine states now usually go Republican, including all 11 southern states. The South controls 54 percent of a winning electoral majority; in four of the last five elections, victorious Republicans have swept the South's electoral votes. In other words, the presidency is now the Republicans' to lose, and the South is their greatest area of strength.

So what do these southerners, whose wariness of Washington has now spread nationwide, believe? Core white Republicans made up 44 percent of the total southern electorate in 1988. "They feel exceptionally positive toward southerners, conservatives, the military, the importance of religion, all symbolic representations of the established order, as well as toward Republicans," write the authors. And that's not simply a provincial profile: Core white Republicans accounted for 41 percent of the northern electorate (the Blacks use "North" to describe any state outside of the old Confederacy) the same year. The GOP began with those blocs and built stunning majorities, North and South.

The matter of race is inescapable. Working- and middle-class whites, North and South, have left the Democrats believing that the Great Society legacy diverted their tax dollars and jobs to underserving blacks and the poor. In terms of social policy, the Democrats are viewed as nothing less than an invading force.

If the South is now a mirror of national themes, is there anything southern about the new alignment? Perhaps it is this: The southern tradition of honoring the past evolves out of the same fear that made Nixon, Reagan, and Bush attractive to voters everywhere. White southerners possess a cultural fear of forcible intervention that destroys familiar social order. The South has stories of damn Yankees; these days, the North, too, can cluck over liberal atrocities.

Think, for instance, of the vicious fight against busing in South Boston in the seventies, the success of California's Proposition 13, or New Jersey's retaliation against Jim Florio. At the heart of each is fear of the unfamiliar and resentment of intrusive government. Those sentiments are as common to southerners as bourbon whiskey or cornbread. If the Blacks are right, then Democrats must recognize that the men and women who turned to the GOP did so because they couldn't accept the post-1968 Democratic orthodoxy.

In the Blacks' view, and it seems a sound one, the solution for the Democrats is to replay the Carter strategy. "What the Democrats need," they write, "are extraordinarily skilled candidates who generate enthusiasm among the party's two essential groups, blacks and core white Democrats, but who are also attractive to the South's swing whites, the conservative white Democrats and moderate independents."

That Bill Clinton is the presumptive nominee in 1992 suggests that the Democrats are learning that lesson. But, for legions of white southern voters, the Republicans are the ones who now understand them and speak their language. Changing that will be no easy task. And if voters in Savannah stick to the GOP, the Blacks make it clear that voters in Cincinnati probably will, too.
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Author:Meacham, Jon
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1992
Words:678
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