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Which change came first?

Jack Betts
Jack Betts writes on politics and life in The Carolinas for the Charlotte Observer's Editorial page.

RALEIGH Bob Moser was there that day in Greensboro 36 years ago, a boy riding on his daddy's shoulders while President Richard Nixon and Republican senatorial nominee Jesse Helms were publicly honing the Southern Strategy that would capture the South for the Republican Party and frustrate southern Democrats for a generation. Nixon and Helms were whipping up fervor for law and order and traditional values and inciting the crowd against long hairs, liberals, criminals – anyone who could be demonized into an “us versus them” formula that would marginalize Democrats and elect Republicans.

‘Brazen political thievery'

Moser, now political correspondent for The Nation and a contributor to Rolling Stone and Durham's The Independent newspaper, has examined what he likes to call “one of the most brazen acts of political thievery in American history.” It is Moser's thesis that Republicans hijacked the South by tricking ordinary folks into believing the GOP was on their side and that Democrats had become elite snobs uninterested in traditional values that still prevailed all over the South. “They weren't just stealing Democrats,” Moser writes of Republicans in his provocative book “Blue Dixie: Awakening the South's Democratic Majority,” “they were stealing populism.”

He went on: “So commenced the single most destructive myth of contemporary American politics: the notion that the century-long Democratic ‘solid South' morphed, practically overnight, into an equally solid and enduring Republican South.”

Solidly divided government

Moser supplies quite a lot of argument to support his theory, but the fact is that at the federal level, anyway, much of the South has been more solidly Republican than ever. In North Carolina, though, the result has been solidly divided government. While Republicans almost always won the presidential race in this state and most of the U.S. Senate races, Democrats tended to hang on to the governorship and most other state offices. including the legislature, with a few exceptions.

Still, the national perception of a solid Republican South prevailed so much that rarely were national Democrats in recent years committed to even trying to win races here. It was, argues Moser, “a historic betrayal dwarfed only by the consequences of Northern Republicans' capitulation in 1877” when they gave up on Reconstruction and left the black South vulnerable to the revenge of the Democratic Party.

That Democratic failure to actively and enthusiastically compete for Southern votes has been most obvious in the last two presidential campaigns, when Al Gore and Joe Lieberman in 2000 and John Kerry and John Edwards in 2004 stayed out of the South as much as possible, except for Florida.

Can't win without seeking votes

Gore's failure to win the presidency in 2000 even confirmed in John Kerry's 2004 mind that the Democrats could have won the presidency without a single Southern state – a mind-boggling assertion that defied logic and perhaps reflects more on Kerry's political acumen than on the reliability of Southern voters. The real lesson of the 2000 and 2004 elections, Moser argues, is that a Democrat cannot win the South without asking for their votes. For the most part, neither Al Gore nor John Kerry sought those votes in any systematic way.

That's how the 2008 election was different, says Ferrel Guillory, director of the Program on Public Life at UNC Chapel Hill and a former newsman who has traveled the South during a productive professional career cataloguing change here. “It isn't so much that Obama changed things, but that he built on the changes that already existed,” says Guillory.

Unlike Gore in 2000 or Kerry in 2004, Obama had the money, the organization and the insight to recognize and tap into the transformative changes that have come to such Southern states as Virginia and North Carolina. Both states had benefited from economic growth and diversification; both had made significant investments in infrastructure and education and jobs program. And both were well populated with residents who expect their governments to provide decent public services – good schools, clean water, attractive parks, adequate roads.

Recognizing change

Obama's victory in North Carolina was constructed on a recognition of changes that had occurred and built on the readiness of voters – not just black voters but white voters as well – to put a Democrat in the White House.

Obama's victory didn't make North Carolina a reliably Democratic state, but pushed it into the swing state category years earlier. “He moved the needle, pushed us into the swing state category four years earlier than we would have been there,” Guillory thinks.

Neither did Obama's victory in three Southern states begin to break up the old Southern Strategy. It reflected, Guillory wrote the other day, a split that had already occurred. The region's changes attracted many of the voters who cast their ballots for a man of African American descent in an area where law and custom once made it impossible, even dangerous, to simply think about casting a vote.

The lesson: things change, sometimes far sooner than anyone imagines is remotely possible. And sometimes, things have already changed. Just look around.

Jack Betts is an Observer associate editor based in Raleigh: jbetts@charlotteobserver.com

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