Thursday, May 14, 2009

Looking to the Future


I was reflecting today on the future political outlook for this country, and on the way that the ongoing flood of Northern immigration into the South will affect that outlook. In some conservative circles, the ascent of the South has been presented as being beneficial to the Republican Party, but I believe that the opposite is true.

At its peak in the early part of the 20th Century, the North collectively held 262 electoral votes, a large share of these controlled by such titans as Pennsylvania, which had 38; New York, which had 47; and Illinois, which had 29.

The liberal tradition in the North has always run deep, regardless of party; New England was the stronghold of the failed Federalists (early believers in a powerful central government) in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries, and when the anti-slavery Republican Party first emerged on the national stage in 1856 it swept the North.

Up until the 1960’s, the GOP was the more progressive of America’s two parties, and in the period from the Civil War to the Civil Rights movement the Northeast and Midwest, with several exceptions, stayed lock-step in the Republican fold.

Nixon’s Southern Strategy, in which white racism was manipulated to yield Southern dissatisfaction with the Johnson Administration, was when GOP energies were first directed toward a growing South.

The first indicator of a future Northern descent had come in 1930, when Pennsylvania fell from 38 to 36 electoral votes. It was not until 1950, however, when New York was downgraded from 47 to 45 votes, that the North began to slowly ebb from its stratospheric peak.

In that year, Illinois went from 29 to 28 votes, and Ohio went from 26 to 25, while Pennsylvania dropped for the third census in a row, moving from 35 to 32.

Nixon, peering into the future that 1960’s demographic changes presaged, tied his party firmly to the region of the country sure to experience the fastest population growth. The South’s incredible electoral rise has proceeded as Nixon likely hoped, but in other ways the 37th President’s foresight was fatally limited.

It was a fundamental error of judgement for the Republican Party to believe that the bastions of conservatism, chief among them the Deep South, could absorb wave after wave of Northern immigration and remain geopolitically unaltered. The GOP of four decades ago assumed perhaps that Northern arrivals would become enculturated to the South, but instead the opposite happened.

In Miami, Atlanta, Charlotte, Northern Virginia, and other places, liberal communities established themselves and bolstered, year by year, the electoral power of the South.

For half a century, migrants swelled the overall Southern population while constituting a smaller share of the citizenry than the native Southerners whose ideology remained the bedrock of conversatism.

In the 1980’s, however, the rate of Northern immigration increased dramatically and continued for the next two decades at an unprecedented pace. As the North depopulated and the South soared, Republicans were temporarily left in the 1990’s and early 2000’s at a demographic advantage, able to exploit a situation wherein liberals had moved across the Mason-Dixon Line in sufficient numbers to empower the South without transforming it.

The appearance of Republican hegemony was impressive.

In both 2000 and 2004, George W. Bush won every Southern state save the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Delaware, also prising a handful of industrial states from a Democratic North that could never have less afforded to lose a single vote.

In the late 2000’s, however, the balance shifted.

As Northerners continued to pour south, the immigrant population, which included not only transplants but also those transplants’ Southern-born children, reached a tipping point. In many jurisdictions, genuine Southerners were narrowly outnumbered for the first time by Northern immigrants and their descendants, who in 2008 could at last taste the fruit of fifty years’ change by accessing the towering electoral vote totals they’d built up.

In 2008, Barack Obama took Florida’s 27 electoral votes. Virginia, revolutionized by the glittering center of wealth, liberalism, and urban power that its northeastern counties comprised, fell into the Democratic ring. In North Carolina, five decades of slow-moving demographic trends just barely delivered 15 electoral votes to the blue column.

Meanwhile, the North flew the liberal flag as it always had, with the only difference being that it was even more staunchly Democratic in 2008 than in previous years.

Simply put, the Republicans’ problem is this: while liberals have been moving south since the 1950’s, conservatives aren’t moving north.

As the Southern population continues to rise, the Democrats’ advantage will only grow with it.

Florida, which will have 29 electoral votes following the 2010 Census, is highly unlikely to vote Republican in 2012.

The Democrats will almost certainly build off of their narrow edge in North Carolina (which will gain one more Northern-fueled electoral vote in 2010, bringing its total to 16), while in Virginia the Democrats have likely found for themselves a new stronghold. The Old Dominion holds off-year gubernatorial elections, and the biggest question in 2009 seems not to be who will win the general contest, but who will win the Democratic primary. The current front-runner, appropriate enough in a state whose prosperity has been brought by outsiders moving in, is former DNC chairman and Upstate New York native Terry McAuliffe.

Heavy immigration continues into Sunbelt states that have yet to reach the tipping point, and with every new resident those areas are brought one step closer to crossing the migrant/native threshold.

One example of this in Georgia, which barely held for John McCain last Fall. The Empire State of the South has either reached or is about to reach its transition from native to migrant primacy, and in 2012 its 16 electoral votes will be more ripe for Barack Obama than they were in 2008.

Arizona, which will have 12 electoral votes following the 2010 Census, was already a swing state in 2008 despite being the home of Senator John McCain. In 2012, it is wide open.

Texas, meanwhile, could possibly supplant Florida as the ultimate swing state. The conservative tradition in the Lone Star State is strongly ingrained, but the liberal surge south is being felt there. Houston, with its world-class medical facilities; Dallas, with its business elite; countless other major cities now home to educated professionals; and an enormous minority population are shaping a new political order.

By 2016 at the latest, Texas and its 38 electoral votes will be a viable target for Democrats.

The North, while stripped of power and precipitously nose-diving in terms of national importance, remains a loyal Democratic fortress. Indiana, Ohio, and Iowa may be coaxed out of the liberal coalition from time to time, but when taken with the overwhelming support the Democrats enjoy in the rest of the North and their burgeoning power in the South, it won’t be enough to matter.

In 2010, New York will fall to 29 electoral votes (tying with Florida), while Pennsylvania will reach 20, Ohio 18, Massachusetts 11, Illinois 20, and Michigan 16. This is incontestably a region the midst of a steep decline, one whose bottom remains out of sight, but its political ethos, through its children who have diffused across the South and West, is on the cusp of holding national sway as never before.

The outlook for the Republican Party, at least for the near future, is very bleak. The South is rising, but it’s rising as a different entity than its conservative champions once imagined.

Before long, the new symbol of the Democratic Party will be the palm tree.


The Archduchess said...

I could rant and rant about the obtuse and uneducated stronghold that is the Texas I live in, but I instead will marvel at the progress that maybe--just maybe--could bring enlightenment and hope for the future.

I don't want to get my hopes up only to have them crushed nor go on a political rant, but... Oh, there is hope, there is hope, there is so much hope!

Reya Mellicker said...

Texas used to be a Democratic state not that long ago.

Fascinating post. Interesting that you use the word "immigration" to describe the way we Americans move around.