Divided we stand, divided we vote
“Divided America,” by Earl Black and Merle Black. Simon & Schuster Paperbacks. 2007. 302 pp. $16.
By Deirdre Parker Smith
I think, after three sessions with Michael Bitzer and lots of questions, I understand “Divided America.”
Reading recent news helped, too.
Here’s one thing that dawned on me and helped me understand the why behind the numbers in the book: The Democratic party that Southerners flocked to after the Civil War is not the Democratic Party of today.
In the 1860s, Southerners hated the Republicans, particularly the president, Abraham Lincoln.
Now, actually beginning with the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the Republican Party represents what Southerners believe in.
More on that later.
The lesson of this book is that the United States is a country of regions, not really united, and there is no majority political party.
Bitzer said in one of the sessions, “There is no majority party anymore ó about a third of us are Republicans, a third Democrats and a third independent or unaffiliated.”
The battleground, he and political science professors and brothers Earl and Merle Black say, is over the middle and both camps will poach in each other’s back yards.
The upcoming election, the brothers write, “is the Democrats’ to lose. For both parties, the ideal national candidate would be a widely known and highly respected politician whose favorables far exceeded his or her unfavorables among partisans and independents. Neither party has such a candidate for the 2008 general election.”
They wrote this long before John McCain and Barack Obama became the likely nominees. And it appears they are correct.
Studying elections from the 1950s forward, the Blacks outline the five voting regions that make up the country: Northeast (mostly Democratic), the South (purely Republican), the Mountains/Plains (Republican), the Midwest (undecided) and the Pacific Coast (Democratic). Political behavior, Bitzer emphasized, is settled in regions.
The key to winning a presidential election, at least in this millenium, is to win electoral votes from a deeply partisan country, where ideology is diametrically opposed.
The South was solidly Democratic until the 1960s.
In 1948, the presidential race was Truman versus Dewey versus Strom Thurmond. Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and South Carolina went for Thurmond. He starts to break the solid Southern “unholy” alliance between white Southerners, people from the Northeast and blacks.
Thurmond and the so-called Dixiecrats broke away because of race. They couldn’t vote Republican because of lingering feelings about the Civil War.
Here’s where it gets really interesting.
In 1964, Lyndon Johnson wins in a landslide, except in South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana.
In 1968, some Southerners vote for George Wallace. In 1976, some Southerners and part of the Northeast vote for Carter. In 1980, Ronald Reagan puts together a moderate Republican Party that wins over a lot of voters, especially after disappointment in Carter. Reagan starts the Republican focus on social issues such as abortion and gay rights.
In 1992, it’s Bill Clinton versus George Bush versus Ross Perot. The South splits. In 1996, the South goes Republican.
In 2000, the big L that is the Mountains/Plains region forms. In 2008, the Midwest becomes the battleground, with Illinois (21 electoral votes), Indiana (11), Iowa (7), Kentucky (8), Michigan (17), Minnesota (10), Missouri (11), Ohio (20), West Virginia (5) and Wisconsin (10) hotly sought after states.
“In many important ways,” the Blacks write, “the Midwest lies squarely between the Republican and Democratic strongholds. … In the 2004 election, Democrats and Republicans were tied: each party claimed 39 percent of the region’s voters.”
The first two chapters of “Divided America” were, at least for me, good sleep aids. Full of numbers, percentages, charts, it’s the kind of thing few readers will dance through. Skim Chapter 1. Pay attention to Chapter 2, in which the regions are described.
The Mountains/Plains include Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming. Quite a spread.
The Northeast: Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island in New England, and Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia.
The Pacific Coast is Alaska, California, Hawaii, Oregon and Washington.
And our region, the South, is made up of the 11 former Confederate states: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina , South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia.
African Americans and Latinos will be a huge presence in the coming election. Latinos are now the largest minority population in the U.S. Blacks are moving back to the South. In places like California, Texas and Florida, there is no majority race.
Bitzer says “You can’t understand national politics without understanding regional politics. The closeness of the election is based on the regions and those regions may not be able or willing to listen to others.”
The two parties don’t want moderates ó they want to supress the middle and force people to take sides. At the same time, they can’t offend anyone at the base while appealing to those in the middle.
Got all that?
The book offers dozens of charts ó some easier to read than others ó and lots of fascinating facts, such as these: The Republicans have a large base of white Christian men. Democrats are becoming more diverse, racially and genderwise ó there are more female than male Democrats.
There’s no way I can summarize all the information in “Divided America.” I know it’s a tough sell, but if I can get through it, lots of other people can, too. It’s fine to skim. Keep a highlighter or pen handy to mark passages that raise your eyebrows or make you itch.
If you missed your chance to hear Bitzer and an attentive group discuss it, you missed a great “Aha!” moment, but if you’re diligent, “Divided America” can do that for you ó and it will resonate every time you vote.
And you must vote.
Contact at Deirdre Parker Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org or 704-797-4252.