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  • Harry L. Watson

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Who would have thought that Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida would all cast their votes for a Democrat in 2008, much less an African American? Timed to coincide with the upcoming elections, this issue of Southern Cultures looks over recent changes and reviews southern politics. Barack Obama, Oval Office, 2009, photographed by Pete Souza, courtesy of the White House.

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In school we learn that American democracy had a southern birthplace, when Virginia elected its first House of Burgesses in 1619, a year before the Pilgrims signed their celebrated Mayflower Compact. And Virginia also gave us Thomas Jefferson, America’s favorite political philosopher. When the United States was torn between two presidents, Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis both came from southern roots, born about a hundred miles from each other in Virginia’s offspring, the slave state of Kentucky. And twentieth-century American politics is layered with the names of southern officeholders: Wilson, Johnson, Wallace, Carter, Clinton, Helms, Bush II, and scores of others. Next to football and religion, politics might well be southerners’ favorite sport.

The South’s popular lore and history books are filled with raffish southern politicos, unforgettable characters who never failed to amuse, outrage, or scandalize their audiences. Just to stay within a single state, one North Carolina campaigner at the dawn of the Republic allegedly kept a Revolutionary hero out of Congress by claiming that his French china chamber pot made him an aristocrat. Over a century later, Robert Rice (“Our Bob”) Reynolds swept into the Senate by claiming that the incumbent Cameron Morrison preferred caviar, or “fish eggs from Red Russia,” to “good old North Carolina hen eggs.” And even when the old-fashioned clowns gave way to modern air-brushed slickos whose every quirk and flaw stay hidden behind a screen of high-priced image makers and consultants, the horse-race character of politics, the endless speculation of who’s up and who’s down, can be stripped away from questions about issues and lasting substance.

But like southern football, you could never say that southern politics is only a game. Underneath all the foolishness and the handicapping lurk serious questions of place and power. Whether the issues were slave codes in the nineteenth century, voting rights in the twentieth, or “fracking” in the twenty-first, southern elections have turned on enduring debates in public policy, the classic disputes over who gets what and when. Weaving in and out of the material questions, the issue of race is usually on the agenda as well. Despite all the claims for a “post-racial” America, race has been especially salient in politics this year, in controversies ranging from Alabama’s immigration laws to the presidency itself. To be sure, the South’s political landscape is always changing. Ten years ago, for example, who would have thought that Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida would all cast their votes for a Democrat in 2008, much less an African American? Timed to coincide with the upcoming elections of 2012, the essays in this issue of Southern Cultures look over these recent changes and also review southern politics over time, not only gauging the impact of perpetual questions like race and inequality, but also exploring the horse-trading and calculations that it takes to win.

Political journalist Ferrel Guillory, our guest editor for this issue, leads the way by pointing out five major trends in southern politics that will have an impact in 2012 and beyond. First of all, he reminds us that the South is no longer “solid.” [End Page 2] Not only are both parties reasonably viable almost everywhere, but each state is an independent entity and will not follow lockstep in the paths of its neighbors. Second, he reminds us that the southern electorate is no longer rural, but mostly metropolitan in economic and political terms. His third point expands the first: Texas is the most unpredictable southern state of all, with white, black, and Hispanic minorities that keep prognosticators guessing. And finally, the recessions of the last decade have knocked the “Sun Belt” off its path of uninterrupted prosperity and a...


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