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Twenty-four years ago, both the Democratic and Republican parties held their national conventions in cities of the American South. Democrats gathered in Atlanta to nominate Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts for president, and Republicans assembled in New Orleans to nominate George H. W. Bush of Texas. To mark the arrival of Democrats in his city—and mindful that Republicans would subsequently meet way down yonder—Bill Kovach, then editor of the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, commissioned a series of essays on the southern condition by seventeen eminent historians, novelists, and journalists. Their essays were collected after the 1988 election in The Prevailing South: Life & Politics in a Changing Culture.
“It has been a long time since the South has enjoyed the feeling of being really wanted and needed in the national business of electing a president,” historian C. Vann Woodward wrote in the opening of his essay for the book. “But now, rather suddenly, and for the first time in history, both major political parties have held their presidential nominating conventions in the Deep South.”
The 1988 conventions had the aura of a historic milestone, and their sites seemed ready-made for the every-four-year exercise in political liturgy. Atlanta had decisively emerged as primus inter pares as the Southeast’s major metropolis, with its international-hub airport, its tall towers standing sentinel along Peachtree, and its magnetic pull to in-migrants both black and white. New Orleans had long served as a convention-city, with its Vieux Carré at a dramatic bend in the Mississippi, its splendid restaurants, and its landmark domed stadium.
Now, in preparing for the 2012 presidential election, both major political parties have again chosen cities in the American South for their national conventions. Republicans convene first in Tampa, and, a week later, Democrats meet in Charlotte. The 2012 conventions have a different feel—less about history, more about the politics of the moment. Until now, neither Tampa nor Charlotte would have readily come to mind as natural destinations for big political conventions. No doubt they were chosen in part because Florida and North Carolina will be “in play” as competitive states in the November general election. Whatever the politics of their selection, Tampa and Charlotte stand as exhibits of what the modern South has become; the region’s center of gravity has shifted toward an array of recently developed, sprawling, muscular metropolitan areas that now increasingly define its economy, culture, and politics.
While the South is often depicted as resistant to change, Woodward wrote in his 1988 essay that “change, in fact, has long been a central theme of Southern history, prodigious change of such degree and frequency as to become one of the region’s several distinctive traits.” The independent decisions of Republicans and Democrats to choose sites in the American South for their national conventions [End Page 7] offer a fresh opportunity to examine the latest manifestations of what change has wrought in the life and politics of the region.
Five Big Trends
In considering the condition of the South and how the region fits into the national political fabric of 2012, let’s identify and examine five big trends:
1. Politically, the South is not an assembly of states, acting in unison, in the grip of one party. The region is not one South, undivided.
2. While its rural heritage and culture still exert a strong pull on the region’s own self-image and on the nation’s imagination, burgeoning metropolitan areas now decisively dominate the economy and increasingly propel the...