The Democrats' Southern Problem
Why Georgia Isn’t on Obama’s Mind
by BENOIT BRÉVILLE
Every morning at six, Russell Stanton, in his forties, gets in his pick-up and drives round the local agricultural businesses in the hope of a day’s work picking peaches, peanuts or corn. On a humid August night, Stanton kept leaving his air-conditioned motel room for a cigarette in the parking lot.
He’s lived in the motel, in Darien, Georgia, for the past three years. “It’s cheaper than renting an apartment. You’ve got electricity, cable, there’s even someone who comes in and cleans the room every day,” he said, smiling at his sister Jenna, who works as the motel chambermaid. She and her husband and children live at the motel in two adjacent rooms, and she works just a couple of hours a day. “The motel doesn’t have many clients, especially permanent residents,” she said. “At the moment, there’s a truck driver, his girlfriend, and a family of Indians. In this area people are just passing through. They’d rather stay near the freeway.” Presidential candidates no longer bother to visit Georgia either: they prefer to go to North Carolina or Florida — states that will help decide the forthcoming election.
Darien, a few miles from Interstate 95, which runs from Florida’s Atlantic coast to Canada, is a sleepy town with nothing to attract the tourist: a wide main street with many smaller streets that cut across it, service stations, food stores that don’t sell fresh fruit or vegetables, and a huge number of vacant properties. Of 1,090 residences, 292 stand empty. The 2,000 inhabitants were affected by the crisis in the textile industry, and then felt the full force of the subprime crisis. In McIntosh County, the unemployment rate is over 10% and average income fell by $4,000 between 2007 and 2009 (from $25,739 to $21,771), though it has since risen slightly.
The Stantons ended up in the Fort King George motel after their family home was repossessed. “I was living from odd jobs and my mother had had to give up work,” Russell said. “The repayments were too high so we had to leave. I went to Texas for a year to try my luck, then I came back here.” Jenna and her partner tried renting an apartment, but they soon fell behind with the rent and moved in to the motel. That period has left a bitter taste: “In four years, Obama has done nothing for us. Though I’m poor, I’m for the Republicans because the Democrats don’t give a damn about poor white trash like me.”
Back to 40 years ago
At the end of Barack Obama’s term, political life is still as racially polarised as ever, especially in the South. According to Eric Mansfield, Democratic senator for North Carolina, “We’re having the same conversations we had 40 years ago in the South, that black people can only represent black people and white people can only represent white people” (1). Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi follow this pattern exactly — their congressional representatives are all either black Democrats or white Republicans — and Georgia’s last white Democratic representative may lose his seat in the legislative election in November. Lindsey Graham, Republican senator for South Carolina, said: “Republicans are going to have to realise that we are going to have to have an ability to connect with minority candidates in larger numbers. … And Democrats are going to have to realise that it’s probably bad for the Democratic Party to lose 75% of the white vote” (2).
The right ascribes this polarisation to its opponents’ stance on issues such as abortion and gay marriage. “A few years ago, many white people still voted for the Democratic Party. But the party has swung so far to the left that those people have ended up joining the conservative camp,” said Kevin Bennett, a retired engineer and Republican campaigner in Alabama. Obama’s supporters blame the redrawing of electoral districts by Republican governors since 2010. “They have grouped black people in a small number of districts in order to spread them out more thinly in others,” said Billy Mitchell, a (black) Democratic member of the House of Representatives from Georgia. In North Carolina, half of the state’s 2.2 million African Americans are now concentrated in a fifth of the state’s electoral districts. In Texas, the percentage of whites in the total population dropped from 52% to 45% between 2000 and 2010. And yet, thanks to a clever redrawing of boundaries, they are in the majority in 70% of congressional districts.
In Darien, where the black population is 44.2% and the white 52.9% the battle will be close. Russell Stanton, though, said: “I’m voting for Obama. Since I don’t have kids, I’m not entitled to Medicaid [health welfare for the poor]. If he wins, I might get medical insurance.” This is a surprise, coming from a man who claims he loves the ultra-right journalist Rush Limbaugh “because he asks the real questions”. It makes his sister smile: “You said that last time [in 2008], and you still ain’t got insurance!” In spite of their declared loyalties, the Stantons haven’t decided whether they’ll vote in November: they are not yet on the electoral roll, nor do they know the date of the election, or the name of the Republican candidate. They won’t find out from their local newspaper, the Tribune and Georgian. The day after Mitt Romney’s official nomination, it didn’t devote a single paragraph to the event. It covered the arrest of a 59-year-old woman in Woodbine for public drunkenness, and of 30-year-old man for the same offense in St Mary’s.
In this small town, as elsewhere in Georgia, the presidential campaign is particularly low-key — no political ads on the television, no activists going door-to-door or meetings with the candidates. Election posters for candidates for sheriff are everywhere in some towns in the county, but you won’t find the faces of Obama or Romney on public display. Other US states have been similarly ignored by the candidates. Since June 2012, Romney and his running mate Paul Ryan have not visited Maryland, Connecticut, Nebraska, Kansas, Maine, or Vermont. Obama and Joe Biden have cold-shouldered Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Alabama, Montana, and Idaho. “The president only comes to Georgia to raise funds,” Mitchell said. “There’s no point in campaigning here. We’re almost certain to lose. So we ask campaigners to travel to North Carolina and Florida, to go door-to-door and organise meetings. They can also campaign by telephone anywhere in the United States.”
The story’s the same in South Carolina. Melissa Watson, a black schoolteacher and Democratic Party member, said: “The president has limited resources. A billion dollars is a lot of money, but it is still a finite amount. And we know that the likelihood of winning South Carolina is small. The president has also a lot of work to do in the White House. He has picked battleground states in which to campaign. There are only 10 or 11 states that are competitive.”
These include Ohio (visited 21 times by the Democratic duo and 22 times by their Republican challengers), Iowa (17 and 13 visits), Florida, North Carolina and Nevada. In these states almost all the 605,996 TV campaign ads paid for by the candidates (or their supporters) were shown 10 April-4 September 2012, to the delight of owners of TV stations. In a year, the price of a 30-second ad has gone up by 44% in Charlotte and 34% in Las Vegas (3).
The US electoral system, which favours a two-horse race, has also produced a two-tier system in which a vote’s value depends on whether it is cast in a “safe state” — where it’s a foregone conclusion which party will win — or a “swing state”, which can change allegiance from one election to the next and is thus the focus of the candidates’ attention. The South has long belonged to the former category. It was a Democratic stronghold for almost a century (4), then fell to the Republicans in the early 1970s: before Obama, only Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton — both Democrats from the South — had managed to make inroads in Southern states.
Why have the Democrats since 2008 campaigned in North but not South Carolina, though the states seem to share the same electoral destiny? The answer lies in North Carolina’s new suburbs, built in the last 10-20 years, contrasting with the rural landscape of South Carolina, which continues to live — just — from traditional industries (textiles, automobiles, chemicals) and agriculture (tobacco, poultry).
A field covered in suburbs
In the Old Stone Crossing development east of Charlotte in North Carolina, neither the intentionally curved streets nor the “old stones” of the houses can conceal the newness of the place. This development, set down amid abandoned fields, freeways and commercial districts, connected to the city centre by express lanes, wooded paths and deserted streets, is scarcely lit publicly at night. It has no shops or public spaces. Dozens of such developments, of varying affluence — Hampshire Hills, Highland Creek, Beverly Crest, McAlpine Woods — have been created out of nothing. “North Carolina is a field, but it’s covered in suburbs,” as one inhabitant put it.
At the Democratic convention in Charlotte in September, the former governor Jim Hunt talked more positively about the development of his state: “You’ve seen the skyscrapers and all Charlotte has to offer. Maybe you’ve heard about our Research Triangle Park (5). Maybe your children attended one of our great universities. We’re proud of all that, because we made that possible in North Carolina. Fifty years ago, this was a poor state — poor, rural, and rigidly segregated. But we had a governor named Terry Sanford [1961-5] … He worked with business leaders, political, and education leaders to build our great universities, our 58 community colleges and our public schools. The result is our high-tech, thriving economy that you see today.”
North Carolina has three of the 30 best universities in the US and is home to 14 of its 500 biggest companies. Buoyed by this dynamism, its population has doubled since the 1990s. This major demographic change encouraged Obama to challenge the Republicans for the state: the newcomers — many of whom are students, young people, skilled workers or members of minorities — were mobilised by an army of volunteers and voted overwhelmingly for him. This enabled him to inch ahead of his 2008 opponent John McCain, whose support came from unskilled white voters and rural dwellers. At local level, the contrasts were striking: in Mecklenburg county, which takes in the city of Charlotte and where the white population (excluding Hispanics) is 51% of the total, 62% of voters voted for Obama. In neighbouring Gaston (75% of whose residents are white and where average household incomes are 20% lower), McCain won 62% of the vote.
Georgia is more like Gaston than Mecklenburg, as are Alabama, South Carolina, Mississippi and Arkansas. The Democrats have little prospect of winning there. “Apart from Atlanta, it’s a poor, rural, religious state,” said Mitchell, explaining his party’s repeated defeats in Georgia. “People are very conservative. It’s the heart of the Bible Belt.” In Georgia alone, there are 12,292 churches with 3.3 million active members out of a population of 10 million. The visitor can walk around Georgia’s small towns without seeing a public building, but there is no shortage of churches, Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, Pentecostalist or Episcopalian. In Darien alone, there are about 10. Most seek to combat “sin” — abortion, contraception, homosexuality, gambling — but they also play an important part in community life by distributing food to the poor, looking after the old, providing supplementary lessons for children. All of this is provided at low cost, thanks to the work of volunteers and money donated by parishioners.
In the South, religious fervour is sometimes accompanied by antipathy to the state. And religion is involved in politics: the prevailing view is that charitable institutions are more capable of solving social problems than state ones. At the Republican convention in Tampa, Florida, North Carolina delegate Matt Arnolds told me: “The private sector is most effective… When the private sector goes after problems, you have lots of different people trying lots of different ways, and may the best solution win. Government by definition really can’t work that way. It designs a skill to do and provide a solution that we just follow. You never had so many poor people in the United States until the start of President Johnson’s ‘war on poverty’ (6). It’s obvious it’s a solution that doesn’t work. We can’t keep increasing public spending. As a conservative, I think the church should play the predominant role in welfare. It is able to be closest to the person who needs the help, to create an interaction between those receiving the help and those giving the help. It makes individuals responsible.”
Georgia Representative Ed Rynders is also a great believer in the idea of making the poor take responsibility. He fulminates at the mention of “benefitting from welfare”. “People are dependent on welfare,” he said, before launching into the familiar “better teach a man to fish than give him a fish” homily. “Our first moral obligation as a government is to those who cannot feed for themselves: the handicapped, the mentally challenged, the extremely young, the very old,” he said. By helping those who are “responsible for their acts”, the state “pushes them into not working”. “It’s up to the Church, communities and social agencies to take care of them.”
Five miles along the freeway from Tampa’s business quarter, squeezed in between a service station and a discount store downtown, the First Church of God is experimenting with everyday charity. Each Wednesday, pastor Larry Mobley and Linda Burcham organise the distribution of food parcels. The service works like a state provision: between 11am and 3pm, around a hundred people — young, old, black, white and Hispanic — collect a ticket, fill in a form (name, address, number of household members), then sit in an air-conditioned waiting room, sometimes for hours. The lucky ones take home fruit juice, cakes, tomatoes, sausages, sliced bread, provided by weekly collection by 10 volunteers who, thanks to donations by congregation members, are able to buy out-of-date products from local stores at bargain prices. Eventually all the parcels are handed out and latecomers leave empty-handed.
Liana Kelley, 63, is a Wednesday regular. After raising her family, this Cuban immigrant divorced her Irish husband three years ago. She was without means and moved to Downtown Tampa. “The welfare I received [$377 a month] was barely enough for me to pay my rent, electricity and cable TV,” she explained. “So I went to the local pawnbroker’s and sold my jewellery and other valuables. After a while, they offered me a job.” For 18 months she has stood on Busch Boulevard, waving a “Cash for Gold” sign at motorists, and makes $7 an hour as a human billboard: “They call me when they need me and I come. The problem is that this sometimes happens during the food handout. So I’ve worked three hours for $21, but I’ve missed out on a box that is worth twice that.”
Although the majority of Cuban-Americans vote Republican, she plans to vote for Obama. Perhaps she heard Romney’s video-ed remarks about the 47% of Americans who vote for Obama because they’re helplessly dependent on the state.
Benoît Bréville is a member of Le Monde diplomatique’s editorial team.
(1) Quoted in Ari Berman, “How the GOP is Resegregating the South”, The Nation, New York, 31 January 2012. In the US, the census requires citizens to indicate their “race” according to criteria that vary from one census to the next. In 2010, “black” or “African American” designated “a person having origins in any of the Black racial groups of Africa” and “white” — divided into “white” and “non-Hispanic white” — includes those who have their “origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East or North Africa”.
(2) Quoted in Jonathan Martin, “Obama’s problems in the South”, Politico, Washington, 2 August 2012.
(3) Amy Scatz and Suzanne Vranica, “Swing-state Stations are Election Winners”, The Wall Street Journal, 9 September 2012.
(4) With a few notable exceptions: Republican candidates Hayes (1876), Harding (1920) and especially Hoover (1928) managed to win several states in the South.
(5) A centre of cutting-edge industry created in 1959 to re-energise the “Old South”.
(6) Launched in 1964 by Democratic president Lyndon Johnson, the “war on poverty” enabled the adoption of various social protection measures, including Medicare and Medicaid.
This article appears in the excellent Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.