I used to think Larry Peterson, the Savannah Morning News' political columnist, was about as crazy as my idea to produce "The Tony Bourdain-Paula Deen Variety Show", complete with their weekly culinary rendition of "She's A Little Bit Country, and He's a Little Bit of a M@%#@&$ing Piece of Spoiled Foie Gras." But when Larry out-predicted me in the 2008 elections by the victory margin of a Florida-Savannah State football game, it turns out I was the crazy one. Mr. Peterson, I confessed publicly, was very intuitive, which makes his latest column puzzling. His premise on the future of Georgia Democrats is, I think, spot on, but his history on how we got here is severely lacking in perspective and accuracy.
There is no doubt that Democrats in Georgia and across the South have been in a downward spiral for a couple decades. But to say, as Mr. Peterson wrote, "Decades ago, Republicans exploited white southerners’ angst over civil rights to erode their longtime Democratic loyalties," is too simplistic and, on many levels, inaccurate. That's a nice way of writing what only a handful of the most yellow of the Yellow Dog Democrats still believe these days; a Democrat in the White House passed civil rights legislation, so all the racist Southern Democrats immediately became Republicans. No matter how you write it, it simply isn't true.
To be sure, it is true that one of the biggest names in past racial bigotry, South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond, lent a huge Southern hand to Richard Nixon when the ex-Dixiecrat became a Republican. But Thurmond actually started riding the elephant in 1964, helping Barry Goldwater carry Thurmond's home state. A lot of good that did Goldwater during his blowout loss to LBJ. Sure, four years later South Carolina's electoral votes went to Nixon, but Nixon didn't need those eight votes to beat a very weak Democratic nominee in Hubert Humphrey.
Any one with any sense of history knows two things: first, a large percentage of South Carolinians back than would have jumped off the old Cooper River Bridge clothed only in a Confederate Flag if Strom Thurmond told them to. Secondly, Strom, as was his wont, was doing nothing more than looking out for number one - he was playing his cards in an effort to be a long-term influence in Washington, and he won.
There are those who believe Ronald Reagan continued the GOP's surreptitious bigotry, beginning with his "state's rights" speech in Philadelphia, Mississippi early in the 1980 campaign. However, the so-called "racial code" of the speech has been discredited repeatedly (he campaigned for the African-American vote before the National Urban League immediately after the speech).
Regardless of whether one believes Reagan was a closet racist, the fact is that Democrats continued to dominate Southern politics throughout the 1980's, holding most of the governorships and state legislatures. This did not start to change until 1994 when Republicans won control of Congress over issues that had nothing to do with race. A host of Southern Democrats, including Congressman (and now Governor) Nathan Deal and his predecessor as governor, Sonny Perdue, switched parties to jump on the GOP gravy train.
While Mr. Peterson was wrong to imply that white bigots were the main reason for Republican ascendancy in the South, he was absolutely right about what will likely happen to Democrats in Georgia via redistricting. There will still be black-majority districts mandated by civil rights legislation, but this will come at a price for white Democrats like Congressman John Barrow. Thus Mr. Peterson's opening sentence, "Redistricting likely will make the Georgia Democratic Party blacker — and to the extent that it’s possible — the Republicans whiter," will most likely come true.
Mr. Peterson again gets a little too simplistic with his reasoning. "Blacks mostly see it (big government) — especially at the federal level — as benign. White Southerners are apt to view it as an obstacle." If this were completely true, Republicans would have taken control of the South 50 years ago. Perhaps that is true in 2011, but it is only one of many issues that helped turn the South Red over time. Still, Peterson is correct that the way the districts are drawn will be a huge obstacle for Democrats, regardless of their color, to overcome in the near future.
Ironically, the saving grace for Georgia Democrats may turn out to be the man who used to be one of them. Governor Deal may be the least-inspiring political figure since, well, Governor Perdue. With Georgia's unemployment rate higher than the already-high national average, Democrats could have an opening to exploit in a few years. This is especially true if Deal gets too busy taking cheap flights on the airline to which he gave a massive tax break and if Deal's lackeys keep blaming the feds for the jobs problem rather than promoting policies that help businesses hire people. (Oh, is that what that Delta tax break was supposed to do? My bad.) Democrats won't exploit that opening, however, if they again make the mistake of nominating someone who already dropped the ball in the governor's office as their standard bearer, as they did last year with Roy Barnes.
Democrats may be down in Georgia right now, but it is not because of racial politics. Racial politics will also not matter at all when the party makes a comeback, as all political parties do. The politics of jobs and the economy, always first on the minds of most voters these days, will be the main driver in determining those future winners and losers.