Americans are famously indifferent to history, but history refuses to return the favor. There are legacies from our past that refuse to release their grip no matter how stubbornly determined we are to ignore them.
The New York Times posted a map yesterday showing the counties in which Obama won less than 20% of the vote in 2012. It’s an eye-opening picture of the state of the Republican Party.
With such such an overwhelming win in the South, how did Romney lose?
The problem for Republicans is that the Democratic weakness appears confined to the white South. Even though some analysts suggested that Mr. Obama was historically weak among white voters more generally, he fared better than recent Democratic nominees among white voters outside of the South. That’s how he won battleground states like Iowa, Colorado, Wisconsin and New Hampshire. Whatever is causing Republicans to excel in the South, whether religion or race, just isn’t helping them elsewhere.
The map is a near-perfect correlation with the sections of the US that failed to ban slavery prior to Lincoln’s election. This is not an accident. As pointed out in a previous piece:
This reflects a pattern seen across the country in the 2012 results. The Republican ticket saw its greatest success based not on wealth or welfare, but on three, ranked criteria:
1) Region – The single highest indicator of success for the GOP ticket regional. Republicans won reliably in sections of the country in which slavery was legal until Lincoln’s election.
2) Urbanity – The lower the population density, the more successful the GOP ticket.
3) Race – Romney performed best among white voters, particularly older white voters.
White nationalism is winning for the GOP at the state and local level across a limited swath of the country while poisoning the conservative brand everywhere else. This is not inevitable, but the drift toward white nationalist politics, so grossly apparent in the shocking mainstream support for “welfare rancher” Cliven Bundy, has gained a disturbing momentum that will be difficult to halt.
Not so long ago things were very different. When Reagan won his epic national mandate in 1984, there were only a few dozen counties that registered the levels of overwhelming Republican support seen by Romney in 2012. By contrast, Reagan’s win was as broad as it was deep. Ronald Reagan won 48% of the vote in Chicago’s Cook County. He earned 54% in LA County and more than 40% in Detroit’s Wayne County.
The present Republican strategy of geographic and demographic division isn’t just an electoral loser. It is a formula for the Balkanization of America. We’ve been here before and nothing good came of it.
The good news is that voters under 30 have rejected this strategy wholesale, meaning it is doomed to fade soon. The bad news is that their rejection of a white nationalist agenda is accompanied by a fresh new enthusiasm for liberal economics. As difficult as it will be to wean rural and exurban America off its growing taste for white nationalism, it will be even more difficult to maintain our prosperity as the country drifts left on economic issues.
We desperately need a leadership figure in the GOP willing to confront this trend head-on. No one seems ready yet, but 2016 could offer some hope.