Commentary

The big divide: Rural vs. urban

The New York TimesNovember 19, 2012 

It’s tough being a Southern liberal. In the postelection analysis of the past two weeks, pundits have made hay of the fact that while Barack Obama won the election, Mitt Romney won the Confederacy. Or as Jon Stewart put it, “most of the Confederacy.”

After Romney carried the lion’s share of the region’s electoral votes, people were quick to pounce. One person on Twitter wrote, “I always knew the Zombie Apocalypse would start in the Southern States.” On Facebook, in a widely shared image comparing the 2012 electoral map with the map of former slave states, the individual who posted it wrote, “Sometimes change is really hard, especially when people don’t want to change.”

That we are still using the term “Confederacy” to describe the South and pointing to slave maps says a lot about how hard it is for the region to move beyond its historical reputation, however richly deserved, for one that reflects more current realities.

Voters in Charlotte, Atlanta, Nashville, New Orleans, Birmingham, Ala., and even Jackson, Miss., gave Obama substantial majorities, not because they are out of step with the rest of the country but because they are part of the same urban-rural divide that drives voting everywhere.

So if we’re going to apply the term “Confederacy,” then perhaps we can all agree that while a majority of Southern white voters seem intransigent to change, the region is nevertheless being transformed by its changing demographics.

Virginia, home to the capital of the Confederacy, went for Obama. Florida, part of the original Confederacy, also went for Obama. North Carolina, which Obama carried in 2008, went to Romney, but by a very slim margin – more attributable to the economy and job losses than to any conspiracy of Confederate dunces.

Many people have labeled my home state of North Carolina a red state, but it’s much more complicated than that. In the very rural mountain county of Avery, for example, Romney won with a whopping 74.5 percent of the vote, yet in Mecklenburg County, which includes Charlotte, he lost to Obama by nearly 23 percentage points.

Similarly, in Fulton County, Ga., whose county seat is Atlanta, Obama bested Romney with about 64 percent of the vote but lost in the state’s mostly rural counties. If Charlotte or Atlanta were the size of New York City, then perhaps we wouldn’t tag either North Carolina or Georgia as red states.

Even when you break down a clear blue state like New York, you can see this urban-rural dichotomy. In Brooklyn, Obama carried 81.4 percent of the vote; in the rural county of Hamilton, Romney won 62.2 percent. The same urban-rural divide can also be found in blue states like California and Washington.

In other words, before our liberal allies in blue states point their fingers and scoff, they might want to take a look in their own rural backyards for evidence that their states actually have something in common with the supposedly backward ones in the South.

Yes, Southern voters (especially white ones) cast their lot with Romney. So, too, did voters in a large section of Western states. What do they have in common? They are states with largely rural populations that tend to be less diverse racially and ethnically, and they tend to vote more for conservative Republicans – the same trend found in the rural counties of the bluest of states.

The coalition that voted for Obama nationally – single women, minorities and young people – is the same coalition that voted for the president in Southern states. Latino voters, for example, voted overwhelmingly for Obama, and they also represent the fastest-growing population within the South. Future elections will be determined by this expanding diversity in the region, much to the chagrin of conservative whites.

It’s well known that the Democratic Party of old, commonly referred to as the “white man’s party,” ruled the South. Today’s Southern Democrats reflect the changes that have taken place in the party’s platform in the post-World-War-II era. Old-school Southern Democrats, like Strom Thurmond, Jesse Helms and those who followed in their footsteps, bolted to the Republican Party, which adopted a “Southern strategy” to win elections by appealing to whites’ racism.

As we saw in this election, today’s Republican Party has become the bastion of white voters, and not just within the South. There is evidence that “whiteness” is not a foolproof strategy in the region, given its changing demography.

While it is true that Republicans dominate the region, there is change in the air. I can see this in my own family. Every summer my brother, who is decidedly Republican, plants a garden in which he grows a variety of peppers – jalapenos, habaneros and poblanos. He is proud of his garden and shares his harvest with friends who own a Mexican restaurant near his home in Greensboro.

I doubt that his conversations with the people who work there center on whether they are in this country legally or illegally. So while he may remain a Republican, I believe he recognizes the contributions of Latinos to his community and knows that they do not threaten his success as a white man.

To my chagrin, liberals living outside the South deny our existence, lump us all together by using rhetoric about the Confederacy and heap pity on us with a little condescension thrown in for good measure. They also seem to be unaware of nuance.

The fact is, liberals everywhere live among people who don’t share their views. Are you listening Wisconsin, Arizona, Indiana and, yes, New York? Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond are long dead. Michele Bachmann, Scott Walker and other tea party darlings are alive and well, and they aren’t all whistling Dixie.

If the Democrats are going to be a true majority party, they will need to build a coalition in all 50 states. So rather than see the South as a lost cause (pun intended), the Democratic Party and liberals north and west of us should put a lid on their regional biases and encourage the change that is possible here.

The New York Times

Karen L. Cox is professor of history at UNC Charlotte and the author of “Dreaming of Dixie: How the South Was Created in American Popular Culture.”

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