Southern politics is gloriously unpredictable

June 30, 2013

How often do we celebrate or mourn that a great statesman did or did not live to see his or her life’s work advance upon the world stage?

Conversely, Nelson Mandela might have lived long enough to see minority voting rights take a major step backward in the world’s (ostensibly) leading beacon of freedom.

A practical necessity a half-century ago, the Voting Rights Act has always had uncomfortable legal underpinnings. It treated Southern states like children who needed their parents’ permission before going to the movies.

Of course, if they weren’t always getting themselves into trouble (the states or the children), this permission would not have been necessary.

The point that seems to be missed as liberals don their sackcloth and ashes over this week’s Supreme Court decision gutting the federal Voting Rights Act is that this actually represents racial progress.

True, Southern Republicans are still passing laws to discourage typically Democratic voting blocs, just as Northern Democrats are passing laws making it easier for these demographics to vote.

But there is really nothing today that resembles the poll taxes and landholding requirements of yore that the Voting Rights Act was designed to end. And any new law that smacks of overt discrimination will be immediately appealed to the courts, where it will be immediately struck down.

It can be argued that the Voting Rights Act, which requires predominantly Southern states to clear new voter laws with the federal government, was struck down a decade or two too early. But it was law unequally applied, and it was bound sooner or later to become a relic of the 1960s racial wars.

Besides, in the South these days, they are far more concerned about Hispanics than blacks, and here lies the real rub in this week’s court decision.

What the Supreme Court has unintentionally done is bait a trap that will prove irresistible for Southern legislatures. There is little doubt that conservative Southern states will take this decision as license to throw every obstacle they can in the way of minority voters, and in the short term this might protect their majorities for a few more years.

In the long term, however, this will cement the growing antipathy between Latinos and Republicans, and even casual followers of demographic trends know the final score of this particular game.

White deaths are exceeding white births at a time when Hispanic populations throughout much of the South are doubling. So the choice is whether to desperately try to keep Latinos from voting, or to reach out and try to represent their interests — a somewhat natural fit, given their conservative religious tendencies.

But when was the last time we saw any political party take a disciplined, long-term approach? Certainly not with the Republicans, as the GOP House appears ready and willing to forevermore drive a stake through Hispanic relations by rejecting immigration reform.

So by making a generation of immigrants into lifelong Democrats, the end game becomes clear. Sort of.

There’s always been something of an unspoken truce in Southern legislatures that, through gerrymandering, locks in Republican majorities while guaranteeing a lesser number of seats for black candidates. This might have come at the expense of white Democrats, but they were unlikely to rock a boat that carried black representatives.

In a decade or two, that math will no longer work. It will be impossible to pack all the black voters into a few districts without swamping white Republican districts with Latinos.

Ironically, Republican majorities might survive by courting, not Latinos, but blacks. There is always a tendency for older, more established populations to cast a jaundiced eye toward newcomers, especially if those newcomers are perceived as scarfing up all the jobs and government handouts.

Influenced by a growing black constituency, white Republicans will have to liberalize their views somewhat, but by then all the great social issues of the past 50 years (save for abortion) will have been settled, so that should not cost them their souls.

Meanwhile, as mentioned, the naturally conservative Hispanic populations will gain more and more control over the Democratic party in the South, and white liberals will have to move to the right to keep them happy.

And where does that leave us? Exactly where we were 50 years ago — with a socially conservative Democratic majority and a fiscally progressive Republican minority.

This is what you have to love about Southern politics: It is so gloriously unpredictable.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. His email address is

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