“Southern White” as an ethnicity (crossposted from Crooked Timber)
A while ago, I posted about the supposed capture of the ‘white working class’ by Republicans, pointing out that the term was being used to refer to those with less than college education. On more traditional measures of class, such as income, the Democrats do much better, though still getting only about half the vote.
In response to this post a number of commenters pointed out that the data was not disaggregated by region, and that the South was anomalous. A couple of things I’ve seen recently support this. Here’s Charles Blow, reporting that 90 per cent of white voters in Mississippi supported Romney. Kevin Drum observes that Obama won about 46 percent of the white vote outside the South and 27 percent of the white vote in the South. Here’s a bit more from The Monkey Cage.
It strikes me that the best way to understand the distinctive characteristics of US voting patterns is to to treat “Southern White ” as an ethnicity, like Hispanic. With that classification each of the major parties becomes an coalition between a solid bloc vote from an ethnic minority and around half the votes of the “non-Southern white” ethnic majority, which is more likely to vote on class lines. The question then is which ethnic/class coalition is bigger. As in other countries, voting for the more rightwing party is correlated, though not perfectly with higher incomes and (conditional on income) lower education, and to shift according to broader ideological movements.
Is it legitimate to treat Southern Whites as a separate ethnic group? Certainly, plenty of Southerners thought so at the time of the Civil War. Since then, Southern whites have made strong claims to a separate cultural heritage, defined in opposition both to blacks (and also through historic and recent conflicts with Hispanics) and to Northern Whites.
Obviously, this is a matter of self-identification. Not all light-skinned people who live in the South (however defined) would regard themselves as “Southern Whites”, and self-identifying Southerners do not necessary lose their identification by living elsewhere. But it seems likely that voting patterns would be even more strongly predicted by self-ascribed Southernness than by the regional data that’s available.
In political terms, a classification like this would support and extend the “Whistling Past Dixie“. analysis of Thomas Schaller. To the extent that white Southerners vote on ethnic lines, hostile to key Democratic ideas, it makes little sense to try for a class-based message that panders to (for example) Confederate nostalgia. Rather, the best hope is that younger generations will cease identifying with the South and regard themselves just as Americans or even (Utopianism alert) just as human beings.
In the meantime, the demographic trends are favorable. The ethnic population balance is shifting from White Southerners to Blacks, Hispanics and Asians. So, as long as this alignment remains stable and the Democrats continue to gain ground with younger voters in general, the odds shift in their favor.