Lott falls, but Democrats don't rise

Author Charles Bullock, an expert in the politics of the South, says the GOP will dust itself off and get along fine in Dixie.

By Eric Boehlert
Published December 22, 2002 1:00AM (EST)

After nearly two weeks of fierce controversy, Mississippi Republican Sen. Trent Lott has finally relinquished his position as Senate majority leader. In a sense, it seems like the end of an era: He'd made remarks before that seemed to suggest an unhealthy nostalgia for the days of segregation and he'd always gotten away with it. This time, he didn't. And in the process, a glaring new light was thrown on his past and on the subtle race-baiting tactics used by others in the Republican Party.

But it's wrong to think that Lott's fall from power represents a dramatic shift in the political climate of the South, says Charles Bullock, professor of political science at the University of Georgia in Athens and co-editor of the 1998 book, "The New Politics of the Old South." The Lott episode has been embarrassing for the Republicans, he told Salon in a telephone interview Friday, but there's little reason to believe it will cost them much in the 2004 election. And, he added, there's little reason to believe it signals the end of coded appeals to racism that are ingrained in the political culture of the South -- and in much of the North, too.

The Lott affair came in the afterglow of the Republicans' triumphant 2002 midterm elections, where the party seemed to firmly take control of the South, easily defeating Democrats in statewide races in places like Georgia, South Carolina and Florida. Some critics, though, charged Republicans ran a campaign that relied to a disturbing degree on subtle -- and not so subtle -- racism. For instance, in the Georgia race for governor, Republican Sonny Perdue stunned incumbent Roy Barnes on Election Day. As governor, Barnes had tried to push through the state Legislature an initiative to shrink the Confederate battle emblem on Georgia's state flag. Perdue made an issue of it, and scored points in doing so.

"Most whites don't necessarily see these appeals as being racially motivated or racially tinged," Bullock says. "Sure, a Democrat is going to argue they are, but a whole lot of whites don't see it that way."

According to some election analysts, one key for Republican success in the South was the moderate turnout among African-Americans, who, in the absence of Bill Clinton, appeared less enthusiastic about voting on Election Day. At the same time, Republicans garnered more and more of the Southern white vote. The disaster was only partially mitigated by Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu's election runoff win in December.

Bullock sees a simple dynamic at work: For Democrats, "the white vote's just gone."

But the controversy surrounding Lott's comments has refocused and re-energized the long-running national debate on racial politics. In the interview, Bullock discussed whether it might give Democrats a chance to win back some crucial suburban swing voters down South.

In terms of Southern politics, what is the significance of Trent Lott's resignation?

By removing himself from the leadership position it makes using his statement a less effective technique for Democrats trying to mobilize black turnout in 2004. After their relatively poor showing in 2002 in the South, they're trying to figure out: What can we do to increase black levels of participation? They want to get races that look more like Louisiana a couple weeks ago, rather than the races in Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida from six weeks ago.

What about from the Republicans' standpoint? There was lots of talk about the Georgia race and how an important issue was the Confederate flag and that there's sort of been a code used in the past among Republican candidates. Will this incident make it harder for Republicans to flirt with those issues?

I think they can still flirt with them. Lott's problem wasn't so much flirtation as it was a mad love affair with the Dixiecrats of 1948.

So you think it's a question of context and subtlety?

Yeah. I don't think there are many Americans anymore who want to openly embrace something that's seen as being racist. Fifty years ago that was no problem. The time has moved and the people have moved well beyond that.

Do you think President Bush will be able to improve upon the 8 percent African-American vote he received in 2000?

As an incumbent, I suspect he probably will. Will it be a large enough share that observers will say, "Wow, that's impressive!"? No, I don't think it'll be there.

There's been talk that Republicans are trying to reach out to African-Americans, but it seems that for Bush, politically, the Lott controversy had a different subtext. Bush received the smallest amount of African-American votes since Goldwater, and his strategists probably don't see black voters as crucial. Was the White House handling of this controversy driven more by the need to avoid alienating moderate white voters in the South?

I think that's right. For almost 40 years now, no Republican for president has done particularly well in terms of attracting black votes, and most Republicans running for governor or senator don't get much of the black vote. So if it's 10 percent, or 12 percent, or 14 percent, there isn't a whole lot of variation there. And my guess is in 2004, unless for some reason Bush's popularity is so overwhelming that Democrats effectively cede the contest to him -- which I cannot imagine -- I don't think they'll make great headway there. But you're right, what can really hurt Republican candidates is if moderate whites were to perceive that the Republican message is a racist message.

So the only way for Democrats to unlock that stranglehold is to peel off a large chunk of those swing voters. And I'm guessing they'd be suburban voters who might feel uncomfortable with Lott in a leadership position.

Right, suburbanites, and disproportionately female.

And Republicans did very well with those suburban females in the midterms, correct?

Right. We didn't have exit polls this year, but from looking at the results you'd have to assume that what the Republicans were able to do throughout much of the South was to eliminate much of the gender gap.

Bill Clinton called it hypocritical for Republicans to criticize Lott because they do this stuff all the time -- trying to suppress the black vote and using code words like "crime," or symbols such as the Confederate flag, to galvanize white voters with subtle appeals to racial fear or racial pride. After Lott's very public humiliation, will Republicans still be able to use code messages like the flag or crime as a way to reach out to white voters in the South?

I think so, because most whites don't necessarily see these appeals as being racially motivated or racially tinged. Sure, a Democrat is going to argue they are, but a whole lot of whites don't see it that way.

So an issue like the Confederate flag, they see that as an issue of history and tradition?

Right. I had an interesting conversation with somebody very close to [former Georgia] Gov. Roy Barnes and he was saying you have in essence kind of two levels of white response to the flag but they all end up at the same point. You have traditional white, long-time Southern residents who talks about honoring the confederacy and the sacrifices in the 1860s, etc., etc. Then you have folks who moved into the South and for them it's sort of a lifestyle. I think he referred to it as the "Disney World experience." That you move to the South and people talk different and eat different kinds of things and they have this quaint flag and people sort of buy into that. After they've been here six months they've bought into that.

So really it's only the African-American population that sees the flag issue as a race-based one?

It's probably not that narrow. But polls I saw -- and these were taken at the time of the 2000 presidential election -- they showed white Democrats favoring the old flag by about 3 to 2. Republicans favored it even more heavily. But the white population, whether you're Democrat or Republican, you weren't terribly enthusiastic about changing the flag.

Why do you think the Lott controversy struck a chord the way that it did? He had made similar comments in the past. And John Ashcroft has made statements praising Confederate leaders. Do you think the rules have changed? Or was this an aberration?

I think part of the difference may be that you can talk about the bravery of Confederate soldiers. OK, fine -- that's 140 years ago. I'm sure some people would say, 'Well, that means you wished the Confederate soldiers had won.' But that's so far in the past it doesn't really resonate. But look at Lott's statement that it was too bad Strom Thurmond didn't win in 1948. Well, Strom's still around, still alive. You're more within the realm of what contemporary Americans have experienced and think of. Rather than trying to turn the clock back 140 years.

When was the last time you'd find an American leader of any sense who was saying "Too bad slavery's gone"? Back in the 1880s, you could find people in public life who were saying that. Maybe even up until the turn of the century. Even noted racists of the 1950s and 1960s weren't saying, "Gee, we need to get back to slavery."

Why do you think his apologies didn't stick?

I think part of it was that it turned out he'd said it more than one time. Conceivably if this were the only time, he could explain it as getting caught up in the moment, and it was a slip of the tongue. But then you had the 1980 comment and what was captured on tape in 2000, and then you start to think, maybe this is something he says every time he gets within 100 yards of Strom Thurmond, he launches into this kind of behavior.

In light of the midterm election results, which really seemed to be an exclamation point for Republicans in the South, do you think there was a sense of arrogance among Southern Republicans that "we've got this locked up and we can sort of say whatever we want now"?

I don't think so. I think it's more a Trent Lott problem, rather than a Republican problem.

You mentioned that now that Lott has taken himself out of a leadership position, his comments won't be an issue in 2004. What lesson can Democrats take from this encounter in the context of Southern politics?

I'm not sure Democrats get much of a lesson out of this, or something they can take to the bank. I think they got a lesson from the vote in Louisiana in terms of what they need to do if they want to make headway. They need a strong black turnout and they need to hang onto about 40 percent of the white vote. And my hunch is they probably didn't achieve either of those goals in a number of the contests they lost in 2002; the Southern white votes slipped and they also didn't get strong black turnout.

Couldn't this help among African-Americans who didn't vote in 2002? Then the Lott controversy comes up and they decide, "I'm never going to skip an election again"?

Sure, I suspect it will be used in that way and I think it'll have some impact. But it's damaged a bit because he's no longer the leader, so it's a little bit harder to make the argument to vote for our local Democrat because Republicans are the party of Trent Lott and here's what Trent Lott said. But Trent Lott's no longer the Republican leader.

Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

MORE FROM Eric Boehlert

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2002 Elections George W. Bush Paul Shirley