Newsweek's shoddy analyses

Dickey and Meacham rely on convenient tropes and anecdotes to arrive at some convenient but misleading conclusions about the South.

Published August 4, 2008 7:12PM (EDT)

In the latest issue of Newsweek, Christopher Dickey and John Meacham published a pair of pieces about politics in the South. With all due respect, their reporting relies mostly on tropes and anecdotal evidence to reach the conclusion that this is both a change election in the South and that the region somehow reflects the attitudes of the country at large.

In "Whistling Past Dixie," I chronicle and chart white voting behavior from 1976 through 2004 by region. (Because when we talk about changing attitudes in the South, given the constancy of black attitudes and voting behavior, we really mean the white South, naturally.) Basically, the two baseline and/or median regions are the Midwest (a mix of states like Wisconsin and Minnesota along with Nebraska and the Dakotas) and the Far West (again, a mix of states like California and Oregon but also the Alaskas and Utahs and Montanas); the overall white vote in these two regions has been strikingly similar, year in and year out, with the exception of 1992, thanks to the interference of one Ross Perot.

In any case, the overall white vote in the 25 states has not only been very similar and consistent but also, not surprisingly and year in and year out, less Democratic than the 12 Northeast states from Maine to Maryland and less Republican than the 13 states of the former Confederacy plus Oklahoma and Kentucky. (These are the groupings often used when trying to boil the country down to just four regions.) OK, so no surprise there, right? But guess what: Using the Midwest/Far West as the national white voter benchmark, the deviation from this baseline by white Southern voters in 2004 was three times greater (that is, more Republican) than the deviation of white voters in the Northeast (who voted more Democratic) than that same, MW/FW benchmark. Al Gore won the non-Southern white vote in 2000 and John Kerry nearly did four years later. The outlier region in America is, as it has almost always been, the South -- basically, because overly Republican/conservative whites and overly Democratic blacks live there. Indeed, as recently as November 2006, the last time (so far as I know) that Survey USA published simultaneous statewide polls in all 50 states of George W. Bush's approval, the president's approval in the white South was about 56 percent -- or literally double what it was (about 28 percent) in the rest of the nonwhite South and all of the non-South (of any race) combined! For Dickey and Meacham to claim the South "reflects" the way America feels is akin to saying that if you take the average of the viewpoints of Jesse Jackson and Tom DeLay their net opinion is microcosmic of how America feels.

Is the South, as Meacham states, less distinct than it was 30 years ago? Of course. Will it be less distinct 30 years hence? Sure. But to suggest that it reflects America overall, today, is a stretch. But Dickey's reporting and Meacham's claims are standard fare: a preordained and superficial feint toward the South backed by little more than back-of-the-napkin, anti-empirical anecdotes from some truck driver or whoever. Because such narratives make Southern Democrats and self-abnegating Ivy League-educated editors feel nice, brace yourself for more junk analyses like these.

By Thomas Schaller

Thomas F. Schaller is professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the author of "Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South." Follow him @schaller67.

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