A couple of weeks ago, I went to South Carolina for a wedding. The charming architecture of Charleston sits amidst rugged lowlands and dramatic hanging Spanish moss. It is a land of palm trees, exotic vegetation, tropical birds and even the occasional alligator—country devoted to local gastronomy, made up by a variety of ethnicities, including the descendants of French and British colonists, African slaves and a native Gulla culture on the nearby islands.
Politically, it has less to recommend it. The state government is ruled by an almost entirely white Republican Party. (The governor is an Indian American, the new junior senator a black conservative, but these are outliers.) The opposition Democrats are mainly a party representing the black population. Like most states of the Deep South, it ranks poorly on most indicators: income disparities, poorly performing schools, more children living in poverty, fewer college graduates than in the richer regions to the north. This is a familiar story in most of what the American media call the “red states.”
None of this is surprising. Nevertheless, not everything conforms to expectations. Most striking to me on my recent visit was the number of people who did not have Southern accents. This is not trivial.
Regional accents across America are disappearing. One rarely hears the once emblematic “Toity Toid Street” (33rd Street) of Brooklyn, the “ya cahn’t git theh from hieh” of New England, the “youse guys” of New Jersey, the Ulster-derived “aboot” (about) of my native Virginia. These regional inflections have mostly been replaced by the generic American accent heard on television newscasts across the country. The regional accents remain only among a diminishing number of working class people or among those from rural and small town America. Young people across the country increasingly sound alike.
It’s not too hard to figure out why accents are disappearing. Technology has brought people increasingly into contact. Popular culture has become national and international. In Europe, this phenomenon is apparent in the decline of minority languages like Breton in France or Platt Deutsche in Germany, with places like Catalonia in Spain actively resisting. It is also seen in the spread of American English around the world.
But technology is not the only reason regional diversity is disappearing. The most important reason is the economy. Markets have become increasingly integrated. Within countries, rural landscapes that a century earlier ceded territory to the rise of industry now cede land to economies based on services. In America, more than in Europe, this has also meant huge migrations, first as Southerners (mostly black) moved north after World War II, and now as Northerners move south, fleeing de-industrialization and cold temperatures. The overall result of this movement is that America is becoming more homogenous and more urban. This represents a problem for the Republican Party.
Historically, the United States has always been divided politically along geographic lines. The North-South divide is the most famous, as it was the root of the Civil War. However, after the Civil War, the regional divide was reflected in the party system. The South was dominated by Democrats, the North by Republicans.
Two trends changed this. Over the course of the 20th Century, especially with Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency, the Democrats became associated with labor in the industrial North, while the owners of capital stuck with the Republicans.
Until 1965, the Democrats were divided. Their progressive wing was linked to the interests of the Northeast and the upper Midwest, but there was also a Southern wing that was dominated by whites still nostalgic for the old Confederacy. With the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, those Southern whites shifted their allegiance to the Republicans. The Solid South became solidly Republican (except for the black minority, who shifted to the Democratic Party after being historically Republican in gratitude to Lincoln).
The center of gravity of today’s Republican Party is in the deep South. The base of the party is, like the South, mostly rural, though the Republicans are also champions of rural concerns (some might say prejudices) across the country. Their commitment to laissez faire economics also cements their bond with Wall Street (“country club Republicans”).
While most conservative parties have a rural base—this is true of Britain’s Tories, the French UMP and the various “popular” parties of continental Europe—the Republican reliance on the American South gives it a peculiar coloration, figuratively, but also racially. The Republicans are certainly the party of Southern white men, but the American South is especially odd. Its reactionary politics predated the country’s founding, and even Tocqueville noted a hierarchical and authoritarian place that would look familiar today.
The reactionary politics of the South was directly responsible for a “pro-business” climate, characterized by anti-union legislation; a heritage of Jim Crow (now illegal) that pitted white workers against blacks; a docile, if poorly educated, labor force; and consequent low wages. These conditions attracted Northern industries to relocate below the Mason-Dixon Line, and “red states” were eagerly explored by foreign manufacturers seeking better access to the American market.
The changes engendered by such capital flows have gradually made the South less rural. Paradoxically, the very conservative politics that attracted investment have made the region more hospitable to progressives. As the South has become more urbanized, it has begun to look and sound like the rest of America. The voting patterns in Southern cities look very much like those in their Northern counterparts. As television comedian Bill Maher put it: There are a lot of blue people in the red states.
These trends combine with others. Many Americans of Latino ethnicity have migrated from the Southwest to the Southeast. Latino communities generally have become increasingly active, and they vote overwhelmingly for the Democratic Party. Southern young people tend to vote like their Northern counterparts; while not always on the left, they are usually significantly to the left of their elders. Even evangelical Christians, a solid pillar of U.S. conservatism, have been swayed by arguments that they are stewards of the planet God gave them, and have become increasingly progressive on environmental issues.
The transformation of the South does not mean the Republican Party’s days are numbered, but it does mean the party will have to adapt. Since the presidential election of 2012, the Republican leadership has become convinced the party is not competitive at the national level if they continue to alienate Latinos. These other trends I have described mean that over time they will also need to adapt not only to compete nationally, but even to compete at the (newly urbanized) local level. The Grand Old Party’s current base of cranky old white men and Confederate nostalgics will die off. The party will need to appeal to an electorate that is increasingly young, female and multi-ethnic. They will need to address the concerns of a newly citified society. If the Republicans do not become more like the Democrats, they will be replaced by them.
Harvey B. Feigenbaum is professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. This article originally appeared in Le Monde Diplomatique.