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Review of Southern Politics in the 1990s

Journal of Southern History, May, 2001, pp. 489-490.

By James Guth-Furman University

Southern Politics in the 1990s. Edited by Alexander P. Lamis. Baton Rouge University Press, 1999. Pp xviii, 490. $39.95, ISBN 0-8071-2374-9.)

Scholars have attempted to update V. O. Key’s magisterial Southern Politics in State and Nation (New York, 1949) at regular intervals since the 1960’s. It seems to require, in most cases, at least a dozen political scientists to match Key’s exquisite thematic analysis and his memorable depiction of individual states. (Of course, to be fair, Key had a research team working with him.) Although such volumes are often worthy memorials to Key, none has quite matched his scholarly virtuosity. Alexander P. Lamis has long worked in this genre. He single-handedly produced The Two Party South (New York, 1984), a justly praised book that reviewed southern political terrain during the critical years of the 1970s and early 1980s. He continues the story, this time with the aid of twelve journalists and fourteen political scientists (at least one of each per state), in Southern Politics in the 1990s. Between Lamis’s useful introduction and concluding chapters, the book moves from state to state to focus on the rise of the Republican Party in the South during the 1990s, especially during the critical year surrounding the 1994 election.

After the Democrats recovered from the first Republican challenges during the civil rights battles of the 1960s, the party dominated southern politics by molding an effective biracial coalition of blacks and moderate whites. That combination was still working quite well as late as 1990. The Republicans might use exceptional circumstances, scandals, or the talents (and money) of charismatic individuals to win some races for top state offices and even the presidency, but the GOP found it much harder to make inroads down ticket. State legislatures and local governments remained in Democratic hands, with Republicans not even contesting many offices. By the early 1990s, however, demographic trends benefited the Republicans. For years a bourgeoning middle class, a wave of in-migration, and booming suburban communities all created potential Republicans, (as well as “independents”). The GOP finally tapped this potential following the 1990 census as a result of legislative–and often judicial–reapportionment for the U.S. House of Representatives and state chambers. Most reapportionment plans created new “majority minority” districts that were to be won by black Democrats, at the cost of making many other districts “majority Republican.” The GOP’s biggest advance came in 1994, when reapportionment, strategic errors, and the unpopularity of President Bill Clinton hurt the Democratic Party. Although the 1994 election results varied state by state in the South, the GOP generally consolidated its wins, insuring continuation of the new two-party system. The reader wishes that Lamis had withheld the volume from production for a few months, so as to incorporate results from the 1998 elections, which confirm much of the book’s analysis.

While telling the story of the new two-party South, the authors also describe the critical coalition problems facing each party. Most chapters are quite informative on Democratic factionalism, painting in fine textures the critical relationship between moderate whites, who still constitute the overwhelming majority of Democratic office-holders, and liberal blacks, who supply critical votes to put them in office. Given the semipermanent centrality of race in Southern politics, this attention is certainly warranted. But the authors seldom exhibit equivalent insight into the contentious Republican alliance between economic and social conservatives. The chapters and conclusion stress the ubiquity of the GOP’s coalition problem, but that crucial subject receives less attention than the Democrats’ racial dilemma. Indeed, although Christian activists have enjoyed their greatest success in the South (and purportedly control most GOP state organizations there), the book’s depictions usually leave the Christian Right a shadowy and largely anonymous force.

The editor’s strategy of tapping the combined expertise of scholars and journalists pays off. Each chapter is informed by scholarly perspectives as well as the inside dope that only journalists who have spent years interviewing and observing politicians can accumulate. There are no “weak” chapters: each is very informative and, perhaps because of Lamis’s critical guidance during the book’s long gestation, the chapters are much more thematically integrated than the typical edited collection. Because the electoral developments portrayed exhibit remarkable similarity from state to state, however, the reader occasionally longs for an idiosyncratic intrusion. Whatever its minor limitations, Southern Politics in the 1990s will for a long time to come remain an indispensable resource for students of southern political history. Ironically, as Lamis argues in the conclusion, the developments described here have undermined or even destroyed the region’s political distinctiveness, arguably eliminating much of the rationale for this honored genre of scholarship.

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