Mississippi may be poised to join political mainstream

The annual rhetorical outburst that is fast becoming customary during the sweltering month of August has certainly served as the impetus for more than a few moments of reflection.  Perhaps the highlight this year was conservative commentator Glenn Beck’s dusting off of the spot where Dr. Martin Luther King made his classic “I Have a Dream Speech” to make a national religious call to arms.

To be sure, the volume was turned up on other fronts, as well, as Republicans can hardly contain their glee in anticipation of a potential takeover of both houses of Congress in November’s mid-term elections.  While Democrats cannot seem to find their most convincing voice, the voice of Mississippi Republican Gov. Haley Barbour is being heard over almost everyone, and with greater frequency every day.  Any longtime political observer with a sense of history can hardly help but surmise that this relationship of a Mississippian to national political possibilities is different.

A scanning of the office bookshelves turned up two dust and cobweb-covered gems.  The older of the two was former Ole Miss professor John W. Silver’s “Mississippi: The Closed Society.”  This famous work contained a detailed case made by Silver of Mississippi’s social, cultural, economic and religious isolation during the decades leading up to 1963 when the book was published.  The other book, which is perhaps more intriguing for purposes of this column, is by then Nashville journalist John Egerton.  It is entitled “The Americanization of Dixie:  The Southernization of America.”  Published as it was in 1974 by Harper’s Magazine Press, The Americanization of Dixie was Egerton’s way of taking a deep breath and claiming victory on behalf of moderate and liberal Southerners over the last holdouts of segregationists and guardians of the old “Southern way of life.”  In essence, his thesis was that the South, including of course Mississippi, was poised to become a part of mainstream America.  This was indeed “news” in that day.

Most who have become accustomed to having graying hair or perhaps no hair at all remember an era when Mississippi preferred to go it alone with an “us against the world” attitude.  Mississippi proudly walked out of the 1948 Democratic National Convention and reconvened, along with other Southern states, in Birmingham to form the short-lived Dixiecrat Party.  While there, Mississippi delegates helped place Mississippi Gov. Fielding Wright on Dixiecrat Presidential nominee Strom Thurmond’s ticket as the vice presidential candidate.  The failure of the Dixiecrat ticket did not quench our thirst for individualism.  In 1960, Mississippi gave her precious electoral votes away to the “Unpledged Electors” rather than to Democrat John F. Kennedy, seeing as how going Republican was still totally out of the question.  But all of that changed one election later when in 1964 Mississippi gave Republican Barry Goldwater 87 percent of the vote. Mississippi was one of only six states to do so, however.

Mississippi’s 1964 headlong plunge into the Republican Party, combined with the passage of the Civil Rights Act that same year and the passage of the Voting Rights Act one year later, began in earnest the transformation of party loyalty in Mississippi.  But author Egerton’s declaration of “mission accomplished” on the South’s absorption into the mainstream of national political culture behind the leadership of the South’s liberal leaders may have been premature.

Indeed, Mississippi and surrounding Southern states may not have become more like the rest of America. Instead, recent evidence appears to indicate that America has become more like Mississippi.  Furthermore, it is conservative Republicans led by the likes of Mississippi Republican Gov. Haley Barbour who are sealing the deal. Gov. Barbour has been chairman of the National Republican Party, and is now chair of the Republican Governor’s Association.  He has often repeated his intent to be involved in 37 gubernatorial campaigns between now and November.  The widely-read and respected news organization Politico, on Aug. 19, 2010, labeled Barbour as the nation’s “most powerful Republican.”  In fact, Gov. Barbour himself has raised over $40 million to be used in the fall elections, according to Politico.

The South, with Mississippi’s conservative Republican governor at the helm, is moving to the center of the stage of national Republican politics.  How can this be so?  First, since the days prior to the Civil War Mississippi and her neighboring states have been manifestly anti-Washington.  This has been true in spite of the South’s voracious appetite for — and indeed survival — on dollars from Washington.  Secondly, Mississippi has always embraced a “low tax” mentality mainly because there was always so little money to tax.  Thus, it’s easy to convince Mississippians and other Southerners to be appalled at large amounts of debt.

Finally, because of her position in the center of the “Bible Belt,” Mississippi takes a back seat to no one when it comes to mixing religion and politics. As the anti-Washington and religious tone of Glenn Beck’s rally in front of 300,000 Americans would indicate, the rest of America is lining up in full agreement with Mississippi, and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour is being mentioned as a potential Republican presidential nominee, and nobody’s laughing anymore.

Dr. William Martin Wiseman is director of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government and professor of political science at Mississippi State University. Contact him at marty@sig.msstate.edu.

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