Southern Political Party Activists: Patterns of Conflict and Change, 1991-2001

Article excerpt

Southern Political Party Activists: Patterns of Conflict and Change, 1991-2001. Edited by John A. Cloark and Charles L. Prysby. (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2004. Pp. ix, 254; $65, cloth; $25, paper.)

This collection of articles considers the state of political parries in the eleven former Confederate states by examining the activities and attitudes of their leadership. The eleven substantive essays in the book, most delivered as papers at the 2002 meeting of the Southern Political Science Association, compare the results of surveys of party activists in 1991 and 2001 conducted under the aegis of the National Science Foundation-funded Southern Grassroots Party Activists (SGPA) project. All of the contributors are political scientists. John Clark and Charles Prysby, the editors, have grouped the essays under three heads: social factors and party conflict, political attitudes of southern party activists, and organizational involvement among southern party activists. Clark and Prysby provide excellent introductory and concluding essays. A description of the 2001 sampling plan and response rates appears as an appendix.

Certainly the volume is timely. The political realignment that has taken place in the United States over the past generation is largely a function of the political transformation of the South, which in presidential and, to a lesser extent, Congressional elections is almost as solidly Republican today as it was solidly Democratic in earlier decades. Without this transformation, we would have neither the current national Republican ascendance nor the "Red-Blue" politico-cultural division so beloved by commentators. Much of this was evident as early as Ronald Reagan's election in 1980 and was perhaps foreshadowed in the careers of Strom Thurmond and George Wallace. George W. Bush's sweep of the region seems an extension of the Reagan ascendance.

But this is not quite the case, as this volume makes clear. Race, which drove nearly all southern voting for generations, appears less important than evangelical religion and free-market economics, particularly among the now-dominant Republicans. John Clark's exemplary essay on religion underscores this fact. In 2001 some 39 percent of Republican leaders were self-identified evangelical Protestants, compared to 35 percent in 1991; nearly half of all Republican leaders were "close" or "very close" to the Christian Right, compared to 18 percent of Democratic leaders. Among white activists only, the differences were even more dramatic.

This evangelization has moved southern Republicans steadily rightward. Southern Republicans were overwhelmingly conservative on thirteen of fourteen issues covered in the 2001 SGPA survey. (Equal roles for women was the exception). But in 2001 Christian Right Republicans were much more conservative than non-Christian Right Republicans on abortion and measurably more conservative on other cultural issues such as school prayer, gay job discrimination, handgun control, the death penalty, and school vouchers. They were also more conservative than other Republicans on economic issues: regulation of health care, spending on social services, and flat taxation. There was little difference on hiring preferences for blacks as well as guaranteed jobs and living standards, which, perhaps echoing earlier race-based politics, Republicans opposed almost unanimously. …