Jon Meacham on the 'New South'

In a self-interview entitled "Questions They Never Asked Me," Walker Percy once unleashed the frustrations of years of sitting for interviews, particularly with journalists from outside his native South. "Of all the things I'm fed up with, I think I'm fed up most with hearing about the New South," Percy wrote. Why is that? he asked himself. "I would dearly love never to hear the New South mentioned again … If there is anything more boring than the questions asked about the South, it is the answers Southerners give. If I hear one more Northerner ask about good ol' boys and one more Southerner give an answer, I'm moving to Manaus, Brazil, to join the South Carolinians who emigrated after Appomattox and whose descendants now speak no English and have such names as Senhor Carlos Calhoun."

Though I have never weighed fleeing to Brazil, I am a Southerner who sympathizes with Percy's complaint. To its natives, the South can seem the center of the universe, an American Rome to the rest of the country's barbarous provinces. To non-Southerners, the region is, depending on one's mood, a romantic republic of columned porches or a redoubt of redneck reaction. Neither the South's self-referential view of itself nor the outsiders' competing caricatures is especially useful. The internal impression is vain and precious, the external ones overly simplified and incomplete.

At the heart of conversations about the culture and politics of the South is the question that has launched untold numbers of dissertations: Is the South really different, and if so, how? The usual answer—yes, it is, sort of—includes the proposition that Southerners have a special sense of history and of tragedy. Does Boston or Lake Forest strike anyone as a wild-and-woolly, here-today-gone-tomorrow, throw-custom-to-the-wind kind of place? Yes, the South is said to be the only region of the country to have lost a war, which presumably heightens one's sense of the fragility of life, though how we factor our performance in Vietnam into that chestnut mystifies me. Percy's "New South" watchers have long noted the influx of outsiders to major hubs such as northern Virginia (for government and tech), Charlotte (for banking) and Atlanta (for everything), but even most of the region's natives now have no firsthand experience of the defiance of the 1950s and '60s. Large parts of the populations in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, the Carolinas, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia were not born until the year Reagan first took office. They are a wholly new generation.

There is no question about the significance of the past in a place that has been so decisively and so brutally shaped by slavery and Jim Crow, but other regions were complicit in both evils. Racism is hardly an exclusively Southern phenomenon; it is a national one. The same is true of redemption. The South, then, while more overtly culturally conservative than many other states, is not another country. It does no good to look down on it or dismiss it. Such condescension may feel good in the short run, but it is as self-defeating as old-style Southern slurs about godless, greedy Yankees or pointy-headed liberals.

The American South, to borrow a phrase from the caricature cupboard, just ain't that different anymore. It was once, but the Civil War is the exception that proves the rule that the South tends not to contradict but to exemplify, if sometimes in an exaggerated way, what much of the nation thinks and feels. Understanding America's politics, then, requires understanding the South's—which is one reason why declaring the 2008 presidential election over is to make the same mistake the hotheads at the barbecue in "Gone With the Wind" did when they thought they could whip the Union forces in short order.

I have been in the South for the past month, occasionally talking politics, and have heard much more about Iraq and the price of gasoline than I have about Obama's race or John McCain's age. Though this is necessarily anecdotal, my sense is that many whites who have been skeptical of Democrats since the civil-rights era are not going to make a reflexive choice in November but will—like many other Americans—carefully weigh Obama against McCain.

This is mixed news for both campaigns. As a Republican, McCain should, in a normal year, be able to count on the electoral votes that have generally gone to the GOP since Reagan, a hefty sum that would force Obama to win 70 percent of the electoral votes in the rest of the country. But this is not a normal year: a friend of mine was buying a plate lunch from the Church of God on Natural Bridge Road in Franklin County, Tenn., in July—you have to get there early, because the fried chicken goes fast—and overheard a couple of white truckers denouncing President Bush and the GOP in virulent terms. If you are a Republican in a nation at war and you have lost the truck drivers at the Church of God on Natural Bridge Road, you cannot be sure of anything.

Obama faces the same obstacle that confounded Al Gore and John Kerry: he is a Democrat, which has been a supra-racial fatal flaw in the South over the last 40 years. The two men who have defeated Republicans for the White House since 1968—Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton—were both Southerners who understood that America is essentially a center-right country. They won nationally because they spoke the language of that center, one that includes, but is far from limited to, states in the South. With the exception of Virginia, Carter swept the region in 1976. Clinton twice carried Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Tennessee and West Virginia, and picked off Georgia in 1992 and Florida in 1996.

Kerry lost every Southern state in 2004, so Obama has nowhere to go but up, and is, as of midsummer, not unreasonably confident of finding some success in traditionally Republican territory. The campaign has ground operations in Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas. His advisers offer the following scenario: register hundreds of thousands of new black voters, thus dramatically reducing the percentage of the white vote Obama needs to win or be competitive in the South. Meanwhile, he works hard to tap the large number of unregistered Latino voters in the South—630,000 unregistered in Florida, 84,000 in North Carolina and 70,000 in Virginia. And the campaign continues its effort to bring in new younger voters, targeting, for example, the 236,000 unregistered 18- to 24-year-olds in Florida. Georgia, with its 600,000 unregistered black voters, 227,000 unregistered 18- to 24-year-olds and Bob Barr's Libertarian candidacy, is the fantasy prize.

On a more realistic note, Democrats privately concede that Virginia is probably their best hope, and some in the party establishment in Washington believe Obama has a better chance of winning Virginia than he does Ohio. Wisely, McCain is taking nothing for granted and has treated the South with respect. He has campaigned there and knows that Virginia is perhaps his greatest vulnerability. On a swing through what the campaign called "the forgotten places" of the Deep South, McCain promised to be "a president for all the people." In this he was making the case that he is not an unreflective party man—and that he is not (truck drivers, take note) George W. Bush.

Dr. Percy was right: talking about the New South is boring. It is an artificial exercise, an attempt to bring order to something that is intrinsically complex and fluid. "In fact, my definition of a New South," Percy said, "would be a South in which it never occurred to anybody to mention the New South." Fair enough. But watch the map in the coming 90 days. If history is any guide, the South of 2008, or at least a part of it, will determine the election—not in defiance of the rest of the country, but in concert with it.