Irony Abounds -- But the Madding Crowd May Not Notice

Posted: Dec 09, 2014 2:54 PM

After the last runoff election of this year's midterms, the old Solid South still stands -- except for one small detail. Instead of being solid Democratic territory, it's becoming solid Republican. All the blue states seem to be turning red. 

Just about the last Democratic senator standing in Congress lost her bid for a fourth term in Saturday's

election. To no one's great surprise. For none of the old winning and now waning issues -- from federal pork to seniority in the Senate -- worked this time around. Neither did just force of habit. ("Of course I'm going to vote the Democratic ticket, just like grandpappy used to.") 

Nothing was enough to save Mary Landrieu from defeat this year, including her well-known last name down Louisiana way. Here in Arkansas, Mark Pryor's surname (he's the son of a former governor and U.S. senator) didn't do the trick for him this year, either. 

Louisiana's senior senator was forced into a runoff, having carried only 42 percent of the vote the first time around, while some obscure Republican congressman led the rest of the pack. All he really had going for him was that (R) after his name, not to mention the generalized distaste this current Democratic president inspires. It was all more than enough to assure a Republican landslide in Louisiana. And elsewhere. 

Falling short of a majority of the vote in round one of a statewide election is the traditional signal in Louisiana politics that an incumbent is on the way out in round two -- and so Sen. Landrieu was. Her vaunted seniority in the Senate scarcely mattered after the GOP's nationwide sweep this year; her committee chairmanships were gone anyway. For good measure, the GOP collected another couple of Louisiana's congressional seats. 

The political times, they are a-changin'. Indeed, they done changed. And to pretend they haven't is just blown' in the wind: 

Come senators, congressmen

Please heed the call

Don't stand in the doorway

Don't block up the hall

For he that gets hurt

Will be he who has stalled

There's a battle outside and it's ragin'

It'll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls

For the times they are a-changin' ...

Even in Louisiana -- where good old (at 87) Edwin Edwards, ex-con and ex-governor, the most popular rogue in the state, couldn't get elected to Congress. All the color seems to have gone out of that state's once colorful politics, which has turned drab Republican gray.

That noted gourmand, boxing aficionado and political sage -- A.J. Liebling -- once called Louisiana our only Mediterranean state, but these days it's starting to resemble dry-as-dust Kansas. What next -- will Cajuns abandon jambalaya and a crawfish pie and filé gumbo in favor of a diet of corn flakes and tapioca?

Once upon as spicier time, a stretch in the big house, or at least some time in a mental hospital, was almost a qualification for being governor of Louisiana. Remember Earl K. Long, aka The Earl of Louisiana? His political enemies railroaded him into the loony bin, and he came out after a few days' rest more popular than ever. Uncle Earl, it turned out, was crazy like a fox.

They tell the story about the Kansas farmer who emerged from his cyclone cellar to find everything on the place gone, including the place itself, or at least all the topsoil. And he just burst out laughing. When his little boy asked what was so funny, he replied: "Why, son, the completeness of it!" All across the South, from the Carolinas to Texas, the Atlantic Ocean to the Red River, Democratic senators -- and governors -- toppled like dominoes. As for the House of Representatives, the GOP hasn't won so many seats since Harry Truman's popularity was at its low ebb in 1946.

All those Southern congressional districts that used to be divided by party are now split by race -- the majority of them white and Republican, the others black and Democratic. What happened? Redistricting for one thing -- maybe the thing. Democratic strategists seemed delighted when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld what was called "majority-minority" congressional districts. Why, this meant that black -- and Democratic -- candidates would be assured of safe seats because so many black voters would now be compressed into their own congressional districts, assuring the election of congressmen of their own race and party. This was called "equal representation," but the results have been anything but equal.

A ruthless Republican political operative named Lee Atwater, along with the savvy Republican leader who engineered the GOP's sweeping triumph in the congressional elections of 1994, Newt Gingrich, had foreseen what would happen: Guaranteeing black Democratic seats in the House would guarantee a lot more white Republican ones. And dilute the overall influence of the black vote throughout the South, for instead of being the swing vote in evenly divided congressional districts, black voters would be isolated and abandoned in their own districts, as segregated as they were in the Jim Crow era. And as inconsequential.

Result: All those Democratic masterminds who cheered racial redistricting proved too clever by far. Their signature accomplishment, it can now be seen, was to outwit themselves -- and their party.

A stable, working two-party system needs both political parties to veer toward the middle in search of undecided voters. Only in that way can the political moderation on which the system depends for its stability be preserved. Instead, the current system makes race the decisive factor in congressional races, and gives the extremes in each party a lock on their own gerrymandered districts. And the racial minority stays a minority in all ways -- political and economic and in terms of any real influence. 

This "reform" innovation that was going to help black voters wound up hurting them, and feeding the extremes of both parties. The ironies abound.