A Road Trip Across the American South With Politics in Mind

The holiday period is when we usually take a road trip. This time we took a leisurely drive from Appalachian Virginia to Houston, stopping off each night at Knoxville, Tennessee, then Birmingham, Alabama, before spending our last night on the road in New Orleans.

It has become clear from this and previous road trips over the decades that the crucial bifurcation in US politics is between the urban (overwhelmingly Democratic) and the gated communities of the suburbs and exurbs, and of course rural America (Republican).

Given the electoral college (a long-recognized ploy devised by the founding fathers to overturn the popular vote) and rampant Republican gerrymandering in the southern states, the US is now in a seeming permanent situation of minority rule benefitting the Republicans.

Both Dubya Bush and Trump lost the popular vote but managed to become president.

In the 2018 Senate mid-terms, the Republicans lost the popular vote by a large margin– 34,948,225(Republican) vs 53,044,160(Democrat)—but the Democrats still managed to lose 2 seats in comparison to their 2016 result!

Knoxville was our first overnight stop.

Knoxville’s city politics is officially ʺnon-partisanʺ, but it is clear from reading the bios of the 9 city council members and the mayor that it is overwhelmingly Democratic, in a state where the governor, both US senators, and the US congressional representative for Knox county are Republicans.

A Knoxville city council member who works for ʺliberalʺnon-profits, or is a lawyer specializing in the legal rights of workers, or who supports environmental conservation or Habitat for Humanity, is hardly likely to be a Republican!

You’d have to go back to the days of Eisenhower and Nixon to find Republicans approximating somewhat to a political profile of this kind.

Trump beat Hillary Clinton in Tennessee overall 60.7% to 34.7% in 2016. Knoxville is in Knox County, where Trump beat her 58.5% to 34.8% (though estimates indicate that the size of Trump’s margin was due to the heavily Republican areas outside Knoxville).

Trump lost the two other metropolitan areas in Tennessee—Nashville and Memphis—by large margins.

Clinton won Davidson county, where Nashville is located, securing 59.8% of the vote to Trump’s 33.9%. She also won Shelby county (where Memphis is located) 61.5% to Trump’s 34.5%.

Nashville’s mayor is a Democrat, and the Metropolitan Council (the city-county consolidated government of Nashville and Davidson County) has 40 members, of whom 35 are elected by district and 5 are elected at-large, or county-wide.  Most members designate themselves as “non-partisan”, but only two have Republican affiliations. Nearly all the others have ties with the Democrats.

Memphisis governed by Mayor Jim Strickland (a Democrat) and 13 city council members. Three of these positions are vacant, of the remaining 10 only 3 are Republicans.

Likewise, in Birmingham, Alabama, the city council is dominated by Democrats.

The mayor Randall L Woodfin lists his party affiliation as ʺnon-partisanʺ,but he was the state director for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in Alabama in 2016.

The 9 city council members follow the mayor’s example in listing their party affiliation as ʺnon-partisanʺ, though it is noteworthy that in 2017 the council passed unanimously two nondiscrimination ordinances, becoming the first city in Alabama to provide legal protections for those discriminated on the basis of ʺreal or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability or familial statusʺ.

A city notorious for its fire hoses, police dogs, and billy clubs during the Civil Rights era is taking steps to leave that past behind.

Hillary Clinton beat Trump in Jefferson County (Birmingham is the county seat) 51.55%to 44.34% in 2016 (whereas Trump beat Clinton in Alabama overall 61.1% to 34.4%).

New Orleans, our final stopover, is a city whose mayor and 7-member council are all Democrats. Hillary Clinton beat Trump in New Orleans by more than 80% in 2016 (whereas Trump beat Clinton in Louisiana overall by 20%).

Houston, our final destination, has a Democratic mayor, and its 16-person city council only has 5 Republicans.

It is thus a misnomer to speak of the ʺnewʺSouth in blanket terms—theʺnewʺSouth is very much confined to its metropolitan areas, while their rural counterparts remain obdurately old South.

On a frivolous note, having driven in 40-plus US states since the 1980s, some entirely subjective observations may be in order.

Champion states for pot-holed roads: Alabama and Arkansas (btw, both low-tax Republican states).

Champion states for kamikaze drivers: New Jersey, northern Virginia, Texas.

State with the most out of place/hilariously inaccurate slogan or motto for motorists: Texas (ʺDrive friendly—the Texas wayʺ). Okay, most out-of-state drivers coming to Texas soon realize this is more a desperate exhortation than a remotely possible statement of fact.

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.