Columns » John Brummett

Is it racist? Is it forever?

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The New York Times and The Associated Press have joined local politicos in observing Arkansas's prospective Republican behavior in November and in wondering what it means.

This looming political event presents two underlying and compelling questions.

1. Is this, when you get right down to it, racism? Were white rural conservative people in Arkansas happy to cavort with Democrats locally until the Democrats foisted on them an African-American president?

2. Is this a one-time event owing to anger and uncommon circumstance or is this a true and lingering political realignment?

Let's take those in order.

This is partly racist, but hardly entirely so.

You needn't go far in Arkansas to find still-blatant racist attitudes among whites toward blacks. You needn't go even that far to find people who decline to confront that the code by which they speak and live is actually racist.

But the question of whether race is the difference-maker — that's harder.

I'm dubious.

If John Kerry had been elected president and presented to the country an elitist white liberalism, and if Kerry had followed the precise positions and policies of Barack Obama, would the political damage have been as severe in Arkansas?

That's impossible to quantify. It's classically moot.

But there are numbers to ponder. In 2004, Kerry lost to George W. Bush in Arkansas by nine points, 54-45, while, in 2008, Obama lost to John McCain in Arkansas by 20 points, 59-39.

Is that your race variable right there — 11 points?

No. It's never so simple.

McCain, as an independent-minded war hero, was more popular in Arkansas than Bush. Kerry had a Southern running mate, John Edwards, who actually campaigned in Arkansas. Toward the end of the campaign in 2004, a group of Democratic loyalists went ad hoc to raise money to run radio advertising for Kerry-Edwards featuring two of the state's most popular political figures, Dale Bumpers and David Pryor.

Obama wrote off the state entirely. He made no remote effort here. No Democratic loyalists in Arkansas saw any reason to organize in his behalf, partly because he was winning nationally otherwise and partly because the efforts for Kerry failed to produce much of a positive result.

Take Edwards off Kerry's ticket, and take away the organized support for Kerry from Bumpers and Pryor, and put Kerry against McCain instead of Bush, and I figure the dreadfulness of Kerry's showing in Arkansas would begin to resemble Obama's, if not quite equal it.

Racism's role is underlying, insidious, cancerous and unquantifiable. But there are clear indications that Arkansas's resistance to typical national Democratic liberalism was growing anyway the further we got from the artificially sustaining days of Our Boy Bill Clinton.

So is this an anomaly or a lasting realignment?

Here I must quote a very bright fellow who called me the other day to chat about all of this. He said revolution doesn't happen every day but that evolution does.

In other words, Arkansas will not be instantly transformed by a single election. Instead, its steadily occurring conversion will proceed apace.

The state's rural Democratic base of eastern and southern Arkansas has been withering already. Our growth areas, in northwestern Arkansas and the white-flight suburbs of Little Rock (there's race again, as always), are either Republican havens or are becoming so.

This was going to happen regardless. Obama has accelerated it a bit and made the sounds of change a little louder. It's partly malignant and partly benign.

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