Growing up in rural northeast Mississippi, three “sins” were pretty much inculcated into the fabric of our upbringing: booze, gambling, and voting Republican.
In my adult life all have fallen by the wayside: alcohol, in some form, is sold legally throughout the state (though hard liquor is still consistently voted down in the county where I grew up); there are now probably a couple dozen Las Vegas-style casinos in operation; and over the past four decades or so the voting majority has gone from considering Republicanism the vilest form of epithet to equating it with apple pie and motherhood.
We who have been observers and chroniclers of these sea changes have tended to think they were the evolutionary result of modern-day Mississippians becoming more like the rest of the country. But, says Marty Wiseman, director of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government and Political Science at Mississippi State University, in the case of politics it may be just the opposite.
Wiseman, long-time analyst of political trends and columnist in a number of publications, has written that Mississippi and other southern states haven’t so much become more like the rest of America politically, but rather “America has become more like Mississippi,” with the South “moving to the center of the stage of national Republican politics.” Haley Barbour, Republican whose eight-year term as governor ended in December, has been a powerhouse in national politics, serving as chairman of the Republican Party and the Republican Governors Association, and had wide support for a bid for the Republican presidential nomination this year, though he opted out.
Going back to Civil War days, Wiseman says, Mississippi and other Deep South states have been staunchly anti-Washington, “despite their voracious appetite for — and indeed, survival — on Washington dollars.” And Mississippians have “always embraced a low tax mentality, mainly because there was always so little money to tax. Thus, it’s easy to convince them and other southerners to be appalled at large amounts of debt.”
Finally, being in the center of the Bible Belt, he says, “Mississippi takes a back seat to no one when it comes to mixing religion and politics” and it appears “the rest of America is lining up with Mississippi.”
And Wiseman said in a recent discussion with a Starkville, Miss. group, “I have never seen political camps set up with such a fundamental debate and disagreement on economic systems — one being a pure, unfettered capitalistic system, the other being what they accuse of being socialistic, but really is capitalism with an injection of government to put a safety net under the least fortunate.
“We’ve come to divide everything,” Wiseman says. “A lot of it has to do with redistricting, nationally as well as at the state level. We now tend to have districts that are made up of mostly people with the same racial identity, or party affiliation, so they have much the same interests politically.
“They’re going to vote a certain way and they don’t have to pay attention to how those in another district may vote. So there’s less reason every year for Republicans and Democrats to sit down and compromise, the way our government was designed at the beginning.”
The expansion of media, chiefly the proliferation of cable TV channels, has had a significant impact on the nation’s politics, Wiseman says.
“You can watch a news story on one network and then you see the same story on another network, but with a totally different slant.
“It used to be that we had just 30 minutes of news at 5:30 p.m. — Walter Cronkite and Chet Huntley/David Brinkley — and that was it until next morning when we’d read the newspaper to get the fuller version. Now, we’ve got 24-hour news channels offering many different viewpoints — conservative, liberal, and all variations in between.
“So, we tend to watch the one that’s closest to our personal beliefs and values. Not only that, with computers and the Internet there are hundreds of blogs, which look just like regular news sites, but they can be right-wing, left-wing, whatever. If there’s one you don’t agree with or don’t like, you say, ‘Well, I’m not going to watch or read that any more’. So, we end up watching or reading only the sources we agree with, which results in an even more divided population of those who think they’re right and everyone else is wrong.”
The November 2010 congressional elections, Wiseman says, “sent 60-some-odd people to Washington who were elected on the basis of their swearing they would go to Congress and never, never compromise on anything — this, in spite of the fact that from the day our government was established more than 200 years go, it has been built on compromise.”
For those who suggest doing away with the electoral college and electing the president by popular vote, he says “in a state like Mississippi, where maybe 1 million people vote — out of a total national vote of 120 million — no politician is going to pay much attention to that kind of state if he’s running on popular vote alone. But in a close race, where six or seven electoral votes can swing an election, it’s a different story. The electoral college keeps states like Mississippi in play politically.”
And while many denounce the seniority system in Congress and the “earmarks” that members of Congress use to fund projects, Wiseman says both have been beneficial to Mississippi
“It’s rare to get someone to the level of chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee or ranking minority member, but Thad Cochran got there and was bringing home $600 million to $700 million in earmarks every year. Now, we’ve put the quietus on that.
“Everyone has just accepted that earmarks are a bad thing, but if you look at them, you’ve got small-town airport runways, rural water systems, utilities for industrial parks, and other projects. We all hear about ‘the bridge to nowhere’, but a lot of these earmarks have real value — particularly in states like Mississippi.
“It’s frustrating that we’ve cut these off, particularly in terms of their impact on our universities, for research, medical programs, etc. In the South, particularly in Mississippi, we have a culture of sending people to Washington time and again so they can build up seniority and get to the point where they can affect the amount of money coming back to our state.
“Right now, we’re wasting our seniority by not being able to receive these earmarks. While many condemn federal money, those dollars spend quite well, and in the poorest state in the nation I’d rather have them than not have them.”