Last week I shared statistics about presidential elections in White County over the last 120 years. For most of that time, the Democrats won by huge margins, with only a couple of exceptions (plus the unusual election of 1968, when the pro-segregation third-party candidate, George Wallace, beat both Republican and Democrat). But that started to change, in 2004, when Bush won by the same margin he had lost, in 2000. In every election since, the Democratic candidate had done progressively worse and the Republican candidate progressively better, so that now the polarities have been reversed and the Republican Party dominates by about the same percentage the Democrats did in the 20th century. What changed?
The fact that Wallace did so well, in 1968, shows that race trumped everything else 50 years ago. The two 20th-century Republican victories, 1972 and (barely) 1988, could also be said to have strong racial components: Nixon’s “Southern strategy” to win the votes of Democrats angry about Civil Rights laws, and Bush’s “Willie Horton” ad that implied Dukakis was going to turn black rapists loose. Not coincidentally, Bush’s campaign was managed by Lee Atwater, whose defense of the Southern strategy is legendary. It would be logical to think that Obama’s race might have been a factor in his huge defeats, in White County.
But there is more to it than that. Bush beat Kerry, in 2004, after all, and -though Obama lost both times - he did very much better than either Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden.
Something changed between 2000 - when local elections still tended to go overwhelmingly to Democrats - and 2004, when Bush ran for re-election. I think we all know what the biggest event of Bush’s first term was: 9/11. Remember a previous column, when I discussed the Bush administration’s bending of reality (AKA “lying”) to convince the American public to support his plan to invade Iraq, in 2003. That effort worked because so many Americans had become terrified - even paranoid - about Muslims as a result of 9/11. Iraq had nothing to do with it, but most people didn’t care - they were lumping all Muslims, and even all dark-skinned foreigners, together, and anyone who didn’t agree with that attitude was being condemned as treasonous. I remember sitting in a barber’s chair and hearing everyone in the room cursing “sand n-----rs.” I remember “Freedom Fries” because the French were suddenly hated since they didn’t want to help invade Iraq. I remember tabling on TTU campus with the College Democrats, raising money to send bathroom items and phone cards to U.S. troops overseas and having multiple students cuss us out because, as Democrats, we were “traitors.”
And I remember something that happened a couple of weeks after Hurricane Katrina, in 2005.
I was living in Illinois at the time, attending grad school, and I had come home for a visit. I got in pretty late, and I stopped at an all-night restaurant in Crossville for a cup of coffee. There were two or three other customers, and they and the waitresses were discussing the fact that a large number of Katrina refugees were being allowed to stay temporarily at the old POW camp in Cumberland County (which in itself is drenched in irony). Everyone there was upset… because they hadn’t realized the refugees would be black, and now they were going to have to lock their doors and watch the cash register and maybe ask the Klan to get involved. I was vocally outraged. One waitress, trying to keep the peace, said, “Well, it’s really our own fault, we never should have got involved in that Alamo,” which made no sense whatsoever - until after I left and had thought about it. There were a lot of Latino migrant workers coming into the area at that time. She was conflating all dark people as the same and as a problem. And a threat. So were many others.
--Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history professor at Tennessee Tech. His words do not necessarily represent TTU.