JACKSON — In the wake of another electoral debacle for Mississippi’s Democrats, it’s time to pull V.O. Key down off the bookshelf.
Key was a political scientist who literally wrote the book on politics in Dixie. “Southern Politics in State and Nation,” published in 1949, remains a master work, the founding text of an entire specialty of American political science.
But what does a book first published in 1949, by a man who died in 1963, have to tell us about the Mississippi political scene today? Key was fundamentally interested in how politics functioned in states with only one dominant political party. At the time, of course, that was the Democrats. But now, more than 50 years after he died, Republicans are getting close to assuming that position of dominance in Mississippi and some other southern states.
Democrats’ performance this year in Mississippi suggests, at least among the state’s white residents, that the party is not only a permanent underdog, but is coming perilously close to dissolution. With continued Republican gains in the state House pushing the GOP to a supermajority, Democrats won’t be able to block most things that a unified GOP wants.
Democrats have not fallen so low that they’ve reached the status of Republicans in the old one-party South. Here is Key’s description of the GOP as it was in the first half of the century, especially in Mississippi, where it was the most shunned: “It wavers somewhat between an esoteric cult on the order of a lodge and a conspiracy for plunder in accord with the accepted customs of our politics.”
But Democrats are alive now largely because of the adherence of black voters. And when African-American turnout is low, as on Tuesday, Republicans will romp.
More importantly, it’s getting harder for Democrats to get even a hearing among white voters. Witness the GOP’s successful campaign in the House, where Philip Gunn told voters that any Democrat they sent to Jackson would spend four years in legislative Siberia. That theme was played out in public in the House District 90 race in Covington, Simpson and Jefferson Davis counties for a seat held for decades by Democrat Joe Warren.
With Warren stepping down, Republican Noah Sanford told voters in a full-page newspaper advertisement that even Democrats should vote for him, and not Democrat John B. Pope III, because Sanford was a member of the party in power.
“I ran Republican because it’s the only way to be effective for you,” Sanford said in the ad. “One thing is certain. You can only effect change if you are invited to the table where decisions are made.”
Democratic strategist and author Jere Nash said he saw similar appeals in other parts of the state.
“The Republicans clearly developed a strategy based not on attacking Democrats but urged voters to vote the Republican brand,” he said. “It was effective. It worked.”
Key disliked the one-party system in the South. He said it allowed politicians to avoid confronting issues and catered to elite interests at the expense of the common people.
“The chances are that the one-party or nonparty system facilitates the combination of those satisfied with current arrangements and encourages as well the inclination of politicians to let sleeping dogs lie,” Key wrote.
For now, though, one-party Republican rule seems more established in Mississippi than ever. But Nash and even some Republicans see a threat over the horizon. Every year, a slightly larger share of Mississippi residents are African-American. If Republicans can’t make inroads into the black vote, their dominance could be brief, ending sometime in the next decade.