Southern Women

Gender, Notable, Politics

David Gergen is the director of the Center for Public Leadership in the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He has served in the White House as an adviser to presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton. The following is taken from an interview he did with Rolling Stone, along with Ruy Teixeira and Peter Hart.

GERGEN: What strikes me is that the Republicans are building a different sort of alliance system. For decades, Democrats have built alliances of voters through government programs such as Social Security and Medicare. Support from believers in those programs has enabled the Democrats to dominate national politics for a long time. The Republicans, in shrinking government, have increasingly turned to churches as a way to build alliances and to do their recruiting in quiet ways; it often takes place below the radar screen of the media. That’s one of the reasons the election presented some surprises for us.

I think that the building of alliances with local Churches is far more important than moral values” as ideology. As reported in The Economist, and now spreading like wildfire throughout the liberalblogsphere following its reproduction in Frank Rich’s column, the percentage of voters motivated by moral values” is actually down from its height of 40% in 1996, when Clinton won, to half of that in the recent election.

But lets look at another statistic: working-class women. It turns out that they are the sector where Bush made his biggest gains. From the Rolling Stone article:

RUY TEIXEIRA: If you want to look at ground zero of how Bush expanded his coalition, the key change from 2000 was that he did a lot better among white voters. His margin of victory among whites widened from twelve to seventeen points — and almost all of that was among white working-class women.

The Nation recently clarified that by pointing out that it is specifically Southern working-class women who made the difference for Bush.

Southern white women are the most conservative in the country — exit polls from this year’s election reveal that 68 percent voted for Bush and only 32 percent for Kerry, double the margin in 2000. The only other regional female subgroup Bush won was white women in the Midwest, but only by seven percentage points. But Southern women suffer immensely from conservative policies. According to a 2002 report by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, seven of the nine worst states for women are in the South — in terms of earnings, access to health and reproductive services, and political participation.

So, what is the connection? Guess who goes to church regularly?

Like most things Southern, it is impossible to discuss feminism in the South (or the absence of it) without turning to God.

I think that what happened is this: The decline of the welfare state has pushed women off of government aid and into the Church. The Republicans have been successful in using the Church to mobilize the votes of these women, while the Democratic Party has simply abandoned them altogether. And that’s how the election was lost. I’m sure it isn’t all so simple, but this seems to be a big part of the story.