Modern media stereotypes of Southern politics may be outdated.
During national political campaigns, media outlets occasionally comment on the country’s regional differences, often stereotyping the South as uniformly conservative and evangelical. But this generalization, rooted in the South’s history of racist practices, might begin to fade during this election cycle, some experts say. This year, both party conventions will held in the South—with the Republican National Convention in Tampa Bay, Fla. and the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte—so the South will be able to shape its image in the national media.
It is fair for the media to portray the South as conservative, but the nature of conservatism is evolving, said Pope McCorkle, visiting lecturer of public policy studies. The media often fails to present these changes, however, because they do not align with “Old South” ideologies.
Although stereotypes of conservatism represent some truth about the region, they do not pay homage to diversity of the South and progress it has made, said Ferrel Guillory, professor of the practice of journalism and director of the Program on Public Life at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
“The South these days is much more a metropolitan place,” Guillory said. “This is a region that builds automobiles and has some of the strongest banks in the world [and] does research in pharmaceuticals and biotechnology.”
The Democratic National Convention in Charlotte has the potential to focus national media attention on North Carolina politics within the context of the South, McCorkle said.
Current N.C. issues such as the proposed Amendment One referendum— a state constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriages—would highlight the diverse politics of the South, said John Aldrich, Pfizer-Pratt university professor of political science at Duke.
“If we’re the first state of the nation to vote down a constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriages, that would really help to reverse some of the Old South ideas,” Aldrich said.
But North Carolina is not always assigned to the same stereotypes as other Southern states. Since World War II, North Carolina has had a “charmed existence” in the media because it has been considered the exceptional liberal state in the South, McCorkle said. North Carolina has one of the nation’s longest continuous streaks of Democratic governors, he added—but Republican gubernatorial candidate Pat McCrory, former mayor of Charlotte, could interrupt this tradition if he wins.
McCorkle noted that the variety of Christian beliefs of this year’s Republican presidential primary candidates show how conservatives are changing in a way that does not reflect the traditional South, which was primarily in favor of Protestantism.
“We had a Mormon with [Mitt] Romney, a born Catholic with [Rick] Santorum and then a born-again Catholic with [Newt] Gingrich,” he said. “The idea that this resembles in any way the Old South doesn’t work. While there’s conservatism to the South, it isn’t the old traditional born-here-by-blood conservatism.”
Despite the region’s changing persona, there are persistent problems in the South that reinforce negative stereotypes including racial tensions, poverty and educational gaps, he said.
Current Southern stereotypes are rooted in the region’s long history of racial oppression, said Laura Edwards, professor of history. Prior to the 1960s, the Democratic Party was considered the “white party,” which helped it garner Southern support. In the mid-20th century, Republican politicians began to explicitly use race as a way to attract white voters, she added.
When today’s media portray the South as staunchly conservative and evangelical, the media is talking about a particular slice of the electorate that still votes based on race, she noted. The group of white, Southern voters still exists, but does not represent the entire region.
“There [is] a tendency to overgeneralize that this is what’s indicative of all Southern folk,” Guillory said. “It’s not the whole story.”
Aldrich added that stereotypes of the traditional South have created roadblocks for past candidates and affected campaign strategies. Former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter had to overcome stigmas attached to strong Southern accents so they could join the political elite, he said.
Candidates who have polled the region know the South does not necessarily conform to popular perceptions, McCorkle added. Still, they are affected by Southern stereotypes and sometimes treat the region as if it is a foreign country.
“Mitt Romney and his talk about cheesy grits and saying ‘y’all,’ came across as pandering,” Guillory said. “But at the same time, [Barack] Obama campaigned in the South in ways that wouldn’t have been expected generations ago—and he carried three Southern states.”