Thesis: Metropolitics Killed Moderation in the Two-Party South

In their 2002 work The Rise of Southern Republicans, political scientists Earl and Merle Black assessed the shift of white conservatives into the core of the Republican base and the GOP’s success in peeling white moderates from Democratic candidates. Given the significance of affluent suburbanites as a swing bloc, Black and Black predicted decreased sway for conservatives over Republican policy and ideology. In a prediction that might strike a reader as bitterly funny from today’s vantage, they wrote:

to attract more moderates into the party, Republican politicians and officeholders would need to emphasize matters they usually ignore or deemphasize. A more sympathetic understanding of issues that appeal to women and environmental groups, more nuanced positions on abortion, a greater sensitivity to the practical side of governing, and above all, perhaps, a greater concern for improving public education might help the Republicans with these groups.(1)

As it turned out, while the Blacks had clearly tracked trends in partisan alignment, voter preferences in national elections, and Congressional and Senate races, they missed important trends in metropolitics. While metropolitan conflicts are particular and vary from metro to metro and state to state, events like the tax revolt in Fulton County in the early 1990s are crucial to understanding how the GOP finally consolidated its edge in Presidential elections in the South (since 1964 interrupted only by Georgian Jimmy Carter in 1976) into control of the increasingly influential state legislatures by the early 2000s. Understanding the bottom-up building of the Georgia Republican Party as a process significantly (though certainly not exclusively) rooted in Fulton County metropolitics helps to explain the failure of their prediction of moderation. As the tax revolt mobilized north Fulton Republicans, it also caused them to view the kinds of “moderate” and quintessentially suburban issues through a particular lens–of the imagined expropriation of their resources by a county government controlled by Black Democrats.

As leaders of the Fulton tax revolt became leaders in county and state Republican politics, they did not abandon the suburban moderate agenda as much as they reconfigured it to fit the frame of zero-sum and racially polarized metropolitics. Public education has been notionally defended through reform regimes that substitute tight labor discipline for material equity and preserve segregation. Environmental protection has been refigured through the quality of life concerns of north Fulton suburbanites angered that county authorities have allowed more intensive land uses (while ignoring the county’s role in steering business and infrastructure development to north Fulton). Even abortion politics have been reconfigured away from the question of prohibition to the question of poor (and implicitly Black) women’s access to abortions through publicly funded facilities or public regulation of private insurance. And in particular, an emphasis on “practical governing” took the form of privatism that presented the inherent ease of governing an affluent area as a result of efficiency and discipline, and the inverse, a rhetorical club with which to bash Black urban Democrats.

As a urbanist who studies the relatively recent metropolitan past, I think it’s important to consider carefully the cross-cutting influence of national and metropolitan and local politics, and particularly the organization of parties and priorities at the state level. Work like the Blacks’ does demonstrate the rapid and transformative nature of the South’s partisan realignment, and books like Matt Lassiter’s The Silent Majority particularly focus our attention on the significance of suburban voters, not only as a swing bloc but as a structural check on the ideological and policy approaches of both parties in the rise and fall of the Great Society. Writing about the times and places they studied, all are correct in arguing for suburban votes as a force for some moderation. But that tendency is not inherent.  The devolution of social spending power from Federal to state governments (and suburban-led initiatives to enhance the power of states relative to big cities) heightened the stakes of metropolitics in the 1980s, making them more polarized by race and by party at the same time as metropolitan areas became more influential in state politics.


(1) Earl Black and Merle Black, The Rise of Southern Republicans (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2002), 228-229.

4 comments on “Thesis: Metropolitics Killed Moderation in the Two-Party South

  1. […] target of anger during an explosive tax revolt in 1991. I’ve written about that tax revolt and its consequences here before, but the reason I’m addressing it now is that the terms of engagement by which […]

  2. […] MacGillis refers to something that I’ve written about here before: that metropolitics are a great framework for understanding the contemporary tone and agenda […]

    • Etta says:

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  3. […] argued that that was hardly accidental, and not distinct from Handel’s background in Fulton County metropolitics, where voter turnout was a crucial factor in governing a county that was racially, ideologically, […]

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