Does Conservativism Spread Like Kudzu?

The Census Bureau is predicting that by 2035 or so the South will be the nation's most populous region. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution lets fly with the clichés:

Look out, y'all! Within three decades, nearly four in every 10 Americans will be Southerners, the Census Bureau estimates in a report to be released today.

It's a demographic shift already well under way that has seen Southern symbols such as Cajun food and NASCAR go nationwide - and brought to the South scores of newcomers who are establishing their own cultural touchstones.

Growing like kudzu, the South is expected to have a population of about 143.3 million in 2030. In percentage terms, that means 39.4 percent of the U.S. population will live in the South. With another quarter in the West, that leaves just over a third in the once dominant Midwest and Northeast.

Nor did they forget the political clichés:

"This is probably good news for Republicans," said Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta.

For more than a century after Reconstruction, the term "Solid South" referred to the region's Democratic loyalties. But entering the 21st century, the South is solidly in the GOP camp, and its growing clout has been vital in establishing the current GOP dominance in Washington.

"That's the big historical switch," said Black. "It has changed American politics."

Adding population faster than other regions, the South is picking up congressional seats and presidential electoral votes, explained Black. "It means that the Democrats can't afford to position themselves in ways that alienate themselves from Southerners."
Literally speaking, of course a national party couldn't alienate a region with nearly 40 percent of the country's population. But what Black really means is that the Democrats must become more conservative, since everyone knows the South is a conservative region, and if it's growing, that means conservative politics will continue to be on the upswing. It's the same logic that proclaimed Bush to be on the leading edge of American politics because he won most of the fastest-growing counties in the last election.

By this logic, migrants from the blue-state Rust Belt will morph into red staters upon crossing the Mason-Dixon Line. No doubt that happens, like newcomers to Texas who within three months are sporting ten-gallon hats, ostentatious drawls, and belt buckles the size of the state.

But consider three of the most important sources of this population shift: retirees, who aren't likely to change their political orientation just because they've moved; African Americans, who are in the early stages of reversing the twentieth-century Great Migration to Northern industrial cities; and Latinos (probably the fastest-growing population group in the South).

The influx of new people into the region will almost certainly have an impact on its political and cultural profile (which, to be fair, the Journal-Constitution article does concede). So it would be a mistake to assume that a growing South necessarily means a more conservative country -- just as it is a mistake always to identify "the South" as white, evangelical, and right-wing.