What’s the Matter With…Mississippi?

| July 1, 2014
Supporters celebrate incumbent Mississippi Senator Thad Cochran’s narrow primary run-off victory over his Tea Party opponent, Chris McDaniel, Tuesday, June 24 in Jackson.  Source: Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Supporters celebrate incumbent Mississippi Senator Thad Cochran’s narrow primary run-off victory over his Tea Party opponent, Chris McDaniel, Tuesday, June 24 in Jackson. Source: Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

EDITORIAL—In his 2004 seminal tome on the politics of his home state, Kansan and journalist Thomas Frank makes a startlingly accurate forecast for the next decade of politics in What’s the Matter with Kansas?  Frank notes that deep in the American heartland, on the vast expanses of the Kansas prairie, a political battle of epic proportions was steeping in this historically progressive Midwestern state.  State conservatives solidified a firebrand of conservative, anti-Eastern establishment populism, marked by fiscal restraint and deep-seated wedge issues.  Kansas conservative political leaders congealed conservative support around opposition to gay marriage and abortion.  Thomas Frank contends that Kansas’s newfound fervent support for Republican politics is merely a proxy of what is happening in the nation at-large.  The essence of Frank’s 2004 masterwork can be summarized in the excerpt found below.

Out here [in Kansas] the gravity of discontent pulls in only one direction: to the right, to the right, further to the right.  Strip today’s Kansans of their job security, and they head out to become registered Republicans.  Push them off their land, and next thing you know they’re protesting in front of abortion clinics.  Squander their life savings on manicures for the CEO, and there’s a good chance they’ll join the John Birch Society.  But ask them about the remedies their ancestors proposed (unions, antitrust, public ownership), and you might as well be referring to the days when knighthood was in flower (Frank 2004, 67-68).

Today, as it was a decade ago in Kansas, conservative politics continues to inexplicably move to the right, regardless of the issue of the day—ideology for the sake of ideology; a movement devoid of solutions, yet full of principle.  To invoke twentieth century Mississippi novelist William Faulkner, a hollow movement replete solely with a gamut of sound and fury.

The question to be gleaned presently is not what the matter with Kansas is, but what is the matter with Mississippi?  To discern the future of the southern Republican Party, and, broadly, southern conservatives is to pay to close attention to what transpired in the Hospitality State last Tuesday.  In a tough primary run-off, veteran and tenured U.S. Senator from Mississippi, Thad Cochran, routed his Tea Party-backed challenger, State Sen. Chris McDaniel in what’s comported by observers to be the most divisive primary of the 2014 midterm cycle.

Thad Cochran is a soft spoken Mississippi statesman.  He was recently and poignantly referred to as the ‘last southern gentleman’—a politician with unrivaled respect, demeanor, and dignity to both friend and foe alike.  Sen. Cochran, a moderate Republican in, arguably, the most conservative state in the country, is himself an anachronism from a bygone age; a political relic in his own right, parallel to the old southern Democratic Party, the Planter class, and the country-bumpkin lawyer-legislator.  The austere Cochran faced off against an opponent diametrically dissimilar to his own personal style of politics.  Chris McDaniel, Cochran’s opponent, the Mississippi State Senator who Cochran himself has called ‘an extremist,’ is an abrasive, uncompromising politico, frequently absconding to a firebrand of ‘white trash’ Mississippi ultraconservative populism.

McDaniel, who was largely favored in Tuesday’s primary contest, typifies the recent Tea Party insurgency into the modern Republican Party.  Chris McDaniel is uncompromising, selectively choosing which portions of the U.S. Constitution or the values of American democracy, generally, he readily accepts and repudiates.  McDaniel embodies the ideals of the Tea Party contingent of the modern GOP:   inflexible, defiant, and incredulous.  To say McDaniel was an honorable opponent in defeat would be unnecessarily gratuitous.  For McDaniel, following a 6,000 aggregate vote loss, could have bowed out with honor, with dignity; he could have praised his voters and then, for the sake of a united Mississippi GOP, called Sen. Cochran and conceded the race.  Instead, McDaniel is considering contesting the primary results in court.  Interestingly, McDaniel mentioned President Ronald Reagan at least five times in his nearly ten minute peculiar non-concession speech.  McDaniel doesn’t fully grasp that to bow out with honor is the very essence of what makes a statesman just that.    That’s what McDaniel should have done when he took the stage Tuesday night.  That’s what Ronald Reagan would have done.  (In fact, that is exactly what he did at the 1976 Republican National Convention in Kansas City.)

But the Ronald Reagan of Tea Party conservatives is not the same Ronald Regan who governed this country in the 1980s.  To the average ‘Tea Partier,’ he’s a demigod, an untouchable; a conservative archetype that can only be viewed through a prism endowed with purposefully cloudy rose-colored glasses.  McDaniel noted in his interestingly defiant, sort-of conciliatory speech that, “There is nothing dangerous or extreme about wanting to balance a budget.”  That’s true; you’ll hear no disagreement from this author regarding the importance of achieving fiscal budgetary balance.  Nonetheless, President Reagan never balanced a budget.  In fact, the 1980s were a decade marked with record deficits.  President Reagan was a champion for the immigrant, signing into law a federal amnesty program for millions of undocumented workers.  And to McDaniel’s take-no-prisoners, “compromise is a dirty word”-style of politics: Ronald Reagan was famous for incessantly working with congressional Democrats and for his close personal relationships with Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill.  If this was the McDaniel, the self-proclaimed “Reaganite,” who ran in Tuesday’s Mississippi GOP primary run-off, even this author would’ve coalesced behind him in fervent support.  The final irony to McDaniel’s pro-Reagan rhetoric, when President Reagan was in office, Thad Cochran was a trusted ally and like-minded legislator in the U.S. Senate, but now McDaniel claims that Cochran is a ‘liberal’ and bears no semblance to our fortieth president.

Thad Cochran’s victory against McDaniel was not due to the GOP voters in his state, but to the scores of Democratic and independent voters who showed up to the GOP run-off in droves to support the six-term U.S. Senator.  Paradoxically, in a state marked with deep racially-motivated partisan polarization, Cochran’s victory is due, in large, to African American’s who hadn’t voted in the low-turnout Democratic Primary earlier in the month.  Thomas Frank was right.  Kansas, in the center of the American heartland, serves as both a bellwether and a proxy of the nation’s politics as a whole.  A decade ago in Kansas, politics began to move inexplicably to the right.  Presently, GOP politics in the Hospitality State is exhibiting a very similar trend.  Devoid the independent and Democratic voters who showed up to support Cochran over McDaniel, the contest would’ve almost surely been the latter’s.

The result in African American support for Cochran represents a middle road; a political hedging of bets on the part of state Democrats.  The Democratic nominee for Senate in Mississippi, former U.S. Congressman Travis Childers will likely find himself in an uphill battle against any Republican nominee.  By eliminating the more extreme McDaniel, state Democrats have ensured that a more moderate GOP candidate will be on the November ballot.  Concurrently, Democrats have also eliminated almost any chance Childers has at winning the November Senate race against the more moderate Cochran.  State Democrats have work in their best interest, while concomitantly and paradoxically against it—such is the rudimentary nature of hedging your bet while seeking a middle ground.

Make no mistake however, black or white, Democrat or Republican, Cochran has fought vigorously for the people of his state in the halls of the American Senate.  The former chairman of the very powerful Senate Committee on Appropriations, Cochran ensured the Magnolia State received a hefty share of federal largess.  To that end, for every $1 the people of the State of Mississippi pay in federal taxes, they receive $2.83 from Washington; Mississippi receives the greatest benefit from federal taxes in the nation.  Further, the Senate is an institution which vests substantial value on seniority.  To elect a Ted Cruz-archetype in McDaniel, an abrasive and uncompromising junior Senator, would be counterproductive to the advantages the State of Mississippi has with the very senior Cochran representing them in Washington.

The in-fighting between two candidates in a partisan primary is nothing new for Mississippians.  In the old south, twentieth century American political scientist V.O. Key notes that the Democratic Primary was ‘tantamount to election.’  There was no real Republican organization to be had in midcentury Mississippi.  A Republican insurgency would begin to galvanize in the mid-1960s (in response to Goldwater’s presidential candidacy in 1964 and resistance to the Civil Rights movement, generally), finally begin to solidify in the 1980s (with the election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency), and further compound in the 1990s (with the leadership of Newt Gingrich and the subsequent Republican Revolution of 1994).  At midcentury, the candidate who won the Democratic primary would almost certainly go on to win the low-participation General Election, for the real contest rested in the primary.  This is the implicit nature of one-party dominant politics.

In Mississippi in 2014, while both parties, quantifiably, are much closer to a two-party competitive condominium, the dominant Republican Party’s primary is very much tantamount to election, particularly in statewide contests.  V.O. Key’s axiom is still very much the rule in deeply conservative Mississippi.  In McDaniel we have the classic reactionary demagogue of the old south.  To echo Republican strategist Lee Atwater explaining the Southern Strategy in 1981, the McDaniel-type demagogues would resist forced busing, desegregation, and the like at midcentury with a firebrand of racially-charged language.  When the vile and blatant ‘race-baiting’ (in the late-1960s) fell out of favor, “dog whistles” became the new normal.  Rather than employing a racial epithet, a candidate would speak of ‘states rights’ or the like—but the point was still there in the hearts and minds of the demagogue’s political base, the target audience.  By the era of Reagan it was cutting taxes, reforming welfare, and other economic positions with a nuanced effect, articulating the same implicit arguments of the fire-breathing bigoted rhetoric at midcentury, but repackaged under a different guise.  In the era of Tea Party politics, the rhetoric has metastasized from simply cutting taxes and reforming welfare to incendiary verbiage typified in Gadsden flags and posters bearing phrases akin to: “I want my country back”—once again, a repackaged philosophy for a new era of politics.

A more representative sample of Mississippi voters repudiated this brand of politics on Tuesday.  Not simply a group of hardline conservatives, but independents, Democrats, moderate Republicans, whites, blacks, and other minorities who showed up in troves to GOP polling stations and, in a peculiar electoral coalition, routed the extremism embodied in McDaniel.  Thus, what is the matter with Mississippi?  The same thing as the rest of the nation, but on steroids—to employ the well understood colloquialism.  What is observed in Mississippi is a state Republican Party moving inexplicably further to the right, an ominous sign for the likes of the true remaining Reagan Republicans and Democrats, those who value limited government, self-reliance, respect for political institutions, and working together and crafting solutions that are best for this nation—in the true spirit of our fortieth president.  To Tea Partier McDaniel, a broad and diverse coalition of Mississippians answered your extreme demagoguery at the ballot box with, to ironically employ your own movement’s oft-broadcasted adage, ‘we want our country back’—and on that fateful night in Tuesday, they did just that.

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14 Comments on "What’s the Matter With…Mississippi?"

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  1. Susan E. Lampert says:

    Nice, well written article – thank you – “the power of the people is stronger than the people in power”.

    • Nick Rudnik says:

      Thanks, Susan! It’s always nice to hear positive feedback from readers! Without a doubt, there’s more power in numbers than in any one individual, no matter how loud his microphone may be.

      Best,
      -Nick

  2. J. Allen Lawson says:

    Your piece is well written. Unfortunately, it is utter hogwash. I will tip my hat to you and the throngs of others that have successfully marginalized tea party candidates by calling them racists. You and others like you do this in an effort to ignore the valid principles that most conservatives have. The political movement doesn’t “inexplicably” move to the right. There is a completely valid explanation. But it’s so much easier for you to say, “ignore them, they’re racists”, than to make an intelligent argument against, for example, less government. No. Instead, your knee jerk reaction is to lump a whole group into one category, compare them to racists of old and claim the high road…as if there is no legitimate argument to be made for less taxes or smaller government. In your small mind view, any legitimate argument for conservative principles will be met with the mindless retort of “Racist!” because people like you have so divided this country with your poor and misguided view of our nation’s history that you view everything through the prisms of government and race. You can’t help it. Keep pursuing that political science degree. Someone there must be giving you a good dose of liberal kool aid. I would encourage you to try to think for yourself instead. There are legitimate arguments to be made by conservatives. To ignore them is to be ignorant. To cherry pick negative historical facts applicable to both parties and attempt to transpose them onto the tea party is juvenile.

    • Nick Rudnik says:

      J. Allen,

      In my article I speak to the race-baiting of the “the McDaniel-type demagogues.” Not conservatives, generally (see the second to last paragraph of the editorial). And to my ‘cherry-picking’ of historical facts: does anyone disagree that Ronald Reagan never balanced a budget, passed amnesty through Congress, and admirably worked with Democrats in the legislature? If that’s the case, then I suppose there are those out in America just rewriting history. To my attempt to marginalize small government conservatives—give me a break. We can be for small government without racial dog-whistles, without hatemongering, without the McDaniels of the world feeding derisive undertones to a deeply polarized country. As I wrote in my article if McDaniel actually wanted to govern like Ronald Reagan—I’d support him, but he doesn’t. Simply, in McDaniel we have a candidate who doesn’t respect anyone outside the Tea Party, we have to realize the Tea Party is only a small sliver of our diverse nation—the political wisdom of our country doesn’t solely reside behind Gadsden flags and coy posters in opposition to the president. Respect—that’s what our political discourse deeply needs, we, including McDaniel, could take some lessons from Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill. If it makes me a ‘liberal’ for saying it; I think that speaks to how far our political rhetoric and ideologies have spiraled out of control.

      Regards,
      -Nick

      • J. Allen Lawson says:

        No. In your article you don’t just limit your rhetoric to McDaniel-type conservatives. In fact, you state “McDaniel embodies the ideals of the Tea Party contingent of the modern GOP: inflexible, defiant, and incredulous.” The whole theme of your editorial is to marginalize the tea party by likening them to racial bigotries of the past. Or am I reading a separate article that you wrote? I see nowhere in your article where you simply speak to limiting your race-baiting comment to McDaniel-type conservatives. It’s simply an attack on the tea party…which is full of conservatives. I will admit there is a difference between the two because I consider myself a conservative and not in the tea party. However, the hatemongering comments you try to heap upon the tea party are the same tired old comments of Democrats and Liberals. If one dare speaks of cutting back on government, they are immediately called extremists…. racists….a woman hater. Other than limiting government, what evidence do you use to support your finding that McDaniel is a hatemonger? You seem to back way off that position in your reply to my comment, but that is exactly what your editorial did. And the real issue in Mississippi had nothing to do with a coming together of voters. If you think that is what happened, then you need to give me a break. A coming together of voters could’ve happened in the general election or even in the primary. This was a runoff in the primary where one candidate blatantly encouraged Democratic voters to cross party lines to remove what you, Democrats and establishment Republicans consider a threat. And as to the cherry picking of historical facts, what I said was, you choose these terrible racial events such as segregation and racism and apply them to the tea party. It’s what your whole article is about. As a political science major, you should know which party supported those positions in the past. At times it was both.

        Nevertheless, to now hail what happened in Mississippi in a Republican runoff as some sort of universal condemnation of the Tea Party is a gross misunderstanding of politics and facts. It was a back-stabbing of a viable political candidate by an establishment Republican from “the party of principle”. If what you said about the tea party and McDaniel was remotely true, (and it isn’t, you are simply regurgitating tired old axioms against the tea party probably spoon fed to you), then he would’ve had his comeuppance in the general election. But he deserved that chance. I don’t agree with everything that goes on with the tea party. Frankly, they’ve put forth some of the worst candidates. But the principle behind the movement itself is a sound one…you know, the whole Constitution is still relevant…freedom….limiting the power of government. One should be able to say that without being called a racists. It is an ignorant response to a valid point. You are not wise to so easily dismiss the principles of the tea party. Not wise at all.

        • Nick Rudnik says:

          J. Allen,

          I do, in fact, make a distinction between McDaniel’s blatant racially charged rhetoric and others in the Tea Party. I begin by noting, “To echo Republican strategist Lee Atwater explaining the Southern Strategy in 1981, the McDaniel-type demagogues would resist forced busing, desegregation, and the like at midcentury with a firebrand of racially-charged language.” Here I make a distinction regarding the racially-charged language of McDaniel. I continue on and note that the ‘dog whistles’ of today have changed in the Tea Party era. I do not indict the entire Tea Party, however. If that’s the connection you made, then it’s rather specious. As for racial attitudes, I’d refer you to a consequential 1997 study by Kuklinski, Cobb, and Gilens who note that racial attitudes have become nuanced, but haven’t changed in the ‘new south’ (here’s the link: http://www.uky.edu/~clthyn2/PS671/Kuklinski_JOP_1997.pdf). The contention that racial tension has not disappeared in the south is relatively understood among political scientists—and has been empirically proven, time and again. Yes, I do say that the Tea Party is ‘inflexible, defiant, and incredulous’—but I do not apply it in a racial context. I say this because they have exhibited behavior that makes governing increasingly difficult in a federal system founded upon conciliation and compromise. This is not how the framers of the federal constitution envisioned the American democratic process. In the Federalist No. 54, as it is articulated by federal jurist Robert Bork, Madison seeks to highlight the implicit notion that our federal system is designed to consider minority interests and prevent an absolute ‘tyranny of the majority,’ the type inherent to unitary government. But Bork also underscores the importance of balancing majority power and legitimacy to govern against the real possibility of a ‘tyranny of the minority.’ The Tea Party’s ‘take no prisoner’s’-style of politics affirms Bork’s latter concern. The dynamic nature of federalism makes protracted and blanket opposition a peculiar and capricious stalemate, rendering the institutions of government ineffectual—and frankly, self-destructive.

          Regards,
          -Nick

        • Papi says:

          Mr. Lawson,

          I concur with your opinion but is impossible to have a two way open discussion with a know it all, wet behind the ears, liberal. Whose intellectual information and experience comes from ideas and theories, he has been taught by other liberals.

          Thank you for rebuttal to Nicky!!!

          • J. Allen Lawson says:

            No problem. I think I’m wasting time responding to him now. I’m not quite sure he even read what he wrote. Clearly, based on his responses, he didn’t understand it.

  3. Frank Barnas says:

    Hey, during his last article I asked if he could get a response from Sanford Bishop about Sanford’s rerouting of scholarship monies from deserving minority college students to his own family and friends. Nick, if you actually read this comments, can you ask Sanford about that? Thanks!

    • Nick Rudnik says:

      Thanks for replying, Frank! However, I am no longer with Congressman Bishop’s office. If you call his Washington office at (202) 225-3631, an aide will be able to assist you with any constituent queries. I will say that I deeply admire Congressman Bishop for his service to the residents of Georgia’s 2nd congressional district. He has always contented that ‘he’s not a show horse, but a workhorse.’ His record with assisting constituents with federal issues is unparalleled across the entire House of Representatives. For more information regarding his legislative record, you can visit his biography via his House website at: http://bishop.house.gov/about.

      Regards,
      -Nick

  4. Papi says:

    Nicky;

    Thank you for sharing your political wisdom. My July 4th weekend would have been ruined without it.

    Best,

    Papi 🙂

  5. J. Allen Lawson says:

    And….here you go. This just out today:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fq3Mi9uRKvo.

    Haley Barber, Cochran’s GOP buddy, purchased ads racially attacking McDaniel; a member of his own party. And, incredibly, used what Democrats typically use to attack Republicans; race. The ads were race-baiting falsehoods by someone in his own party. Exactly who is the hatemongerer? It wasn’t McDaniel. Educate yourself a little better next time you throw it out there in a misleading editorial. The GOP establishment should be ashamed. This is the party of principle? I think not. I’m not saying it’s the tea party either, but I find it incredibly distasteful to support either major party at this point when things like this go on. You’d think that deals cut in a smokey room somewhere were things of the past; but that is exactly what went on; not a rising up to smack down the tea party.

  6. D. Miballzich says:

    Here’s a wild thought….what if both parties were slime? Oh wait they are though. I still sit back and laugh because people think there is a difference between the parties. Yea sure they throw “key issues” up to make them seem different but at their core they are all people who sole purpose is to get re-elected time and again. They don’t care about you, your family, your community, etc. Blow smoke all you want that the republicans are for the working man but they don’t care about you and they ship just as many jobs overseas as the Democrats. The Democrats don’t care about the oppression of minorities but they do care to throw you freebies to you will help keep them in office. Our system is broken and all those suits need to be ridden out on rails. They need replacing with people who have actually worked for a living and know what it takes to get this Country back on track and sorry folks but you don’t need a degree to see how to fix this country but you do need courage. The current form of government has been engineered over the years so that the common man can’t get in or even understand it. It’s a big money game now where these politicians are all in the pocket of big industry, big religion, big media, Big Minorities, and Political correctness.