Friday, November 5, 2010

The Republicanization of Hampshire County

When I first moved to Hampshire County almost two decades ago, the conventional wisdom was that if you wanted a choice in local candidates, you had to register Democratic, because Democrats invariably won county elections. (Even then, however, Republicans were beginning to appear on the county commission, although all the other elected county offices were filled by Democrats.)

I used to joke at that time with my friends back in DC that Hampshire County was so conservative that it was still registered 2-1 Democratic (I haven’t looked at registration figures lately, but I’d be surprised if that ratio still holds.) The joke was, even with the predominance of registered Democrats, in national elections especially, Republicans usually won about 60 percent of the county vote. Hampshire County is solid Bible Belt country, the most Confederate county in West Virginia during the Civil War. But even though most of the South had turned Republican in the wake of Lyndon Johnson’s Civil Rights Act, Hampshire was so traditional that most people here kept their Democratic registration, but voted Republican.

In fact, I’d describe Hampshire County natives as more traditionalist than conservative (although they’re plenty conservative). You can see this phenomenon in some of the voting anomalies. In a year when Republicans dominated county voting, Democratic state senator Walt Helmick and commissioner Steve Slonaker, both incumbents, carried the county easily (like Robert Byrd used to do). These victories can be seen as the last vestiges of the old Democratic machine, a manifestation of both the old southern feudalism and legacy politics that complicate any political analysis.

But a true picture of where the Hampshire electorate is trending can be seen in the vote for US Senate, where Hampshire was out of step with the rest of the state, and voted overwhelmingly for Republican John Raese, despite the fact that Joe Manchin is in the same mold as the conservative Democratic legacy candidates that usually get Hampshire County votes. But here the legacy politics were trumped by the racial politics, and why we saw a resurgence this year of the old Republican “southern strategy,” in their effort to nationalize the election. This was pure and simple an anti-Obama vote. Manchin stopped the erosion of his early lead by “taking aim” at “Obamacare”—that was no accident. (Another indication that Hampshire is more conservative than the rest of the state is that Mountain Party candidate Jesse Johnson got about a quarter of the percentage of votes here that he got statewide.)

The Republican trend in Hampshire also showed itself in the overwhelming vote for Ruth Rowan for delegate against a strong candidate with long experience in the community, Mitch Davis; and in the capture of yet another county office, the county clerk position. This leaves Democrats holding only two county offices: one county commission seat, and the county assessor. I think those seats will remain safely Democratic until Steve Slonaker and assessor Norma Wagoner retire. But after that, if the trend holds, they’ll go Republican, too.

What explains the inexorable Republican trend even more than traditional southern conservatism is the changing demographics of the county. The old New Deal yellow dog Democrats here are dying off, and being replaced by Republican transplants, mostly retirees, from the cities. So whereas the young people of Hampshire County (the under-30 demographic is the most progressive group in the US population) are moving away for jobs and college, retirees of the postwar generation (the parents of the boomers, and more conservative than either the generation before or after them) are moving in, and vastly outnumber the progressive “creative class” transplants. There’s a certain inevitability here.

The biggest problem for the Democrats, both here and nationwide, is that the national party has abandoned its working class base, in service to its corporate funders (why I, personally, changed my party registration to Mountain this year). The degree to which the corporate Democrats of today have diverged from the party’s traditional principles can be illustrated by an FDR quote from his famous “Four Freedoms” speech:

“The basic things expected by our people of their political and economic systems are simple. They are:
Equality of opportunity for youth and for others.
Jobs for those who can work.
Security for those who need it.
The ending of special privilege for the few.
The preservation of civil liberties for all.
The enjoyment -- The enjoyment of the fruits of scientific progress in a wider and constantly rising standard of living.
These are the simple, the basic things that must never be lost sight of in the turmoil and unbelievable complexity of our modern world. The inner and abiding strength of our economic and political systems is dependent upon the degree to which they fulfill these expectations.”

The phrase, “ending of special privilege for the few,” has particular resonance today, in a Democratic administration dominated by Goldman Sachs and the Trilateral Commission. We have been sold out to a corporate plutocracy. The only Americans who seem unaware of this fact are Limbaugh dittoheads and Obamabots. But until the Democratic Party returns to its working class roots, no one should look for any resurgence of the Democratic Party in Hampshire County. Progressive interests will be better served in the meantime by working on specific issues that transcend party lines.

--Michael Hasty

UPDATE: To put an exclamation point on this analysis, AP published an article yesterday with the headline, "Election nearly wipes out white Southern Democrats." It said, "Republican efforts to win over the South, rooted decades ago in a strategy to capitalize on white voters' resentment of desegregation, is all but complete." When the final races are decided, there may be as few as 14 white Southern Democratic members of the House of Representatives, out of 105 total seats in the region.

The important thing to remember about Hampshire County is that, even though West Virginia is the only state to secede from another, it never seceded culturally.

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