Reagan at Neshoba, August 1980

The first election that I can remember was the 1980 contest between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter. Though Carter had been elected in 1976 (when I was two) by riding a wave of anti-incumbent disgust after Watergate, the Georgia peanut farmer turned out not to be what the country was looking for. So when a California movie star with a boy-next-door smile challenged him, the Nixonian “Southern Strategy” entered phase two. Reagan was a product of the SoCal branch of Republican Party, but his campaign took off not from sunny Orange County but in the Civil Rights battleground of Neshoba County, Mississippi.

Neshoba County is in the eastern part of the state, nestled squarely into what is called the Black Belt, that massive  swath of once-rich farmland that formed the heart of Deep Southern planter culture before the Civil War. A hundred years after the Civil War, in the summer of 1964, Neshoba County was where the Civil Rights workers Goodman, Cheney and Schwerner were murdered. Sixteen years after that, Ronald Reagan was securing Southern support for his presidential campaign there by proclaiming “states’ rights.”

In 1980, a GenXer like me was just a kid. Politically speaking, we white GenXers postdated the “Solid South,” and thus lacked that stolid sense that only Democrats deserved our votes. That had begun coming apart in the mid-1960s, during the time that my generation was young, and the Democrats were becoming the party of Civil Rights. Later, the Reagan-Bush years, from 1980 through 1991, constituted a Republican backdrop for forming our political imaginations, since a near-totally red electoral map was hard to ignore. In 1980, with the exception of Georgia, Carter’s home state, the entire South went for Reagan, and in 1984, our home states were all red. (GenXers are still a Republican-leaning demographic.)

In its description of the Neshoba episode, the Mississippi Encyclopedia says that Reagan “generated a national political firestorm when he announced, ‘I believe in states’ rights.'” The phrase would have been more familiar to our parents’ generation than to ours. We had come along after Orval Faubus, George Wallace, Ross Barnett, and Lester Maddox. But we couldn’t vote, and the people who remembered those guys could, and that’s likely what mattered. It mattered a lot, because Reagan would have known that Carter had a leg up in the South, being from here. And Reagan, like Nixon, wanted those votes.

I think sometimes about what life in the South would have been if Jimmy Carter had been re-elected in 1980. Today, we can debate whether Carter was progressive enough in the wake of the Civil Rights movement, but he was certainly more progressive than a guy touting “states’ rights” at the site of a racially motivated triple murder, a full year after George Wallace had issued his 1979 apology to black people. On the other hand, during Reagan’s two terms, the South was trying its Sunbelt thing, which led to higher incomes and housing prices, moving Southerners further from poverty and closer to national averages. It’s hard to say whether a Carter administration would have supported and achieved that.

The mythic belief in states’ rights is a powerful one in the South, with an underlying narrative that goes back to pre-Civil War days, and as we proceed today with 2020’s official Election Day, it is still here with us. The idea has been prevalent during the pandemic, as a weak federal response is explained with assertions that each state should handle public health and safety in its own way. Georgia’s was a prime example of a Southern governor who bucked federal guidance and opened up earlier than others. 

As an editor, what I’m interested in is: what is involved in the balance between states’ rights and federalism? I would like to know if there is a principled guideline for when a state is a state and when a state is part of the United States. And if so, who developed the standard, and is it generally agreed-upon by states’ rights adherents? Or is this just a handy slogan, dredged up for convenience, when it’s time to stir folks up?  

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