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Transcript:

August 29, 2008

BILL MOYERS: Watching the convention this week, I was reminded of another historic moment. The second of July 1964. The day my boss, Lyndon Johnson, the President of the United States, signed into law the Civil Rights Act, ending segregation in public facilities.

With Martin Luther King and other movement leaders crowding around him, it was quite a celebration. But, that evening, as I went over to the living quarters of the White House to take the President some official papers, I found him disconsolate.

"What's the matter," I ask, "this was a great day. You should be jubilant." He looked at me morosely and said, in effect, "I think we just handed the south to the Republicans for the rest of my life and yours." And so we had. As you will read in this important new book, "Divided America," LBJ's economic and racial liberalism broke the ties that bound many conservative whites to the Democratic Party.

And with Ronald Reagan's reelection in 1984, the south had become a Republican stronghold. My next guests know this story inside and out. Earl and Merle Black have spent their adult lives immersed in the politics of the south. Writing highly acclaimed books on THE RISE OF SOUTHERN REPUBLICANS and POLITICS AND SOCIETY IN THE SOUTH.

Now they've turned their focus to other parts of the country. This new book, DIVIDED AMERICA, explains how regional divisions throughout the country are tearing us apart. Creating a political climate of intolerance and paralyzing serious debate on the issues.

They're twins, Earl and Merle Black, separated by 15 minutes at birth. Born in Oklahoma, as I was. Raised in east Texas, as I was. They have been immersed in politics, as I have been. Earl teaches political science at Rice University in Houston. Merle teaches political science at Emory University in Atlanta.

BILL MOYERS: Welcome to both of you.

MERLE BLACK: Thank you.

EARL BLACK: Thank you Bill.

BILL MOYERS: I like this book for many reasons. But, most of all, because you just come right out and say that the struggle for power in this country is ferocious. Is it more ferocious today than ever?

MERLE BLACK: I think in some times. It's not as ferocious as it was in the 1860s. We're not literally at war in the country today. But what we've got now is the most liberal Democratic Party that we've ever had. And also the most conservative Republican Party that we ever had. Back in the old days, when we were growing up, the Democrats really had a conservative wing. It was not a party dominated by a single ideological group.

BILL MOYERS: There were no conservatives at this convention that I could spot. Did you?

MERLE BLACK: That's right.

EARL BLACK: Yeah, I think the conservative Democrats have almost vanished. They're old and the very slow. And they're not being reproduced. So what we have, I think, in both parties now, is a much more ideologically pure party, where ideology and partisanship reinforce each other.

That makes for a very ferocious politics. And, even more so, because we find that the two political parties, right now, in the last two presidential elections have really two reasonable strongholds each. For the Republicans it's the south and the mountain plains.

For the Democrats, it's the northeast and the Pacific coast. The Midwest is the swing region. But the upper Midwestern states are generally Democratic. Republicans had more success in the lower Midwest. So what we have are two parties that are fighting to get past 270 electoral votesevery four years. And the Republicans only barely did it in 2004 and 2000. And that means that the regional divisions become the starting point, I think, for the parties in 2008.

BILL MOYERS: In the context of this regional divide, and in the context of the ferocity of politics as you write about, why the choice of Governor Palin of Alaska? I mean, you don't think of Alaska as part of these five regional areas that you-

EARL BLACK: I think most - the parties and the conventions are trying to do two things. They're trying to, first, unify the party. And then they're trying to get a bump out of it to get a head start for the fall campaign.

So, for John McCain to pick an unknown, Governor Sarah Palin, there's very few Americans know of her existence until this morning here, I think speaks to his effort to try to unify the Republicans. Particularly the socially conservative Republicans. As the Republicans then proceed to go into the fall-

MERLE BLACK: Yeah because John McCain in some ways is a different type of Republican. He's been conspicuously different from George Bush on a number of issues during his presidency here. He's not the typical type of Republican.

So, in some ways, picking someone who's more conventionally conservative on the abortion issue and life issue, but also energy. She's a very strong advocate for drilling. Energy has become much more important issue in the country today. So I think, and also she's from the west.

BILL MOYERS: Do you think it makes McCain more competitive in this race to pick an unknown from a small state with only three electoral votes?

MERLE BLACK: This is a very risky strategy. I think it's a plus for him if she can campaign well. We don't know that. She may be really good on the campaign trail. She may be really bad. That's all to be determined as we go forward.

She has, obviously, no national security experience in this context, too. But, in terms of the south and the mountain plains, she's a very good choice because she will get a huge support, not only from evangelical Christians for whom life is a big, big issue. But also, I think, a lot of other Republicans too, for her, you know, emphasis on this energy issue.

BILL MOYERS: Someone said, this morning, that Alaska is the northern most southern state. Because his values correspond more closely to those below the Mason Dixon Line. I mean, does that make sense to you?

EARL BLACK: Well, I - it's very different, demographically. Basically, no African American in Alaska, so it's very unlike the southern states in that regard. But it's a land where rugged individualism is probably a requisite if you're going to spend your entire life in a climate like Alaska's. You know, you have to-

MERLE BLACK: And maybe more libertarian too. It's not-

BILL MOYERS: Less government intervention.

MERLE BLACK: Much less emphasis on religion than-

BILL MOYERS: Speaking of the south, you arrived today just as I was reading the new Winthrop poll taken among southern voters. It was astonishing. Among southern voters, McCain is leading Obama, generally, by 16 points. And, in the deep south, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and South Carolina, he's preferred by 25 point margin. I mean, should Obama write off the south?

EARL BLACK: Well, I think Obama's going to focus on a few southern states where his chances might be better.

BILL MOYERS: Such as?

EARL BLACK: Florida. Virginia. North Carolina. And I think Georgia has been mentioned as one state where the party balance may not be as strongly Republican as it would be in some of the other states. Now, what the south is important, especially for the Republicans.

Because, for the Republicans to win a presidential election, they need to do what they've been doing, which is to carry all 11 southern states, and get a sweep of it. For the Democrats, that's out of the question. No Democrat has done that.

Not even Jimmy Carter. I think he took one - ten of 11 here. But if the Democrats can pick off one or two southern states, then it makes their job of getting past 270 electoral votes so much better. So Obama would not want to write off the south. He'd want to target individual states.

MERLE BLACK: You know, what's really interesting here is the Democrats approach the south today, Clinton did this, and Obama's doing this now, and Al Gore tried to do this too, just like Eisenhower did in '52. They're not trying to sweep the region. They're just trying to deny the other party this huge block of electoral votes uncontested.

BILL MOYERS: So what does that do to your strategy? To your combat, as you call it.

MERLE BLACK: Well, it means fierce combat in a small number of southern states, for example. Virginia. Where these changes in northern Virginia have really made the Democrats competitive in that state in a way in which they haven't been in about half a century. In Georgia, Georgia's probably the only deep south state where Obama has a possibility of a campaign.

BILL MOYERS: Because?

MERLE BLACK: Because you have a lot of migration into the Atlanta metro area from northerners, and people other parts of the country. You have a kind of a large black population that is concentrated in the Atlanta metro area. Much easier to organize. So you have the potential of a large organized African American vote in Georgia. Plus kind of northern migration. I think the native-

BILL MOYERS: Percentage of liberal white voters, right?

MERLE BLACK: Yeah, some liberal white voters who will go this way. You also have Bob Barr , the libertarian candidate, who might peal away a few votes.

BILL MOYERS: From Georgia, right?

MERLE BLACK: Yeah, but that big thing, going back to what you said before about the deep south, the deep south was enormously polarized four years ago. You know, go back to Kerry. John Kerry. Here's a white liberal. Kerry got about 14 or 15 percent in Mississippi of the white vote. You know, so Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina, Georgia, these are votes that are very, very racially polarized when the candidate is not an African American. And now you've got an African American candidate-

You know, it's hard for the Democrats to elect liberal whites, especially in southern states. So it should be a bit harder for them to elect a liberal African American candidate. That's the situation that Obama finds himself in, I think, in most of the southern states-

BILL MOYERS: Is there anything that a black Democrat, with a mixed racial heritage, can say to traditional white southern voters that might cause them to want to see him in the White House?

EARL BLACK: I think it's going to be very difficult to get much more than the vote that liberal Democrats have gotten in the past running for the presidency. The key thing about the south, I think, is, especially for the Republican side, what we have that we didn't have, when we were all growing up, is a very large middle class.

And it's a college educated middle class that doesn't see the Democratic party as it did 50 years ago as its natural political home. And that means, if there are all kinds of issues, especially involving taxation that play into the rise of the Republican party in the south.

And make it, I think, very difficult for liberal Democrats, particularly from northeastern states, like Kerry, or from Illinois. A candidate from Chicago, you know, the political culture is so different that it's - I wouldn't underestimate the difficultly of Obama's task.

BILL MOYERS: McCain also has a 34 point margin among white working class southerners. Some of the people you were just talking about. I mean, these are people who have been hurting economically under the Bush administration. Why are they so strongly for McCain?

MERLE BLACK: Well, one of those things that I learned, as part of my education, was working during my college. And you know, in east Texas. And we got paid every two weeks. And there's a lot of cussing going on every two weeks. This is the first group of white workers in the south who had money taken out, you know-

BILL MOYERS: Withholding.

MERLE BLACK: Withholding taxes, etcetera. Previous generation, you're working on the farm, you're just paid in cash. There's nothing like that. Now there's suddenly withholding. That is the issue of taxes. I don't remember what the-

BILL MOYERS: Goes back a long way, right?

MERLE BLACK: Goes back a long way. No, no, I think this is sometimes underestimated in terms of the - they were seeing the Democratic party as a party of taxation program but also a party of taxation. And these workers had a lot of other things they wanted to do with that money that was then now being taken by the federal government.

They disagree with some of the programs. But they also, you know, they also felt it in terms of the pocketbook. These are not fat cats. These are, you know, this is working class that you're talking about. And then when you add to that this cultural conservative out of the church--

BILL MOYERS: Cultural being of the religion.

MERLE BLACK: You know, on the religion, on abortion, on all these other kinds of questions, you know, that too, then the Democrats appear to some of these as too secular-

If blue collar white southerners think their culture's being disrespected, then it's - I think it's very hard to reverse that. And it's very hard for them to see that the Democratic Party would provide them with programs that would make up for the taxes that they are clearly paying these days that they didn't, you know, 50 years ago.

BILL MOYERS: So help me understand this, McCain, according to this latest poll, leads Obama by 54 percent among white evangelicals. Now, this is not a man conspicuously known for his religion. What's his appeal to them?

MERLE BLACK: Kind of the same appeal that Ronald Reagan had, didn't it? You know, Reagan, you know, Jimmy Carter versus Ronald Reagan, in terms of regular church going-

BILL MOYERS: Jimmy Carter was from Georgia, right?

MERLE BLACK: Yeah, that's not contest. But, in terms of getting those votes, you know, the-

BILL MOYERS: Why?

MERLE BLACK: Why?

BILL MOYERS: Why?

MERLE BLACK: Because of values are important to them.

BILL MOYERS: What values?

MERLE BLACK: The values of life. Of respect for life. For this kind of thing that they don't see in the Democratic Party. And these are individuals, many of them, now, if they really thought economics was the most important reason, they'd do something else somewhere else.

These are all, you know, I had a guy, several years ago in Georgia, my car broke down. I was taken over to the place. He drives me over there. He didn't own the towing company. He's a worker there. He drives out of the way to go by his church that night. He invites me to come. They're having choir practice that night, or whatever. He's telling me, he's showing me what's important in his life.

BILL MOYERS: Do you think all of this God talk in Denver this week, and almost every speaker ended with, "God bless America." And there were more rabbis and imams and preachers and evangelists. In fact, after Obama's speech, Thursday night, the benediction of that massive event, was given by Joel Hunter, who's the pastor of this very large evangelical church in Florida. Is that going to help the Democrats?

EARL BLACK: I think it's an indication that the Democrats know what the problem is. They're trying to reestablish contact here. But I think a lot of that's going to be discounted.

MERLE BLACK: Well, I think most of the white working class wasn't watching that convention.

BILL MOYERS: No. You write in here that our politics becomes much more interesting and easier to understand when the party battles are examined region by region. Why?

EARL BLACK: Well, you can't understand the nation just by looking at national outcomes. Because America's too diverse. And so what we say is, Okay, we look at the nation, or because, in this country, we have electoral votes so the 50 states are important. But we can't look at all 50 states. So, as a shorthand way, we think the quick and dirty way to kind of understand the fundamental divisions is divide the 50 states into these five regions. And look at the electorate and then the outcomes of recent elections.

And, when we do that, we find that the South plus the Mountain Plains give the Republicans two regional strongholds that together, control about two fifths of the electoral vote in the nation. The Northeast plus the pacific coast give the Democrats their two regional strongholds.

That's just slightly smaller than the Republican strongholds. So even if both parties sweep their two strongholds, that doesn't get them a majority of the electoral votes. And that means that certain states, especially in the Midwest, and of course, the key bellwether state in the Midwest is Ohio. That's the state that makes or breaks in the Republicans' success of carrying that the last two times. That what made the Republicans the victors.

BILL MOYERS: So the swing states still matter. That's where the battle will be fought.

MERLE BLACK: Yeah, let me get one other point in here. When you look at it in terms of the regions, because the parties have different regional strongholds, when one party's in power, what it can actually do, that means the opposite party doesn't go out of power, necessarily, it may actually get stronger in response to what's going on at the national level - that's exactly what we see here in the Northeast.

BILL MOYERS: Yeah, you say that the Republicans' remarkable success in the South has created a new northern problem for them.

MERLE BLACK: Yes, the Northeast is declining in relative size. It's got 92 house seats right now. It'll probably be below 90 the next time we redraw the map. But in terms of Democratic strength, the Democrats have gotten a lot stronger in the Northeast, and Republicans a lot weaker.

Because the Republican Party dominated by the conservatives of the South and Midwest really alienates lots of Republicans in the Northeast. That's not their old kind of Republican Party, and the party of Eisenhower, or something like that. So actually, the Democrats are helped by the Republicans in power this last eight years. That's been a godsend for the Democratic Party here in the Northeast.

BILL MOYERS: And that's why, largely, they took the congress back in '06, right?

MERLE BLACK: That's right. Huge gain. Democrats now have a 44 seat advantages in the Northeast alone.

BILL MOYERS: Well, we think about the presidential campaign. But what do you see happening, you know, below the White House and the Senate and the Congressional races in these regions?

EARL BLACK: Well, I think the Democrats are poised to pick up additional seats in the Senate and the House. It would be very unlikely for the Republicans to have any serious effort to take back either branch of Congress. The only election where the Republicans have a chance is the presidential election. And that is one that could easily go either way.

BILL MOYERS: The polls show that it's much closer than people thought it would be.

MERLE BLACK: Well, I think the Democrats are clearly favored. Almost any Democratic nominee ought to be able to beat any Republican nominee for president in this year, given unpopularity of George Bush, the state of the economy, all those kinds of factors.

BILL MOYERS: And yet?

MERLE BLACK: And yet, well, the President comes down to a choice of individuals. You know, where voters look at candidates and make judgments about their quality of their leadership, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. So I think the debates this fall are going to be extraordinarily interesting. We're going to have a huge audience. Not only in the US, but in the world.

EARL BLACK: You know, you have this dynamic where, of course, in presidential elections, because of the focus on the individuals, international policy, events overseas, war in Iraq, obviously, but also, here's Russia, you know, invading Georgia, things like that.

All of those things bring international dimensions to a fore that become part of the judgment and especially work into a judgment of who the American people trust to be a commander in chief more than the other.

That creates a dynamic that when you add it to domestic issues, that is one of the reasons why John McCain, who would otherwise be a clear underdog, you know, is not somebody that you just write off and say, "Couldn't possibly win this election."

BILL MOYERS: Victor Navasky of the "Columbia Journalism Review", says that undecided voters don't care about left or right. They simply want a candidate they can trust. And, while he's a progressive, a liberal, he went on to say that Obama's been making the same mistake Gore and Kerry made. That, by appealing to the center, he's undermining the things undecided voters most want. And that is authenticity.

MERLE BLACK: Well, the undecided voters, the ones in the middle are what we call moderate independents. These are people who are independent in partisanship. They're neither Democrats or Republicans. So a partisan appeal doesn't work for them.

In terms of ideology they're neither liberals nor conservatives. They're kind of moderates. And some of these individuals don't pay much attention to politics. And they may just get interested in the closing days of the campaign.

And what they're looking at is, in terms of likeability, do they like these people? Which guy do they like here? The ones that they're looking at? Or, is this person going to do something very specific for them. Not abstraction. They're not interested in abstraction. They're interested in very specific types of things. If they've got a real concern that they want to be spoken to, and one person is doing it to the other, they'll vote for him.

EARL BLACK: You know, and the moderate independents are going to be more prominent in some states than other ones. You know, a state like New York or California, there's no need for the Democrats to worry about the moderate independents. There are enough partisan Democrats in those states to make majorities without really consideration.

Those are the ones where the Republicans won't spend a nickel because the cause is hopeless. Now, in some of these battleground states like Ohio and others, that's where I suspect the moderate independents make the difference between - after your strong partisans, you make majority. So, in those states, winning those is really critical.

BILL MOYERS: Apart from reading your book, what would you - what's a one line strategy you would offer McCain and Obama as they act on the fact that regions decide our elections today. What advice would you give them?

MERLE BLACK: Well, pick out a small number of regions-

EARL BLACK: States.

MERLE BLACK: Just a small number of states in the regions where the vote is really undecided and put a lot of campaign resources into those states. So, for Obama, I think it's important for him to try to compete in some of those southern states, like Virginia or Florida. For McCain, he's got to recreate what George Bush won in 2004. And he's in the weaker position, because he needs more of these states, I think, than Obama needs right now.

EARL BLACK: Yeah, you have the demographics working in the Democrats' favor in states like Colorado and elsewhere where the Democrats think that we lost closely in 2004, we could probably win this year.

So a few of those states are going to be targeted. The Republicans don't have that many states to target. But the key things, I think, if you go back to the Democratic primaries. One of the really interesting features was Obama's early success that then was stymied when Hillary Clinton came on late.

And where did she come on with great success? Well, states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, elsewhere. Well, Pennsylvania's been a strong Democratic state in general elections. Ohio's been a close state. Those are the states where, I think, McCain, you know, would see, based on the Democratic primaries, an attempt to try to pick up in Ohio. Go into Pennsylvania. You know, the McCain campaign is going to, I think, over the weekend, before the convention starts, they're going into Ohio this morning. And they're going into Pennsylvania.

BILL MOYERS: Yeah, that's where he made his announcement, Ohio.

EARL BLACK: Exactly. And, the Democrats are doing the same thing. And Joe Biden's on the ticket, in part, because he's going to have some appeal to small town Pennsylvania.

BILL MOYERS: So should all these people, who are just sitting out there in these states that are not contested, just say, "What the heck am I doing here anyway?"

EARL BLACK: That is the sad reality of most of the American states. Because the local traditions are such that the parties are either going to be clear winners or clear losers.

BILL MOYERS: Your work is based upon classic statistics and electoral studies. But in the last 15 months, as you were working on this book, Obama attracted large numbers of new voters in these primaries that you were talking about. How do you weigh the impact on this election of these unidentified new and passionate voters?

EARL BLACK: You know, size and partisan unity are the two great political variables. What the Democrats are trying to do with Obama's campaign is increase the size of key demographic groups, African Americans, new minorities, especially Asians. Younger white voters. More liberal, younger, white voters. Those are the key demographics.

MERLE BLACK: It's a classic democratic argument. Expand the electorate, bring the non-voters into participation and then you win.

BILL MOYERS: This is the bible for all of us who really love politics. And I am sure a lot of my viewers will be going to get "Divided America: The Ferocious Power Struggle In American Politics." Earl Black and Merle Black, thank you for joining me on the JOURNAL.

EARL BLACK: Thank you Bill.

MERLE BLACK: Thank you Bill.

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