Episode 157, with guests Sam Hall, Ashley Parker and Jay Barth

Sam Hall, Ashley Parker and Jay Barth are our guests this week.
Show hosted by Jeff Smith, New School professor and former Missouri State Senator
Show produced by Katherine Caperton.
Original Air Date: June 28, 2014 on SiriusXM “POTUS” Channel 124.
PoliOptics airs on POTUS on Saturdays at 8 am & 6 pm, Sundays at 4 am & 5 pm and Mondays at 2 am.
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I’m Jeff Smith, urban policy professor at The New School and former Missouri state senator, sitting in for Josh King. This week, we dissect Mississippi politics, which stood at the epicenter of American politics last week as Senator Thad Cochran came back from a political near-death experience and clung to his seat.

We dig deep into what happened on the ground – and why it all matters for the rest of the nation. I’d like to thank my fantastic guests, all three of whom spent election day in Jackson, the state capital: Sam Hall of the Jackson (MS) Clarion-Ledger, Ashley Parker of the New York Times, and Professor Jay Barth, chairman of the Hendrix College political science department, and member of the Arkansas State Board of Education.


In his 1949 landmark book “Southern Politics,” the famed political scientist V.O. Key concluded that the politics of the South “revolves around the position of the Negro … Whatever phase of the Southern political process one seeks to understand, sooner or later the trail of inquiry leads to the Negro.”

Since the Civil War, wealthy and struggling whites clashed over wages, the right to organize unions, and the role of government. About the only thing they agreed upon was the myth of black inferiority that helped unify the South in national political battles to lock in iron-clad segregation and ban black voting.

Throughout the 20th century, the Mississippi Democratic Party housed these two factions. Mississippi politics was a battle between the Delta planters and the poor white “peckerwoods,” as Key called them. The planters wanted low taxes and limited public services; the peckerwoods favored the New Deal and the electricity and jobs it brought to the rural South. The affluent Delta produced politicians such as Sen. James Eastland, while the poorer piney woods region produced pols like KKK member Sen. Theodore Bilbo, a fire-breathing race baiter whose vile rhetoric embarrassed the genteel Delta planters.

These divisions persist in Mississippi politics – except now they exist within the Republican Party. As the Mississippi Republican Party’s elder statesman, Thad Cochran is a modern-day Eastland, embodying the measured tone of the planter class. Conversely, the fiery McDaniel was born and raised in an impoverished rural county, and McDaniel’s retrograde rhetoric on race and sex bore uncomfortable resemblances to the hateful Bilbo speeches of yesteryear.


But after much strife and bloodshed, civil rights finally came to Mississippi, giving politicians a new voting bloc with which to contend. And yet even after black residents began registering in droves, it was often considered taboo for politicians to actually court their votes.

But that all changed three weeks ago. After McDaniel’s near-upset in the primary, Cochran tried an unusual strategy during the runoff election: he tried to persuade black Democrats to cross over and vote in the Republican primary. And instead of doing this via under-the-table vote buying, as had once been typical in the Delta, Cochran strategists even boasted about their strategy.


Though the rise of Southern Republicanism in the 1950s did not begin because of race – indeed, Nixon was seen as more
progressive than Kennedy on civil rights until word spread about Kennedy’s phone call to Coretta Scott King while her husband sat in a Birmingham jail – Southern Republican success mushroomed in the 1960s and 1970s due to the Republican Party’s increasingly conservative positioning on civil rights and other issues linked to race.

For 150 years, Mississippi politicians of both parties succeeded by vehemently oppose policies that benefited black residents. Indeed, it was only last year that Mississippi finally ratified the 13th Amendment freeing slaves. And yet Cochran’s very prominent African-American outreach – even as he courted a Republican primary electorate that has been bred on decades of racially-laden appeals – somehow succeeded.

Native Mississippian Sam Hall describes the political undercurrents of the election barely, if at all, visible to the national media who swarmed the state in the closing weeks. Ashley Parker analyzes the national political and policy implications of Cochran’s stunning come-from-behind win. And Jay Barth goes deep twice – first, offering an historical lens through which to understand the politics of the Deep South, and second, describing the tactics and techniques of the Cochran ground war that eluded most of the media. It’s a show no political junkie will want to miss.

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