Gibraltar May Tumble


Democrats used to be competitive in both cities and the countryside, but partisanship has changed things. It’s now getting harder and harder to find Democrats in rural areas across the US, but especially in the South. Are the partisans of Western Kentucky the last of this dying breed? We travel to the politically raucous annual Fancy Farm Picnic to find out.

The Backstory:

If you look at a partisan map of the United States today, it looks like a sea of red bordered by blue on both coasts, with most of infrequent blue in between being the large cities.  Today, the biggest split in voters is the rural/urban divide.  Their appeal to the centers of population and the changing demographics in metropolitan areas favor Democrats nationally, but the growing Republican advantage in the much larger, much less populous America keeps them ahead in the House and in Senate elections in more rural states.

While over half of rural voters were represented in the House by Democrats as late as 23 years ago, the disappearance of more conservative Democrats in those districts, starting with the Gingrich wave of 1994, replaced by Republicans, has led to close to 80% representation by the GOP today.  George H. Bush won the fifty least dense counties by 18 points in 1992.  By 2012, Mitt Romney won those counties by 53 points.

On the flip side, where Bill Clinton won the country’s fifty densest counties by 25 points in 1992, Barack Obama took those counties by 38 points.  Clearly, differences in culture, religion, demographic diversity (or lack thereof), and even local economics are at the root of this divide – evident in overviews from Thomas Franks’ “What’s the Matter with Kansas” to Bill Bishop’s “The Big Sort” to the varied reactions to candidate Obama’s 2008 comments about small town whites who “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them.”

This pattern of growing division has seen its most rapid transformation in the South, a movement traced to race.  The oft-quoted story is that President Lyndon Johnson, late in the night after signing the landmark Civil Rights Bill of 1964, lying in bed reading a Washington Post headline celebrating the bill’s passage, told his young aide, Bill Moyers, “I think we just delivered the South to the Republican party for a long time to come.”

The transition of the once solid Democratic South to today’s GOP dominant South came over time, as conservative Democrats gave way to conservative Republicans. Today, in the states of the old Confederacy and the border states associated with the South, only the Kentucky House remains in the hands of Democrats. In Alabama and Mississippi, white support for President Obama barely reached ten percent in 2008.  Longtime Democratic Senate incumbents, Mary Landrieu and Mark Pryor, couldn’t reach twenty percent among white voters in Louisiana and Arkansas in their defeats in 2014.

Kentucky has featured spirited two party competition, even when the South was the solid blue, part of the New Deal Democratic majority coalition.  The mountain east, which had most strongly opposed Civil War succession, was traditionally Republican, while the western part of the state, which culturally more resembled the South, was known as the Democratic Rock of Gibraltar.  As early as two years ago, the state’s Governor was popular, two-term Steve Beshear, who’d championed the only state Obamacare exchange in the South.  Today both Senators, Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul, and all but one congressmen are Republicans — and 2014 brought conservative Matt Bevins and a wave of GOP legislators to the state capitol in Lexington.  Only the state House remained controlled by the Democrats.  Just a shift of five seats in 2016 could mean that the GOP controls every legislative body in the region.

About the Film:

One of the recurring images of old time Southern politics were candidates who could give and take it in stump speaking.  Today a few vestiges of that kind of politics remain.  There’s Shad Planking in Virginia, political speeches during Mississippi’s Neshoba County Fair, and in Kentucky, the annual Fancy Farm Picnic.  The little western Kentucky town of 500 hosts thousands of people every summer and in the midst of record setting preparation of meat, comes two hours of back and forth speeches and heckling of politicians, on a stage in front of the St. Jerome’s Catholic Church, Republicans on one side of the stage, Democrats on the other.

2016 was the 136th annual picnic and observers were wondering if the festivities marked the tipping point in the decline and fall of the Kentucky Democratic Party.  While the Republicans giving speeches featured the sitting Governor and both US Senators, not a single statewide Democratic officeholder choose to attend – and that was among the only two that remain.  The Democratic candidate opposing Rand Paul was the openly gay mayor of Lexington and the best the Clinton campaign for President could do to represent them was to send in a former Senator from North Carolina.

Until recent times, while most white voters in western Kentucky voted Republican in national office elections, they remained registered as Democrats in order to vote for local candidates in the Democratic primary.  But two terms of President Obama, as its done in the rest of the South, has seen a mass move into the Republican Party.  Now it’s hard to find a local Democrat in office and Fancy Farm, in 2016, was an example of that transition.  So has Gibraltar tumbled?

About the Filmmakers: 

Louis Alvarez, Andrew Kolker, and Paul Stekler have been responsible for some of the most respected political documentaries of the past twenty years, bringing an anthropological perspective to the way Americans practice politics. Their work is known for engaging stories and memorable characters, with large dollops of humor and provocative points of view. Vote for Me: Politics in America, a four-hour PBS series on electoral politics and American culture, won a Peabody and a duPont-Columbia Journalism Award. Most recently, Getting Back to Abnormal, their look at race and politics in post-Katrina New Orleans, was shown on PBS’ premier documentary series POV. Other credits include Stekler’s George Wallace: Settin’ The Woods on Fire and Alvarez and Kolker’s People Like Us: Social Class in America and The Anti-Americans.

Post-Election Update:

Republicans not only took over the last legislative body in the South controlled by Democrats, they captured it in a landslide, taking 17 Democratic seats.  The partisan balance how changes for a 53 to 47 Democratic majority to at least a 64 seat Republican majority.  They even beat longtime House Speaker Greg Stumbo, in office since 1980.

Their landslide victory included Dan Johnson, the bishop of Heart of Fire Church in Louisville.  GOP officials had asked him to drop out of the race after he posted offensive pictures on Facebook that depicted President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama as apes.  He won by 200 votes.