We’ll see whether Joe Biden’s razor-thin victory in Georgia holds up, as that state begins the painstaking process of conducting a hand tally of almost 5 million votes.
But even if the audit finds enough errors to erase the Democratic president-elect’s 14,000-vote margin in that state, the result will still illustrate how much Georgia has changed in its voting patterns, and by contrast how little Mississippi has.
For most of the century and a half since the Civil War, Mississippi and Georgia were nearly ideological twins. Because of their antipathy for the political party that presided over the defeat of the South in the Civil War, they both went monolithically Democratic until the 1960s. But when Democrats in Washington began the push to undo segregation and other forms of racial discrimination, white Southern Democrats began to look for another political home. The exodus hastened as the national Democratic Party went further to the left on social issues, most prominently abortion rights in the 1970s and gay rights in the past decade.
Thus, the once solidly Democratic South became solidly Republican. In the 14 presidential elections held between 1964 through 2016, Georgia only gave its electoral votes to a Democratic nominee three times — native son Jimmy Carter twice and another moderate Southerner, Bill Clinton, once. Mississippi was a little more stark in its bent, only going for Carter on his first campaign.
Over the past few years, however, the former Southern soulmates have been diverging. Mississippi remains dominated by Republicans, while Georgia is steadily moving toward political parity. A Democrat almost won the governor’s race in 2018, Biden pulled the upset (or at worst near upset) against Donald Trump in Georgia, and two sitting Republican U.S. senators have been forced into runoffs in January against Democratic opponents.
One can argue over which state is the more enlightened, but there’s no debating about why Georgia is changing politically: It is attracting loads of people, many of them young or recent immigrants, as a result of its urban magnet in Atlanta and its booming economy, or at least it was booming before the pandemic. Georgia now has better than three times the population of Mississippi and more than five times the gross domestic product.
People gravitate to where they feel comfortable. When a state is viable for both political parties, it shows that it is open to a wide spectrum of beliefs and ideas. It also creates a healthy give-and-take in government that often produces a better result than when one side is so dominant that it can ignore the input of the other.
It also makes it a much more interesting place on election night. Mississippi was a yawner on Nov. 3, with the result for Trump and Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith a foregone conclusion. Meanwhile the nation was fixated on Georgia, and remains so 10 days after the polls closed.
It would be incorrect to say that the differences between Mississippi and Georgia are the differences between the Old South and the New South.
All the South is “new” to a degree. Racial attitudes throughout the region are better, education levels are higher, economies are more diverse, and newcomers are welcomed from other parts of the country and generally other parts of the world.
But there’s a “New” and a “Newer” South. The political patterns show which is which.