South more bellwether than backwater

Don’t look now, but the South may be leading the nation into the 21st century. The data seem to say so, even though most Americans haven’t seemed to notice.

The U.S. can be divided into four cultural/geographic regions: the Northeast with 11 states, the Midwest (12 states), the Pacific/Mountain West (13 states) and the South (14 states).

This division excludes Washington, D.C., puts Alaska and Hawaii in the West and divides the border states as follows: Kansas and Missouri in the Midwest, West Virginia and Kentucky in the South and Maryland in the Northeast.

The Northeast enjoys a rich history of cultural, educational and economic leadership. The Midwest is known for fertile farmlands and great industrial cities. The West has spectacular natural beauty and is home to many high-tech industries. And the South is best known for racial strife, conservative politics and rural poverty.

Which of the four regions has the smallest population? Which has the smallest percent of the country’s gross domestic product? And which has the least influence on presidential elections? If you accept the common wisdom, you might be surprised.

In percentage of U.S. population, as of 2003, the regions rank as follows: South (33.64 percent), West (22.90 percent) Midwest (22.53 percent) and Northeast (20.92 percent).

The percentage of U.S. GDP in 2001 was distributed as follows: South (30.41 percent), Northeast (24.13 percent), West (23.77 percent) and Midwest (21.69 percent).

On the political front, from 1952 to 2004 the regions ranked as follows in number of presidents elected from each: South (5), West (2), Midwest (1) and Northeast (1). That is, five of the last nine men elected president established their political identities in the South.

Do the data surprise you? In population, production and political clout the South leads the nation, and the lead has been increasing in all three categories.

In the middle of the 20th century, Southerners were leaving the South in record numbers to find jobs in the Midwest. Southern economic planners realized that for the South to catch up with other regions, it had to attract more industry.

Initially progress was slow as the South struggled to escape its past, but decades of planning finally paid off. South Carolina brought in BMW, Tennessee got Nissan and Volkswagen, Geogia got Kia, and Alabama attracted Mercedes, Honda, Toyota and Hyundai.

Critics complained that these automotive giants went south to find cheap labor, but in fact the wages paid at the new factories were very good–and looked even better when the recession brought GM and Chrysler to the brink of collapse. And it wasn’t just automobile manufacturing that came south.

As Joe Hollingsworth pointed out in 2003 in “The Southern Advantage,” the South not only has more business startups than any other region, a larger percentage of them succeed. listed American’s “hot” entrepreneurial large and mid-sized cities for 2005. Six of the top 10 large cities and eight of the top 10 mid-sized cities were in the South. In other words, 60 percent to 80 percent of the nation’s top entrepreneurial cities are in the South.

If you still have “Yes, but …” on your lips and are loathe to miss an opportunity to assert that the South trails the nation in education, per capita wealth and productivity and average standard of living, then you have missed the point. The South is leading in population, production and presidential politics in spite of its historical problems and handicaps.

The stereotype of a red-state South may lead conservatives to take heart in the South’s political power, but in fact the South has often supported liberal presidents. John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton did well in the South. The South rejected Humphrey, McGovern, Mondale and Dukakis as too liberal but so did most states outside the South.

The core of the national conservative movement is still centered in the Midwest and West, not the South. Alaska, Indiana, Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, Arizona, Oklahoma and Virginia are the only states that voted against Kennedy in 1960, Carter in 1976, and Clinton in 1992. Only the last two of these states are in the South.

People who still cling to the stereotype of a rural, backward, divided and conservative South that is slipping further and further behind in an otherwise productive and progressive nation, are missing one of the biggest stories of our day. An industrial and culturally diverse South has emerged as the nation’s economic and political engine. The voices of the South may still be slow and soft, but southern progress is not.