The Mississippi Special Election Is a Glimpse Into America’s Polarized Future

Espy has a shot, but Hyde-Smith will probably ride racial resentment all the way to Washington.

Mike Espy and Cindy Hyde-Smith
Mike Espy and Cindy Hyde-Smith Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Drew Angerer/Getty Images, and Al Drago/Getty Images.

Mississippi isn’t just a deep-red state—Donald Trump won nearly 58 percent of the vote to Hillary Clinton’s 40 percent—it’s also a largely rural one defined by stark racial polarization. Black residents almost uniformly support Democratic candidates and white residents almost uniformly support Republicans, which makes Mississippi electorally “inelastic.” There’s a narrow band of outcomes and an almost unshakable GOP advantage.

This political divide is a direct holdover from the state’s past, a product of its deep entanglement with slavery and its culture of exclusion and hierarchy. Just two facts show the extent of Mississippi’s reliance on slave labor: On the eve of the Civil War, 55 percent of people living in the state were enslaved, and at the height of the domestic slave trade, Natchez, which sits on the bank of the Mississippi River, was one of the richest cities in the United States, with half the nation’s millionaires.

For Mississippi and its peers, emancipation was a profound shock to the system whose ripples have been felt ever since. “We document that Southern whites who live in areas where slaveholding was more prevalent are today more conservative, more cool to African Americans, and more likely to oppose race-related policies that many feel could potentially help blacks,” argue scholars Avidit Acharya, Matthew Blackwell, and Maya Sen in Deep Roots: How Slavery Still Shapes Southern Politics.

Mississippi whites are still among the most conservative in the nation, a direct consequence of the state’s experience with slavery, emancipation, and its aftermath. “These attitudes grew out of the historical incentives to subjugate African Americans—incentives that strengthened through the antebellum period and morphed in the postbellum period into significant institutional and social customs designed to keep blacks in socially, politically, and economically marginalized positions,” Acharya, Blackwell and Sen write.

These attitudes are so ingrained, so tied to the particular history and culture of the Deep South, that it continues to weigh on the politics of the region, well after the civil rights era and the death of Jim Crow. We can feel some of this weight in the context of Tuesday’s runoff election for Senate in Mississippi.

Incumbent Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, appointed to fill the vacancy created by former Sen. Thad Cochran, is running to complete the last two years of his term. She has stumbled through the race, in a campaign marked by controversy. In one instance, she advocated for voter suppression. In another, she said that if a supporter invited her to “a public hanging, I’d be on the front row,” a phrase which carries ugly connotations in a state marked by a long history of brutal racial violence, and sounds even worse in light of the fact that her opponent, Democrat Mike Espy, is black.

Espy, a former three-term congressman and secretary of agriculture under Bill Clinton, has had a strong showing for a Democrat running statewide in Mississippi. He finished just behind Hyde-Smith in the first round of voting, taking 44 percent of the vote in the only public poll of the runoff. His strategy for winning is similar to the one used in Alabama to elect Democrat Doug Jones in last December’s special election: supercharged turnout among black voters (who make up 37 percent of the voting age population) tied to modest support from white moderates. Espy won 18 percent of white voters in the first-round election. If he can boost that to 25 or 30 percent, he can win.

The inelasticity of the Mississippi electorate means the odds are not in his favor. Even with her missteps, Hyde-Smith is likely to win. She is the beneficiary of a deeply racialized white political culture that reads black political power as an existential threat, which means she can almost certainly count on the overwhelming support of white voters in the state to carry her to victory. Espy is an able, talented politician, but his fate is likely sealed.

This isn’t just a story of Mississippi and the Deep South. Racism, anti-black or otherwise, weighs on the country writ large. Since Barack Obama’s election in 2008, the partisanship of all white voters has increasingly aligned with their racial attitudes—whites with conservative racial views are more likely to be Republican than ever before, while whites with liberal racial views are far more likely to be Democrats. And this isn’t an artifact of some other change to public opinion. “In fact, no other factor predicted changes in white partisanship during Obama’s presidency as powerfully and consistently as racial attitudes,” write political scientists John Sides, Michael Tesler, and Lynn Vavreck in Identity Crisis, their recent analysis of the 2016 election.

Extrapolate from these trends—and add a Republican Party whose leaders are committed to fanning racial hysteria for the sake of votes—and you can see a political landscape that looks like the one in Mississippi and other states of the Deep South, defined by stark racial polarization and a durable base for highly reactionary politics. The midterm elections offer a glimpse of this in its early stages, with Democrats consolidating diverse suburbs and Republicans doing the same among rural and exurban whites. The two parties have always been separated by geography, education, and race, but that divide has grown even more dramatic in the modern era, as a politics of racial exclusion takes hold in the GOP.

There are still many exits left before our national politics reaches that point. But looking at America under Trump, it’s hard to say that we’re not heading steadily on that path.