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The Other White Flight

Can Democrats ever regain the support of Southern whites?

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Carlton Sparks is the reason the GOP has a stranglehold on the South.

With his wife Cindi and their 17-year-old son Andrew, he lives in a tan, one-story home off a country road surrounded by mountains. His kitchen walls are wood-paneled, covered with Cracker Barrel-style knickknacks and a pair of decorative, cloth bouquet hangings.

Sparks, 49, makes a good living for a resident of Blairsville, GA. He pulls in more than $45,000 a year from Blue Ridge Mountain Electric Membership Corporation, where he works as a warehouseman. But his worn face and ragged English betray a life of hard work and hard times. Sparks grew up a self-described Kennedy Democrat, born to a single mom in 1954, a time, he notes, when single mothers weren't too popular. After high school, he joined the military for a short stint, got out and went to work at his uncle's sawmill before joining an EMC right-of-way crew. That was before they used chainsaws.

"They's people in prison don't work as hard as what we worked," he recalls, "but I had to have it." His motivation was a wife and a baby girl.

Watching him light up Winstons and listening to his adventures in syntax, some might pigeonhole Sparks after about 10 seconds. They'd be wrong. He defies easy categorization.

One minute, he's spewing Fox News/talk radio cliches about "big government" and school prayer. But the next minute, he's speaking eloquently on the real problems he and his neighbors face in 21st century rural America.

"To me . . . if you're working a public job, basically what you're going to wind up with, if you can pay for a house, if you can drive a relatively new car, not a new car, but a newer used car and send your kids to college, that's a pretty good chunk and then on top of that save a little bit for retirement," Sparks says. It's humble and anti-materialist. "Now, that don't seem like a whole lot of goals to put in front of you starting out in life, but that's basically what it wound up being."

In Sparks lies the great conundrum of modern Southern politics: The average, white, working-class guy is having a hard time making ends meet -- as if consumer debt recently topping $2 trillion for the first time wasn't enough of a clue. His wages have dropped when adjusted for inflation. His health insurance premiums have skyrocketed (if he has health insurance). He and his wife both have to work, and they pay astronomical childcare bills. His younger kids' schools are crappy and under-funded. His older kids' college tuition has jumped (an average of 14 percent in the last year). And, if he's like Sparks, 30 percent of what he managed to stash away for retirement evaporated in a stock market fiasco fueled by corporate greed that a little more government oversight could have prevented.

So where's the anger? And why in the world is he going to vote for a president based on a side issue like which candidate hates gay marriages?

I spent a week on the road trying to figure out why traditionally Democratic rural whites have so solidly embraced a Republican Party whose economic program runs directly counter to their own interests.

I started in the mountain hamlet of Young Harris, GA -- the hometown of US Sen. Zell Miller -- and in nearby Blairsville. Then, on to Seneca, SC, the birthplace of Democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards. Finally, I headed to Polk County in one of the poorest parts of central Florida.

Like much of the rural South, each town I visited was poor, was overwhelmingly white and voted for George W. Bush in 2000. At each stop, I looked for working poor and middle-income people, asked them how they voted and why. The answers were both depressingly facile, filled with the parroted lingo of the rightwing media echo chamber, and yet, once I dug, often so thin, disconnected and confused that I wondered whether a strong wind (or a populist candidate with the right message) might reorder the political landscape.

"Part of the problem that any political party would have . . . is: Do you take the political world as you find it or do you try to change the electorate?" says Emory University political scientist Merle Black.

The answer for progressives and populists is the latter if they intend to solve the riddle of their dwindling support in the South, because these are the places where politicians fear to tread, places populated by the most ignored voters in the country.

Driving east into Seneca, SC, on US. 76, you're greeted by the corpulent majesty of the local Super Wal-Mart, a monstrosity with a barber shop, McDonald's, grocery store, shotguns and an eye doctor. Everything under one roof.As you exit the town, headed toward Clemson, you see 76's other most conspicuous roadside attraction, Tiger Tails: Dancers Wanted. It's a strip club popular with the over-40 set. For anyone tempted to go in, there's four or five religious radio stations to choose from as you make the 10-minute drive between Sam Walton's packed economy of scale and Tiger Tails.

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