< The Lure of Reporting About Southern Stereotypes


Friday, March 23, 2012

BROOKE GLADSTONE:  This is On the Media, I’m Brooke Gladstone.

BOB GARFIELD:  And I’m Bob Garfield. This weekend is the Louisiana Republican Primary. Earlier this month, we saw primaries in Alabama and Mississippi. Much of the attention leading up to those votes was focused on the results of a few poll questions posed to likely Republican primary voters by the Democratically-affiliated Public Policy Poling. The questions revealed a deep cultural conservatism in the South and a distrust of Barack Obama. What’s more, in Alabama, 60 percent of the respondents do not believe in evolution. In Mississippi 52 percent believe Obama is a Muslim. And in South Carolina, one in five voters believe that interracial marriage should be illegal.


Shocking numbers, but even Tom Jensen, a pollster from Public Policy Polling, believes the attention paid to those questions was – a bit much.

TOM JENSEN:  The level of media coverage of these claims [LAUGHS] was excessive. Certainly, I would much rather see the media focus on the substance of the presidential race than on some of these quirkier findings.

BOB GARFIELD:  Writer Michelle Cottle, herself a Southerner, has been keeping tabs on the media’s fascination with those poll numbers for The Daily Beast. She says the results are not that revealing, or relevant.

MICHELLE COTTLE:  Well, you know, if you’re talking interracial marriage, that’s a stretch, especially for the Republican primary. And I don’t see a Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich talking about how we need to go back to Jim Crow.

BOB GARFIELD:  It’s not that you’re arguing the data are invalid. It’s just that they don’t have anything to do with the policy issues at hand.

MICHELLE COTTLE:  I mean, I can see an argument that what you want to do is show how socially conservative Southerners are, compared to other sections of the country. But they’re not asking these questions of other sections of the country, so the fact that say 60 percent of Alabamans don’t believe in evolution, well I hate to break it to people but the majority of the country isn’t buying evolution. I mean, 40 percent are strict creationists and another close to 40 percent believe in intelligent design.

BOB GARFIELD:  The numbers we have, and these are from a poll by the very same Democratic pollster, subsequent to your column they did a national poll and they discovered that half of the populace believes in evolution, 36 don’t, 13 percent are not sure. But, of course, that incorporates this large percentage from the Deep South that categorically doesn’t. Clearly, the South is overrepresented in believing in creationism and intelligent design.

MICHELLE COTTLE:  Sure. I don’t have a problem with that, but the idea that 60 percent of Alabamans is much different than a chunk of Kansas, unless you’re doing this state by state, it’s not that enlightening.

BOB GARFIELD:  Are the media in this case just carrying water for the Democrats in the culture wars?

MICHELLE COTTLE:  No, I don’t think so. I mean, I think based in New York and Washington, the media overwhelmingly shares a lot of the same cultural positions. So I don’t think that they’re carrying water so much, as that they find it completely hysterical when these sorts of things get brought to their attention because, for the most part, that’s when we pay attention to the South. It is kind of seen as this bizarre subculture. They look at these numbers and they’re like, oh my God, there are still people who don’t believe in interracial marriage and, oh my God, the majority of these people don’t believe in evolution.

BOB GARFIELD:  Let me put it to you this way:  I have traveled from coast to coast and border to border in this great country of ours, and I find that Montana and Arizona are every bit as culturally different from the coasts as the Deep South is. Yet, I find the results here just so sort of shockingly retrograde. Am I overreacting?

MICHELLE COTTLE:  I don’t know. I mean, how do you feel about Arizona’s immigration laws?

BOB GARFIELD:  Well, I don’t like ‘em.

MICHELLE COTTLE:  Well, there you go! I’m not saying that this isn’t appalling, that people still harbor these retrograde views. I’m just saying, I bet if you polled Boston, you’d find a lot of people with, you know, retrograde racist views, as well.

BOB GARFIELD:  I guess we should observe that the people being polled were the likely voters in a Republican primary in Alabama and Mississippi and so forth, presumably the most conservative of the conservative. Do we have any reason to think that you can extrapolate the attitudes of an entire region from this particular cohort?

MICHELLE COTTLE:  [LAUGHING] No. I mean, we’re talking about a fraction of a fraction here. We’re talking about a whole bunch of old white folk here. I mean, this is not the New South, this is the Dying South, for the most part.

BOB GARFIELD:  I must confess that I am not above stereotyping myself. Like the George Clooney character in Up in the Air says, “I like stereotyping, it’s faster.”

But in this case, it was more than just the polling data affirming all of my prejudices about the South. My thought was, “Really, in 2012, in America?”

MICHELLE COTTLE:  That’s what we’re always being reminded by – you know, especially Republican primary candidates, when you have the fight over creationism in Kansas a few years ago or when you have these really angry rallies with Republican voters in the Midwest. For all of Barack Obama’s, we are not a red America and a blue America, we really are, in some ways.

BOB GARFIELD:  Michelle, thanks very much.

MICHELLE COTTLE:  My pleasure.

BOB GARFIELD:  Michelle Cottle writes for The Daily Beast. After she wrote her column, Public Policy Polling did ask likely Republican voters in a northern state, Illinois, the same questions they’d asked in Alabama and Mississippi. It turns out 43 percent of those polled in Illinois, Obama’s home state, don’t believe in evolution and 39 percent of those questioned believe the President is a Muslim.


You heard it here first, and maybe last.


Michelle Cottle

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Bob Garfield