Endangered Species of the American South
The New South Democrats' response to this sea change has been a tepid stew of moderate issues designed to attract suburban swing voters. They might offer heartfelt tributes to Martin Luther King Jr. in one black church after another, but their message is tailored to sway nonideological whites. "They spend 95 percent of the time trying to sway white moderates and even conservatives," says Willie Legette, a longtime progressive activist who teaches politics at South Carolina State University. "There's only one message the Democrats have been sending loud and clear: 'We're no longer the party concerned with reducing racial and class inequalities.' They're battling to show that they will further the interests of white people who already vote."
When the Republicans nominate a dud--like Senator Lauch Faircloth, the pallid Jesse Helms wannabe dispatched by Edwards in '98--the strategy can work. New South Democrats have pulled off occasional victories by bringing out a decent black vote and "convincing conventional voters that a particular Republican is the bogyman," Legette says. "But they don't offer anything positive, especially for working-class voters who are supposed to be the party's base."
Even if Edwards, Senator Bob Graham or Wesley Clark can conjure up a way to win South Carolina next February 3, their species--New South Democrats--will still be as doomed and outmoded as its Republican predecessor four decades back. While the Republicans continue to build on their strength in the South, the Democrats continue to fade into irrelevance. They need fresh ideas. They need--bizarre as it sounds--a Barry Goldwater.
The day before the 1964 presidential election, the insurgent Republican senator from Arizona chose to make his final campaign stop in Columbia, South Carolina. Matched against a popular President leading the ticket of America's dominant party, Goldwater knew he stood no chance of winning the election. Instead, he stood at a podium in the heart of Dixie, flanked by Strom Thurmond and other prominent segregationists, culminating his unlikely campaign to breathe life into the Southern GOP.
Though the results the next day looked disastrous--Lyndon Johnson racked up the largest percentage of the popular vote in American history--Goldwater broke through in five Southern states. He did it not only by nodding and winking at racists like Thurmond, but by embracing something that Southerners had felt in their guts since long before the Civil War: distrust of the federal government. "Forced integration," Goldwater liked to tell his admirers in Dixie, "is just as wrong as forced segregation."
By making the states' rights argument, the Republicans had finally latched on to an idea that resonated with conservatives in the South. Helped along by the rise of Christian politics and the influx of Northern professionals, the Southern GOP was on its way to turning the tables on the mighty Democrats. Like many Southern progressives, Willie Legette sees only one long-term hope for a Democratic remedy--conjuring up what Goldwater gave the GOP in 1964, "a choice, not an echo."
So far, Legette says, "the Democrats are not offering any meaningful choice. The candidates are not taking a vision to the public about what the government can do and should do for people." When the Democrats do talk about the issues that matter to working-class folks, he says, the folks tend to roll their eyes. "Whatever these candidates say about better education, people are not convinced they'll have better schools. How many times have they been told the exact same things before, while the schools get worse? Same with healthcare."
That's especially problematic because Republicans in the South are increasingly vulnerable on kitchen-table issues. Even in the "economic miracle" state of South Carolina, manufacturing jobs seem to disappear by the day. In the hardest-hit industries, textile executives and workers who voted for Bush in 2000 have been angrily vowing to turn their backs on the President in 2004.