Endangered Species of the American South | The Nation


Endangered Species of the American South

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Bush's policies are also "going to galvanize the Democratic base," says Legette. The question is whether the Democrats are ready to capitalize. Can they galvanize their own Southern base--or, perhaps more accurately, rebuild it? The formula is far from complicated: Invigorate black voters sick of the same old rhetoric and same old promises. Use bold economic proposals to win back white working-class voters who've responded to the Republicans' success in making Southern elections hinge on God, guns and Confederate flags. And then, once you've revived that populist spirit--which still animates Southerners just as much as states' rights--you can get to work on the moderates. The New South Democrats, and their cheerleaders in the Democratic Leadership Council, have had it precisely backward.

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Bob Moser
Bob Moser, a Nation contributing writer, is editor of The Texas Observer and author of Blue Dixie: Awakening the South'...

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Where is the Democratic Goldwater ready to lead a revival? So far, nowhere in sight. "Nobody's making a strong argument for strategic change except Lieberman, who says the party must move farther right to compete in the South," says Aiesi. "But trying to beat the Republicans at their own game, as Southern Democrats keep finding out, is a great way to lose."

That message appears to be similarly lost on John Edwards and Bob Graham, waving the drooping banner of New South moderation. Meanwhile, Al Sharpton's appeal to the white working class does not even look as strong as Greenville native Jesse Jackson's, and Howard Dean has awkwardly tried to speak to black voters in the South with tired clichés about race relations.

Wesley Clark's entry into the race on September 17, which cannily stole the thunder from Edwards's "formal announcement" the day before, was the year's first encouraging news for Southern Democrats. Potentially encouraging, that is. On foreign policy, the four-star general from Arkansas is admirably positioned for both the Southern primaries--with his outspoken opposition to Bush's formula for "fighting terror"--and for the general election, where his iron-jawed patriotism would make Southern swing voters more likely to trust his critique of Bush's Middle East adventures.

But in the South, just as in the rest of America, domestic issues are where the rubber will meet the road in the Democratic primaries. If the folks who are most excited by his campaign--DLC operatives and former Clinton and Gore advisers who've leapt on Clark's bandwagon--have anything to say about it, the telegenic general will likely end up sounding a lot like Edwards, who sounds a lot like Clinton. If Bush continues to flounder, the Man from NATO's personal magnetism could conceivably overcome that liability--and turn New South moderation into a winning general-election formula for 2004, capturing a few Southern states while holding on to the blue states. But that kind of Clark victory would leave Southern Democrats stuck in echo mode--the same strategy that has been bleeding the party dry for the past forty years.

Early this year, John Kerry infuriated the "me too" Democrats by openly questioning the conventional wisdom that the party cannot afford to lose the entire South in 2004. True, a Republican sweep of the South would set the bar awfully high--a Democrat who lost the South as badly as Al Gore would have to win more than 70 percent of the remaining electoral votes. But Kerry did have a point: It's possible. It's also possible that a fresh populist message might be the only recipe for reviving the Democratic Party in the South--even if it means losing all eleven states next year.

Meanwhile, as Clark takes a crash course on social issues, the other Democratic contenders troop across South Carolina, quoting Martin Luther King Jr. in black churches, posing with grimaces in front of shut-down textile plants and hawking pennywise plans for better healthcare and better schools. Until the party stumbles on a Goldwater of its own, Maxie Duke might start to look like an even wiser prophet than LBJ: "fifty years," sighed the Democrat from Seneca.

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