The Way Down South
When a near-solid South propelled Carter to the presidency in 1976, it appeared that the long-delayed dream might be coming to life. But Carter's White House stint, like Bill Clinton's after it, failed to live up to its populist promise. And while GOP fortunes were being bolstered by a new Christian-right politics that sent another wave of traditional Democrats into the Republican camp, the national Democrats began to beat a retreat from Dixie. Democratic state parties in the South, which had never had to mount full-scale general-election campaigns in the past, were woefully unprepared to counter the Republican surge--and were largely left high and dry. "We'd had it so easy for so long that when Republicans started to crest, we had no idea what to do or how to do it," says Maxie Duke, a longtime Democratic activist in Oconee County, South Carolina. National Democrats, she says, "just didn't care."
Worse, the Democrats failed to take the opening left them by the Republicans' Southern strategy: Adapt the South's economic populist tradition into a fresh, class-based politics with broad appeal to blacks and whites alike, directly challenging the politics of cultural fear and racial unity. "The party abandoned its New Deal legacy as a positive force for change and hunkered down behind a defensive shield," writes John Egerton, author of The Americanization of Dixie. "The leaders failed to comprehend that Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson died for their sins, and in so doing freed the Democrats to reclaim their heritage as the fountainhead of egalitarian opportunity."
By 1988 the sight of a Democratic presidential nominee in Dixie had become about as rare as a glimpse of the ivory-billed woodpecker. But while white Southerners were voting in huge numbers for Republicans in "Washington elections" for President and Congress, Democrats did not go extinct. "Southern politics remains a complex mix," says Ferrell Guillory, head of the University of North Carolina's Program on Southern Politics, Media and Public Life. "Between the solid South of yesteryear and the 'GOP lock' of today, there is a distinct difference. Then, the underdog party hardly mattered. Now, the underdog party has not gone away." A poll of Southern voters on election day 2000 found 35 percent identifying as Democrats--just 26 percent as Republicans. Southern Democrats still win more state and local elections, where candidates matter more than party identities. The parity between the parties, unprecedented in the South's history, was neatly symbolized by the total tally of state legislative seats in the old Confederate states after the 2004 elections: 891 Democrats, 891 Republicans. The vast bulk of the region--including old Confederate states like Florida, North Carolina, Arkansas and Virginia and "border South" states like Kentucky, West Virginia and Missouri--is more purple than red.
But when it comes to the South, myth always overwhelms reality. The Republican Party has come to rely on the mystical powers of its "solid South" to produce nearly two-thirds of the electoral votes its presidential candidates need every four years. National Democrats have leaned on the myth, too, using it to justify their drift from economic populism toward a Clinton-style, Wall Street-friendly centrism. Coming off three straight Democratic wipeouts in the 1980s, Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council persuaded many in the party that their only chance to compete in the vote-rich South was by "neutralizing" distinctions with the omnipotent Republicans. The "Republican Lite" strategy led to some statewide Democratic victories in Dixie in the 1990s, and Clinton used it to win eight Old South and border South states in both his 1992 and '96 presidential victories. But Republican Lite gave Democrats an eerie resemblance to the old mushy, stand-for-nothing Republican Party, and the strategy has paid diminishing returns over time. For the Democrats' largest and most loyal Southern constituency, Republican Lite represents an outright betrayal. "They spend 95 percent of the time trying to sway away white moderates and even conservatives," says Willie Legette, a longtime African-American political organizer in South Carolina. "The message is, 'We're no longer the party concerned with reducing racial and class inequalities.' They're so bent on not being identified as the party of liberalism that they give us no reason to vote."
When the Democrats' "me too" version of a Southern strategy failed them in 2000, with DLC stalwart Al Gore unable to carry a single state in Dixie (unless you count Florida), a backlash broke out among blue-state progressives understandably fed up with centrist compromises that weren't even helping to win national elections anymore. But rather than call for a recommitment to core Democratic values, the loudest voices blamed the South. "For Democrats, the South has become the Sahara of the Electoral College," wrote Slate columnist Timothy Noah. "Give it up." In the run-up to 2004, Thomas Schaller, a University of Maryland political scientist, wrote an influential Washington Post op-ed calling for a non-Southern strategy. "Trying to recapture the region is a futile, counterproductive exercise because the South is no longer the swing region," he declared. "It has swung: Richard Nixon's 'Southern strategy' of 1968 has reached full fruition." Freed from their Southern bondage, wrote Mary Lynn Jones in The American Prospect, Democrats could focus on their "natural liberal base" and come up with "stronger, more compelling nominees" to champion a less compromised progressivism.
While no President had ever been elected without winning a sizable chunk of Dixie, a growing number of Democrats were eager to take the gamble. And they were about to find the perfect champion for their suicidal strategy.
On the doleful morning of January 21, 2004, my Alabama friend Todd had just one question: "What are the Democrats smoking this time? 'Cause whatever it is, if it can make you that oblivious to reality, I want some."
The night before, Iowans had held their quadrennial caucuses and made John Kerry the presumptive favorite for the nomination. I was living then in the heart of old Dixie, Montgomery, "cradle" of both the Confederacy and the civil rights movement, and getting a taste of how unaccountably strange national Democratic politics looks in red America. For beleaguered Southern liberals like Todd, the Democrats' misunderstanding of what appeals to the South and to Middle America falls somewhere between a bad joke and a tragedy--and Kerry's win looked like the perfect example. Since 1972 most Southerners' image of the two parties had flipped, even if their voting habits hadn't; now it was Democrats who entered every campaign suspected of being wine-and-cheese elitists out to screw the folk. Kerry was the very personification of that image. "You only have to listen to him for thirty seconds," Todd said, "to know that's somebody who'd be afraid to even dip a toe in Alabama."
If there was any doubt about that, Kerry dispelled it three days later. "Everybody always makes the mistake of looking South," he tut-tutted to a Dartmouth College crowd. "Al Gore proved he could have been President of the United States without winning one Southern state." It was an odd interpretation of events, given that Gore's Southern wipeout had sealed his doom in 2000. In fact, according to Gore's campaign manager, Donna Brazile, Gore shut down most campaign operations in the South before Labor Day of that year. Now Kerry, who repeated his non-Southern intentions twice in the following days, was planning to replicate Gore's losing strategy--and further widen the gulf between national Democrats and the South.