The Way Down South
"Today the Democratic Party stands between two great forces," an eminent populist once said. "On one side stand the corporate interests of the nation, its moneyed institutions, its aggregations of wealth and capital, imperious, arrogant, compassionless.... On the other side stands the unnumbered throng which gave a name to the Democratic Party and for which it has presumed to speak. Work-worn and dust-begrimed, they make their mute appeal, and too often find their cry for help beat in vain against the outer walls."
That was 33-year-old William Jennings Bryan, the South's favorite "prairie populist," shaking the rafters on Capitol Hill in 1893. The Democratic Party then stood at a crossroads similar to today's. Republicans had ruled national politics for decades, with Democrats offering an ever-more-mushy centrist alternative. When they heeded Bryan's populist call, the party began its transformation into the progressive force behind Woodrow Wilson's New Freedom and Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal--both more enthusiastically supported in the South than anywhere else.
Once again, the throng is restless--and large, as it now includes "the millions of middle-class citizens who have been whipsawed by the greedy elite," notes Southern author John Egerton. "Now, all that stands between these loyal, hard-working Americans and a permanent condition of underclass subjugation is the Democratic Party."
Just as it was in 1896, a new Democratic populism is anathema to party leaders who've counseled centrism as a way to neutralize not only Republican cultural populism but also the flow of corporate cash into GOP coffers. For many rank-and-file Democrats in the blue states, embracing a new economic populism would mean letting loose of the old Southern myths--which might be an even stiffer obstacle. The South has long amounted to little more than a swirl of stereotypes in the national mind (see Gone With the Wind; please do not see Forrest Gump). Many non-Southern progressives still see the region as a dank, magnolia-scented Otherworld where the cultural obsessions of race, religion and rifles hold white voters together in an unbreakable sway, making it hopeless terrain for planting any politics to the left of Jefferson Davis or Jerry Falwell.
"The Southern mystique," liberal historian Howard Zinn calls it in his 1964 book of the same title. The "notion that the South is more than just 'different,' that it is distinct from the rest of the nation...an inexplicable variant from the national norm," is a false exaggeration, wrote Zinn, that "feeds self-righteousness in the North.... And it stands so firmly and so high on a ledge of truth that one must strain to see the glitter of deception in its eye." Forty years later, Jacob Levenson, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review about media coverage of the South during the 2004 campaign, echoed Zinn in identifying an important reason the myth persists even today: "The country, and by natural extension the press, often use the South as a convenient box to contain all sorts of problems, situations and conditions that are national in scope: race, white poverty, the cultural rift forming between the religious and the secular, guns, abortion, gay marriage...the contours of American morality, and the identity of the major political parties."
Good thing it's a big box. And getting bigger--no, not just because fundamentalists are making babies at a record clip. It's also thanks to the millions of Yankees who've gone South in search of better jobs and cheaper McMansions; a thirty-year "remigration" of blacks from the industrial North; and the nation's fastest-growing Hispanic population for more than a decade and counting. By the 2032 elections, the South is expected to control almost 40 percent of the electoral votes for President--more than the shrinking Northeast and Midwest combined.
And yet a stubborn belief in the poor, backward, reactionary cracker South of myth still shapes and distorts American politics. By surrendering the region, Democrats have simultaneously abandoned the old hope of a durable national progressive majority. They have passively allowed right-wingers to build a mighty fortress for the defense of free-market excess in a region that is home to almost half--47 percent--of the Americans who call themselves populists. They have allowed economic, racial and cultural divisions to fester. And now, even with the Republicans' Southern strategy wearing thin, they are lurching toward an even more dramatic break with the South.
It ain't wise, and it ain't right. I can't say it better than Chris Kromm, director of the liberal Institute for Southern Studies in Durham, North Carolina. "For Democrats to turn their back on a region that half of all African-Americans and a growing number of Latinos call home, a place devastated by Hurricane Katrina, plant closings, poverty and other indignities--in short, for progressives to give up on the very place where they could argue they are needed most--would rightfully be viewed as a historic retreat from the party's commitment to justice for all."