Endangered Species of the American South

Endangered Species of the American South

Endangered Species of the American South

What the Democrats must do to survive.


Seneca, South Carolina

Early on a steamy Saturday in August, the Democrats in Senator John Edwards’s birthplace have gathered for their monthly breakfast in a windowless Rotary Club meeting room, way in back of the Community Restaurant. There are thirty-five of them, a record crowd in recent years. Mostly seniors, mostly white, they carry vivid memories of the fine old days when their native-son presidential candidate was growing up. Back then, Republicans were the ones who huddled in the back rooms of diners, looking like some quaint, outmoded social club that just keeps meeting for no special reason. Nowadays, the Oconee County Republicans have a meeting place of their own, a spacious headquarters just two blocks up North First Street. And it’s the Democrats sitting under these royal-blue Rotary banners, staring at that wall mural of Lake Keowee, forking scrambled eggs, trying to stay upbeat.

“Now, some of you folks have got to run for office,” says county chairman Charles Hamby, a vigorous protégé of the late bluegrass legend Bill Monroe. These days, Republicans don’t just carry the national elections in places like South Carolina; over the past two decades, they’ve started to take over everything from the state legislature to the coroner’s office, and it just keeps getting tougher to find loyal Democrats who are willing to campaign as sure losers. But the main order of this morning’s business is next February’s presidential primary, a high-profile event that is supposed to lift the sagging spirits of South Carolina Democrats. Coming right after Iowa and New Hampshire, the primary is also supposed to help the national Democrats scare up a candidate who can compete for at least a few of the South’s 153 electoral votes; no Democrat has yet won the White House without carrying at least one state from the former Confederacy.

So far, the plan looks like a bust. Six months before voting day, none of the candidates have caught the fancy of Democrats here, or anywhere else in the South. Even the golden boy of the New South Democrats–the man once widely expected to carry the mantle of Carter and Clinton in 2004–cannot gain a toehold in his own backyard. “Of course, we’re partial to Edwards,” says 76-year-old Maxie Duke, secretary-treasurer of the Oconee Democrats. “But we’re not all sold.” Along with most of Seneca’s remaining Democrats, Duke went to Edwards’s 50th-birthday party here in June, a media event staged in front of the house his mill-working daddy and mama rented for $35 a month at the time of his birth. “That was nice and all,” Duke says. “He’s smart, and he comes across well. But–I don’t know. I’m keeping my mind open.” For something better to come along? “Well, for something.”

Something else is here this morning, as it happens. “We were supposed to have a guy from the Kerry campaign,” chairman Hamby is saying, “but he had to fly off to Washington. Guess we’ll excuse him for that. But we do have–what was your name?–from the Lieberman campaign.” The Connecticut senator’s rosy-cheeked state director for South Carolina grins and whispers up to Hamby, “Barry Butler.” “OK,” Hamby says, “Barry Butler will talk to us now.”

In early polls, Joe Lieberman has looked like Edwards’s main competition in South Carolina. But the Oconee Democrats don’t even bother to applaud for his man. Even in a rural county with just 67,000 souls, the candidates and their flacks have become a regular fixture. And more often than not, they tend to say things that show they don’t understand the South a whole lot better than the national Democratic Party.

“As you’ve seen in the papers, we’ve lost a lot of textile jobs here,” Butler informs the inhabitants of this former textile village, all of whom passed boarded-up mills and rusted-out warehouses on their way to breakfast this morning. Worse, when he’s asked whether Lieberman will be showing up in person in Oconee, Butler replies, “Oh, yes, we’re trying to get him out into these rural counties.”

These rural counties. Lieberman’s man has neatly, albeit unwittingly, summed up the Democrats’ troublesome attitude toward the South. And it is no small trouble. Not even Edwards, who seems to carry the South deep in his bones, has figured out a message that might carry a state in Dixie–this year, or any year in the foreseeable future.

After the Oconee Democrats are finished confounding Lieberman’s flack with sophisticated questions about Iraq, homeland security and Chinese imports, the breakfast breaks up and folks start to drift away. After counting up the morning’s proceeds–$240, not bad–Duke rests her elbows on a folding table and sighs. “I feel inferior sometimes,” she says. “I feel like people don’t think I’m an important person, you know, because ‘She’s a Democrat.'”

It wasn’t always like that. While she taught high school, Duke’s late husband, a druggist in town, served as county sheriff for sixteen years. Democratic, of course. “You’ve got to understand: Oconee County has always been Democratic.” She corrects herself. “Was always Democratic. Till about 1980, the Reagan years. The religious right started controlling things then, and all of a sudden if you didn’t espouse the Bible the whole time, you were immoral and you couldn’t win.” When South Carolina Democrats lost one of their last vestiges of power, with the defeat of Governor Jim Hodges in 2002, Duke saw it as one last nail in her party’s coffin. “We’ve got to get connected with the national party again. But they just don’t seem to care. It’s going to take us an awful long time to come back up to where we’re a serious threat, really a viable party.”

How long? “I said fifty years after the last election,” Duke says, studying her hands. She looks up, her blue eyes brightening for a moment. “But maybe it won’t take that long. What comes around goes around. Doesn’t it?”

Three days later, a short hop down the road in the prosperous city of Greenville, John Mellencamp’s “Small Town” throbs through the late-afternoon swelter of a lakeside pavilion. A mostly white crowd of 150 rises and claps politely as the man who must win South Carolina comes beaming and hand-shaking down the center aisle.

“Not bad!” whispers Jenni Engebretsen, Senator Edwards’s new press person in South Carolina. As Engebretsen smiles out at the audience half-filling the pavilion, more than 10,000 are massing in New York’s Bryant Park to cheer Howard Dean, the blue-state Democrat. With Edwards’s poll numbers stagnant and rumors flying about another “electable” Southerner, Gen. Wesley Clark, jumping into the race, optimism has become a precious commodity in the Edwards campaign.

Two summers ago, Seneca’s native-son senator had all the makings of the next big thing, his national poll numbers shooting into double digits as People declared him America’s sexiest politician and pundits declared him the second coming of Bill Clinton, sans bimbos–the lone Democrat whose Piedmont drawl and New South moderation could give George W. Bush a run for his money. After all, no Democrat from outside the South had occupied the White House since John F. Kennedy. Edwards had to be a winner. Or else.

But Edwards’s campaign has sputtered since then. On his late-summer swing through his home turf, it’s easy to see why. While his diagnoses of America’s ills can be just as incisive as Dr. Dean’s–“We’ve got two separate school systems now: one for the haves, and one for the have-nots”–Edwards’s prescriptions are congenitally mild, and all too familiar. Like the Patients’ Bill of Rights, a baby-step healthcare reform measure he shepherded through the Senate with John McCain and Ted Kennedy, Edwards’s proposals are catchy but cautious, chipping away at big domestic quandaries while “restoring fiscal discipline” and lifting all boats with a balanced budget. It’s the message that New South Democrats have been stuck on for the past two decades: jobs, schools, equality, frugality. And a fresh-faced messenger doesn’t make it sound any less stale.

Today, as Democrats fan themselves furiously with Edwards’s “Real Solutions for America” booklets, the other deficiency that has stuck the senator from North Carolina at around 10 percent in the South Carolina polls also looms. “Let me say a word about Iraq,” Edwards says. And indeed, aside from noting that “this should be an international effort, not an American effort,” a word is just about all the candidate has to say about Iraq–or any other foreign policy matter. The pundits began to tune out Edwards after he awkwardly fumbled foreign-policy questions on Meet the Press last May. Progressive Democrats, North and South, began to write him off after he voted for the Iraq war resolution.

A typical scene had unfolded the previous night, when Edwards spoke at a union hall in Charleston. “Why are we in Iraq?” an elderly man demanded to know. “We lied to get there–what kinds of lies are we gonna have to tell to get out?” Confronted with such raw evidence of Americans’ growing frustration, Edwards’s glittering self-confidence tends to give way to teeth-grinding hesitancy. But his problems go deeper than a lack of foreign-policy savvy. “He’s much too moderate for 2004,” says Don Aiesi, who teaches and studies politics at Greenville’s Furman University. “People are so stressed, they’re not buying moderation. Voters in South Carolina might be conservative on the whole, but not the ones who’ll be voting in this primary. They want Bush the hell out of there, and they’re reacting more ideologically in response to the Republicans. That moderate message–I don’t know who’s listening to it.”

Edwards is in a mess of trouble, and his campaign’s quandary goes straight to the heart of what’s killing off the Democratic Party throughout the South–and just might kill off any hope the party has of unseating Bush next year.

Forty years ago, Southern Republicans were even more down in the mouth than the Democrats are today. Town halls, state houses, governors’ mansions, Washington, DC–everywhere you looked, Democrats ruled. It had been the same old story since Reconstruction: Democrats won with their juggernaut of Southern Baptists, ruling-class whites and anybody else who wanted to be respectable and relevant. By contrast, the party of Lincoln staggered along, trying in each election to cobble together a winning coalition out of white moderates and uninspired black folks–the ones who could vote, that is.

Now Southern Democrats have landed smack in the same dilemma. After three decades of staying barely alive behind moderates like Carter, Clinton, Gore and Edwards, the Democrats’ defensive strategy–“we’re like Republicans, but different”–was dealt a serious blow in 2000, when Gore lost every Southern state (if you count Florida), and again in 2002, when the Democrats suffered even greater statewide losses. Three of the South’s remaining Democratic governors–all of them New South moderates–were tossed out of office last year. In South Carolina, if incumbent Governor Hodges could have inspired just one-third of the state’s voting-age but unregistered black voters to come to the polls–there are upwards of 260,000–he would have won with votes to spare. But as Don Aiesi points out, “Democrats here are giving black voters no reason to bother. Of course, they’re not giving white voters much of a reason, either.”

On paper, the party-registration numbers are far from disastrous. But the electoral reality is bleak. “A Democratic presidential candidate could run a perfect campaign here, do absolutely everything right,” says Aiesi, “and the best you could hope for is 45 percent. That’s true in most of the South.”

How did it happen? For one thing, Lyndon Johnson was right. When the Texas Democrat pushed the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts through Congress in 1964 and 1965, he told an aide that he had just “delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come.” LBJ turned out to be a better prophet than Jeremiah. “For every black voter who came into the Democratic Party after 1964,” says Aiesi, “at least two white voters have switched to the Republicans over time.”

Of course, the Democrats haven’t lost the South simply because white supremacists made the switch. “The Republicans have done a terrific job of convincing people they’ve got a lock on morality, truth and the American way,” says Roger Finch, a longtime labor activist in Greenville.

That’s partly because conservative churches have grown into a formidable political force. “Forty years ago, religious fundamentalists believed in separation of church and state,” Aiesi notes. “They were mostly Democrats, but they generally kept out of politics. Now the marriage of politics and soul in the South is closer than ever–conservative values, God’s values, Republican values. And they have more support now on the national level than conservative Southern Democrats ever did. Strom Thurmond and the Dixiecrats had to stand alone a lot of the time. With the national trend toward conservatism, Southern Republicans are in the driver’s seat.”

That influence lures nonideological Southerners–“the martini-drinkers,” Aiesi calls them–into the Republican fold. Among them are Northern professionals who flocked south during the economic expansion of the previous two decades, looking for better jobs, lower costs of living and temperate places to retire. The vast majority of Yankee transplants vote Republican, Finch says, for two main reasons. “One, they don’t want to pay taxes; that’s partly why they’ve moved here. Two, they like keeping up with the Joneses. Being Republican in the South is keeping up with the Joneses.”

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.

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.

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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