Chapel Hill, NC

Do progressives and Democrats have a future in the South? Ever since the great unpleasantness of last November, a chorus of left-leaning pundits have taken the region’s defeats–no electoral votes for John Kerry, zero-for-five in open races for US Senate–as a sure sign that the South is a lost cause. Fold up the tent, the doubters say. Focus our energy elsewhere. Or as one indelicate yet frequently forwarded e-mail after the elections put it, “F*ck the South.”

Not so fast, say the South’s defenders–especially Southern progressives. Given that almost a third of the country lives in the South and it’s growing fast, and that the South still sets the tone for national politics (look at the Tennesseans and Texans who lead the White House and Capitol Hill), ignoring the South is hardly an option.

Besides, there’s a rich progressive legacy in the South, and Democrats are far from dead: There are four Southern Democratic governors, hundreds of Democratic state legislators, and in six of thirteen Southern states, more registered voters identify as Democrats than Republicans.

Enter “New Strategies for Southern Progress,” a gathering of some 200 Democratic Party leaders, academics, journalists and assorted progressives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Convened by Washington, DC’s Center for American Progress; the Center for a Better South; and the UNC Program on Southern Politics, Media and Public Life, the conference aimed to “identify pragmatic and innovative solutions to the region’s toughest problems” and, more boldly, “chart a new progressive vision for the region.”

For inspiration, conference organizers invoked the memory of the LQC Lamar Society, a handful of “New South” moderate-to-liberal Democrats formed in 1969 who championed integration, education and economic development. Lamar Society veterans Hodding Carter III and ex-Mississippi Governor William Winter opened the conference, and for Southerners and South-watchers too young to remember a day before unending GOP victory speeches, hearing the legacy of Jimmy Carter, Reubin Askew of Florida, Dale Bumpers of Arkansas and North Carolina’s own Terry Sanford was a reminder that the “Mind of the South” is never fixed, and can always be changed again.

>From grassroots activists to party insiders, everyone came with open eyes about the challenges–and potential–Southern progressives face. “Conservatives are in charge because they toiled for years and years to come up with the answers,” observed Arkansas Representative Joyce Elliot, a three-term African-American state legislator. “It’s going to take time for us, too.” But attendees left visibly conflicted on some fundamental questions: What kind of politics can–and should–win in the region? And what are our bedrock values and long-term vision for the future?

The differences came into focus on day two, during a panel charting the changing attitudes of the Southern electorate. The pollsters, consultants and academics honed in on a key reason for Democratic losses in the South: the defection of the white moderate. “We’ve lost the white working-class male,” said David “Mudcat” Saunders, the much-quoted Virginia consultant and ambassador of the “NASCAR dads” strategy.

Poll analyst Ruy Teixeira rolled out a compelling set of numbers to back up the claim: Although the ideology of the Southern electorate hasn’t changed over the last decade–it’s now 14 percent liberal, 41 percent moderate and 45 percent conservative, only a hair to the right of 1996–voting patterns have. Bill Clinton got 46 percent to Bob Dole’s 44 percent of the Southern white moderate vote in ’96; in 2004 Kerry had a 58-to-41 deficit to Bush among the same voting group. Even accounting for Clinton’s Southern touch, it’s clear that Democrats have lost ground.

How to win them back? Rally white working voters around economic populist themes against the “corporate elite,” said Professor Susan Howell of New Orleans–although she counseled against talking about race. Bring the debate back to “jobs, jobs, jobs”–but don’t talk about taxing the wealthy or get caught up in “cultural” issues, argued Pope “Mac” McCorkle, a strategist for North Carolina’s recently re-elected Democratic Governor Mike Easley. Embrace those to the right–including, in Mudcat’s opinion, the Sons of Confederate Veterans (“which has two black members, by the way” he added). And definitely find religion.

Many found the blueprint shortsighted, to say the least. “Jesus and NASCAR,” said an organizer for a policy group in North Carolina, “that may be a strategy for electing a Democrat in the next two years, but a long-term progressive vision?” The Rev. James Evans, a white minister at Auburn First Baptist Church in Alabama, noted that “not talking about race won’t make it go away. When we talk about taxes, we’re talking about race. When we talk about education, we’re talking about race. When we’re talking about jobs, we’re talking about race. We have to deal with it.”

Or as Representative Elliot from Arkansas put it, “Are you aware of the tension that’s developing when, in your attempt to reach out to NASCAR people, you move away from progressive issues, like we saw in the last election?”

In the meantime, the descendants of the Lamar Society are gearing up for political victories. “We need to reframe the debate so we can win,” said Andy Brack, a former aide to South Carolina Senator Ernest Hollings who will lead the new Center for a Better South think tank. The center will join other party institutes in the works, including Senator John Edwards’s new Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity, based at UNC, Chapel Hill, and the New South Project, led by a group of senators including Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Mark Pryor and Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas–all of which will aim to boost Southern Democrats with a new message and strategy.

As for those at the conference who trace their lineage to civil rights workers, labor activists, populists and other Southerners in search of deeper change–whose insurgencies made many past political gains in the South possible–they may have to look elsewhere for a long-term vision. As one grassroots policy advocate said, “This [conference] isn’t about building a progressive movement. For that, we need our own ‘Southern Strategy.'”