It was hot as Hades on June 5 in the little mountain town of Bristol, Virginia. But that didn’t stop hundreds of southwest Virginians–in the most staunchly Republican part of a state that hadn’t voted Democratic for president since 1964–from streaming into the local high school gym to whoop it up for a liberal, mixed-race fellow from Chicago with a mighty suspicious moniker. Fresh off his lopsided, nomination-clinching primary victory in North Carolina, Barack Obama had chosen–to the mystification of political experts–to launch his general election campaign not in the “battlegrounds” of Pennsylvania or Ohio but in a remote Southern backwater containing 17,000 souls who’d given George W. Bush 64 percent of their vote in 2004.
Strangest of all, he spoke to these people in exactly the same way he had addressed stadiums full of urbanites in Philadelphia or Cleveland. “It’s not just struggles overseas. It’s also struggles here at home that are causing so much anxiety,” he declared without the merest hint of a drawl. “Everywhere I go, I meet people. They are struggling to get by. We just went through an economic expansion period…where corporate profits were up, the stock market was up…and the average family income went down by a thousand dollars. The first time it had ever happened since World War II where the economy’s growing, but you have less money in your pocket.”
The folks in Bristol cheered at that, and they listened attentively as Obama detailed his healthcare plan. But what brought them to their feet was this: “When I announced [my candidacy] I was convinced the American people were tired of being divided–divided by race, divided by religion, divided by region.”
From the start of his campaign, when he brashly promised to compete and win in Southern states, Obama grasped something that only Howard Dean, among Democratic heavyweights, had recognized: not only was the South changing fast, demographically and culturally, but nobody had more reason to be sick to death of all those artificial divisions than Southerners themselves. For forty years, the South had been shunned and denigrated by national Democrats who looked at the country’s largest chunk of voters and saw nothing but a uniform sea of racist, fundamentalist, xenophobic dimwits.
Efforts to appeal to these mental and moral midgets, Democratic pundit Tom Schaller argued in his much-cited 2006 book, Whistling Past Dixie, had only watered down the party’s progressive message. “When Democrats give the president authority to start a preemptive war in Iraq, they accede to Southern bellicosity,” Schaller wrote. “When Democrats go soft on defending social policies, they lend credence to the Southernized, ‘starve the beast’ mentality of governance. When Democrats scramble around to declare that they, too, have moral values, they kneel in the pews of southern evangelism. This absurdist catering to the worst fitting, least supportive component of the Democratic coalition must cease.”
“Everybody always makes the mistake of looking South,” John Kerry repeatedly huffed during the 2004 primaries. Like Al Gore before him, Kerry avoided that “mistake” with a vengeance, shutting down his campaign efforts in every Southern state but Florida before Labor Day and refusing to set foot, even once, in Democratic-trending states like Virginia during the general election campaign. The South? Republicans could have it.