A New Southern Strategy to Repair Our Democracy

A New Southern Strategy to Repair Our Democracy

A New Southern Strategy to Repair Our Democracy

In spite of everything stacked against it, a new generation of progressive Southern voters is rising.

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The decades-long Republican stranglehold on power and policy in the South is a product of manipulation masquerading as mythology. When President Lyndon Johnson, a Southern Democrat, signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, he famously declared that it meant his party had “lost the South” for a generation. But it’s not that Southerners, universally, didn’t support civil rights—it’s that white conservative Southerners, the people with the most political and financial power in the region, didn’t support civil rights.

For decades, the national Democratic Party has accepted President Johnson’s original premise—that if the powerful white conservative voters in the South opposed progressive policy, the whole region was lost to Democrats. In practice, that meant that for generations the Democratic establishment rarely engaged in any serious way with the South, and when they did, it was often with accommodationist, centrist candidates in the mold of Bill Clinton’s conservative-lite “third way.”

In other words, progressivism never died in the South. It was buried under the weight of oppression from the Republican Party and neglect from Democrats. However, looking at the path to victory to retain federal power—particularly, the Senate maps for the next three cycles—power hinges on Southern and Western states. In fact, the 2026 midterm map is a solid wall of red from Texas to North Carolina, but for Georgia. Treating the states like battlegrounds now increases the likelihood that we win them in the near term, and Georgia shows us that winning is possible.

The youth-led protests in Tennessee mark a new moment in social justice movements across the South, and should be seen as major opportunities to forge alliances between moderates and progressives to win—just like Georgians came together to reject MAGA in 2020, 2021, and 2022. It is time for the Democratic establishment to take advantage of this potential or remain in the 20th century at its peril, as allowing MAGA to take root in the South does nothing to stop it nationally.

From Arizona to Georgia and everywhere in between, the South is becoming increasingly Democratic because a new generation of Southerners is coming of age in a region that is rapidly becoming more racially diverse. The change coming will not be moderate or cautious but bold—aligned with growing grassroots movements and pushing for seismic action on climate justice, LGBTQ rights, abortion access, and gun safety. MAGA is scared—it’s why they are undermining democratically elected local leaders overseeing schools and voting administration in blue Houston, why a North Carolina judge just approved congressional maps that limit Democratic power, and why Florida governor Ron DeSantis regularly makes a spectacle of himself.

Republicans understand change is coming. That’s precisely why they voted to expel Democratic state Representatives Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, both Black men, after they supported public demonstrations for more gun safety. As Jones himself explained, they are “the youngest lawmakers in Tennessee; they were trying to expel this energy from the youth movement.” Republicans, said Jones, know that “their time is coming to an end. In the South, we have a saying that a dying mule kicks the hardest.” Or, in this case, a dying elephant—desperately kicking at whatever it can to hold on to power and to distract. For instance, banning drag shows statewide in a pretend effort to “protect children” but doing nothing to prevent mass shootings like the one that killed three 9-year-olds at the Covenant School shooting in Nashville.

The present recalls echoes of the past. In the wake of civil and voting rights shifts in 1964, Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon and other Republicans pioneered the so-called “Southern strategy” to explicitly stoke racial resentment among those conservative white voters—a strategy, unfortunately, that had so much success the GOP replicated it nationwide. But messaging was only part of the strategy. Republicans in power in the South looked to gerrymandering and voter suppression to maintain their stranglehold, strategies they doubled down on in the last few decades when the conservative-dominated United States Supreme Court freed these states from civil-rights-era voting protections.

In spite of everything stacked against it, this new generation of progressive Southern voters is rising, and reshaping politics as we know it. Arizona and Georgia now both have two Democratic United States senators, and are presidential battlegrounds. In the last cycle in North Carolina, a progressive Black nurse, Diamond Stanton-Williams, flipped a House seat red to blue. In Texas in the last cycle, progressive, Colombian-born Lina Hidalgo defeated her opponent for chief executive of Harris County (population 4.728 million overlaying Houston) despite being outspent four-to-one. In Las Cruces, city council member and son of immigrants Gabe Vasquez flipped New Mexico’s Second Congressional District. And in Florida in 2022, 25-year-old progressive activist Maxwell Frost defeated his Republican opponent by 20 points to become the first member of Gen Z elected to Congress. That didn’t happen in Massachusetts or California. It happened in the South and Southwest.

We in the South are sick of being ignored by the Democratic Party and its donors and in our nation as a whole. The American South is poorer than the rest of the nation. We have lower wages and less unionization. We have some of the lowest rates of college enrollment and some of the highest rates of teen pregnancy. The New South is rising and leading—this time, not to divide our country but to finally truly unite us all around the long-denied promise of equality and justice for all.

In this fight for democracy, Democrats have an incredible foil in the anti-democracy MAGA Republican Party. In the last two years, they have attacked our Capitol in an attempt to overturn an election, taken freedom after freedom away from voters, and they are promising to do more should they regain power. As we just saw in Tennessee, MAGA is a political movement that has shown time and time again that if you disagree with their ideology they will subvert our democracy to take away your freedoms. Protecting our democracy is a powerful and popular rallying cry for voters in Southern states like Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas.

When we asked voters in each of these states if a freely functioning democracy was important to them, resounding majorities said it was. In all three states Democrats and independent voters were strongly aligned on their support for democracy. In Texas, 91 percent of Democrats, 86 percent of Republicans, and 87 percent of independent voters support a strong democracy. As long as MAGA is on the ballot, Democrats have a strong opportunity to turn out voters, win elections, and protect our democracy.

There is power in the reclamation of language. And to that end, we envision a new Southern strategy to repair our democracy. A revival of sorts that challenges old power structures through renewed investment in the same places that gave birth to the civil rights movement. As we empower activists—spotlighting both the oppression they seek to overcome and the progress made through their courageous organizing—we can win tough elections across the South and Southwest, thereby changing the balance of power in this country. This work represents the next frontier in the fight for our republic, and if we stand united once again in these battlegrounds, the South will surely rise again, but this time it will mean liberation for us all.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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