The economics-based argument for a Southern Democratic revival–which, given the loyal support of African-Americans, means a Democratic surge among white Southerners–has two prongs. “New South” theorists argue that the historical bifurcation between the region’s post-slavery agrarian economy and the industrial-technological economies of the rest of the country is fading, and thus newly affluent whites in Georgia will soon be voting like their Connecticut cohorts. The second, advanced in this magazine eloquently albeit anecdotally by Bob Moser, in his article “The Way Down South: A Populist Route to Democratic Revival” [Feb. 12], might be called the “old South” prong, which argues that white voters trapped in the stagnant portions of the Southern economy make ideal targets for the economic populist appeals Democrats now realize are crucial to their nascent majorities.
Before proceeding, consider the regional voting patterns of white Americans in recent presidential elections. For the past three decades, white voters of the Midwest and West have voted very similarly and, not surprisingly, down the middle between a less Democratic Northeast and a more Republican South. Continuing this trend, in 2004 George W. Bush captured 55 percent of the white vote in these twenty-five states, while his share in the Northeast was slightly lower, just 50 percent–a figure that essentially mirrored his performance among the entire electorate. Yet 70 percent of white Southerners voted Republican in 2004. That means their preferences deviated three times more from the Midwest-West benchmark than did those of white Northeasterners. (Remember this factoid the next time some television blowhard scoffs that the Northeast is “out of touch” with the rest of the country.) That’s the magnitude of the problem. So, how to solve it?
The “new South” answer is passive, relying as it does on an economic revolution that is under way but has yet to run its course. By contrast, with plenty of poor whites already in the region, Moser’s plan for conversion via economic populism is immediate. The problem, however, is that the transformation Moser envisions is easier to prescribe than effect. The reasons are manifold, but space permits me to handle just two: race and unionization.
Moser brushes quickly past race, a curious oversight given that most every study of political tolerance (racial or otherwise) reveals a strong, positive relationship between socioeconomic status and tolerance. As Steve Jarding and Dave “Mudcat” Saunders painstakingly chronicle in Foxes in the Henhouse, poverty in the rural white South is both appalling and appallingly resilient. Combine high poverty rates with their concomitant lower levels of racial tolerance, mix in residual tensions from the civil rights movement, and you understand why the poorest region of the country is the most Republican–despite the massive head start African-American voters provide Democrats.
In fact, analyses of the 2004 National Election Study reveal that neither attitudes on national defense nor abortion explained the Republican presidential preferences of white Southerners; negative racial attitudes did. How else to explain that in Mississippi, where poor whites and blacks live alongside each other, the former vote overwhelmingly Republican while the latter just the opposite? If economic populist appeals were unmediated by race, such glaring polarities simply could not exist.
Organized labor’s meager presence in the South also reduces the appeal of economic populism. For the past half-century, the Southern states have consistently ranked among the least unionized. The GOP’s chokehold on working-class white males is significantly weaker among retirees, union members and those living in union households. Because labor leaders organize voters around populist themes, their relative absence makes the “old South” economic appeal a much harder sell.
In 2006 nonunion-household voters split between the parties (49 percent each), but union households broke for the Democrats 64 percent to 34 percent. Connect this fact with low Southern unionization and, sure enough, in their party’s best midterm cycle in thirty-two years, Democrats carried every region but one–the South, which they lost by eight points, according to exit polls.
Notice that many competitive areas for Democrats in the South–central and south Florida; the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill tech triangle; Northern Virginia; campus towns from Athens to Austin–have in common a base of non-native Southerners who emigrated from other parts of the country or other countries. To borrow the title of Moser’s essay, “the way down South” for Democrats is to continue importing non-Southerners to the region because the white South, poor or affluent, is not quite ready to rise again in sufficient numbers to cheer Democrats’ populist appeals.
THOMAS F. SCHALLER, author
Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South
When Bob Moser wrote about how his friend in Alabama immediately grasped the inevitable John Kerry electoral disaster when Kerry won the Iowa caucuses in 2004, he said it all.
Why do the Dems persist in pushing forward elite candidates like Ted Kennedy, Michael Dukakis, John Kerry and now Hillary Clinton, who cannot win nationally? It’s really quite simple. The Iowa caucuses are not representative enough of rank-and-file national Democrats, and New Hampshire’s population is concentrated in the south of the state, in the Boston media market. New Hampshire Democrats are virtually all white. Plus, many are Massachusetts natives who moved north for jobs, retirement or cheaper housing.
So, the question is: Why should this understandable preference for native sons and daughters by New Hampshire Dems cast a shadow over the party that prevents it from embracing progressive/populist candidates from outside the Northeast who could win nationally?
These are the types of regional, class and racial/ethnic issues that Democrats and progressives need to discuss honestly. Until we scrap the losing caucus/primary system, the Dems will probably continue to pass over progressive candidates who can win nationally on the order of senators Jim Webb, Jon Tester, Sherrod Brown and Claire McCaskill in favor of losing presidential candidates like Hillary, Dukakis, Kerry, Ted Kennedy and perhaps Barack Obama (the jury’s still out on this one). These elite Dems are good people who represent their home states very well; but history is teaching us (if we will listen) that these decent and well-meaning Ivy Leaguers will never win the presidency and rebuild the Democratic Party as a national progressive force that will defend and advance the interests of working people.
Finally someone has given Howard Dean credit for challenging the Clintonistas and their Republican Lite strategy. Populism is still alive and well in the South. Not all of us have joined the country club or bought a Hummer! Growing up in Alabama, studying law in Virginia and practicing in Atlanta have given me about sixty years of Southern thinking. I know there is one way the Democrats can throw out all the progress senators Webb, McCaskill and others have made. That, of course, is to nominate Hillary, who represents all the self-righteousness that will turn off the very voters who came over to the Democrats in 2006. Please give us more from Moser and how we can help Dean defeat the Begalas and Carvilles.
Bob Moser’s article was a breath of fresh air. Way too many people who ought to know better are pontificating about the supposed truths made self-evident by the likes of Tom Schaller.
An acquaintance of mine sports a bumper sticker reading “What would MLK do?” King, a Southerner and arguably the most influential of modern-day ethical leaders, would certainly not argue in favor of leaving those in the most heavily African-American region in the country to fend for themselves while Republican Lite Democratic leaders and actual Republicans slice and dice their healthcare benefits and levy 10 percent sales taxes on their food. And yet somehow it escapes most Schaller acolytes that cutting off the South from the resources of the national Democratic Party carries with it some weighty spiritual concerns. What’s really ironic is that Schaller finished a book last summer about black legislators; one wonders how he regards the forces shaping their fates as morally neutral where political influence is concerned.
Winning a presidential election without one Southern state requires a strategy that leaves zero margin for error. (Armchair strategists can try crafting a winnable electoral margin at www.270towin.com.) Omitting the South requires victory in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, Missouri, Hawaii, Maine and a handful of other states; all well and good in theory–but do right-thinking people really want to put the election of the leader of the free world in the hands of a few hundred thousand people in Hawaii? Such a strategy broadcasts vulnerability to Republicans, who exploited a similar situation when Al Gore requested recounts in only a handful of Florida counties. It’d be a simple matter for the RNC to channel its formidable resources into a small state or group of small states and crush Democrats’ dreams into jelly–this before voting-machine shenanigans and other ballot-suppression devices the GOP seems to have honed to an art form.
(Speaking of Florida, Schaller omits it in every argument for excising the South from the Dems’ battle plans. I’d speculate he hasn’t spent much time in the Panhandle, affectionately known to us in the region as Baja Alabama.)
Losing even one of those states would restore Republican rule for another eight years, and last I checked there was certainly no guarantee the Dems would win states like Ohio or Wisconsin consistently–especially since many states required to reach the magic number of 270 have heavily Republican state legislative bodies and/or Republican governors. Local electoral dynamics will influence statewide campaigns.
How refreshing to read in a national outlet what many Southern Democrats already know: Al Gore lost his home state of Tennessee for a simple reason. He didn’t campaign here. The DNC, having abandoned the South some years ago, is losing the culture wars here, without a peep of protest. Democrats are portrayed, on 50,000 watts of talk-radio every minute, all day every day, as limp-wristed apologists personifying Rush Limbaugh’s caricature of the left. Had the party under Terry McAuliffe made even token gestures to counteract that image, I’d hazard you wouldn’t see so many Southern Democrats running to the right on social issues.
In 2008, most Senate elections will be held in the South and Midwest. Unless the Democrats step up their activity in those two regions, control of the Senate will pass to Republicans. Instead of blaming some inherent quality of Southerners for their own failure to compete, Democrats would do well to craft a strategy that at its basic level includes a willingness to show up–which, as the old quote attributed to everyone from Sun Tsu to Woody Allen expresses, is 90 percent of success.
JEAN C. WILSON
It’s amusing, if somewhat depressing, to see The Nation repeatedly holding forth on potential Democratic strategies for rural America, or the West, or the South. Bob Moser offers the latest installment with a generally cogent analysis of how progressives might win in the South. The problem with his analysis and the others is that the Democrats aren’t a progressive party and really never were. The Democrats won last time because just enough people in just enough districts became just enough fed up to vote the rascals out; this time the rascals happened to be Republican. The Democratic victories, with the elevation of fundraiser-in-chief Nancy Pelosi to House Speaker, will do nothing to change the fundamental mealy-mouthedness of the Democratic Party. Witness the strategic appointment of the newest, more conservative Democrats to committees where they will be best able to rake in corporate campaign cash, and explain to me again how the Democrats can become a progressive party.
The South needs what the rest of the country needs: the ability to vote its conscience. The Democrats could use their (probably temporary) legislative majority to put forward proposals for instant-runoff voting, direct presidential elections or even proportional representation. Why should they? Because it’s the only way a party based on not being as bad as the other one has a prayer of winning. Progressive voters could choose whether to vote for Greens, progressive Independents or Democrats. We could have real debates in the South and elsewhere about how, say, to restructure agriculture so it doesn’t bankrupt the family farm.
For progressives to win anywhere, we need to put forth principled candidates with principled positions. But we shouldn’t tie our hands by thinking that this means joining or supporting a corporate party like the Democrats–at least not as a first choice.
Bark River, Mich.
Here’s the way it is up North.
New York City
I appreciate the many enthusiastic responses from readers and wish we had space to print every last kudos and quibble. And while we differ dramatically about how to get there, I appreciate the fact that Tom Schaller’s quarry is ultimately the same as mine: a genuinely progressive Democratic Party that is a powerful champion for working Americans.
I can’t argue with Schaller’s point that a large-scale transformation of white Southerners’ voting habits will be no easy or overnight task. But this is critically important work far too long neglected, not just by the national Democratic Party but also by liberal foundations and nonprofits. And it won’t take a sea change in political attitudes for Democrats to make short-term gains in states like Florida, Virginia, Arkansas or my native North Carolina (where I lived my first thirty-six years). I’m glad Schaller points out that white Southerners aren’t voting Republican because of their views on issues like abortion or national defense. But in isolating “negative racial attitudes” as the key to white Republicanism in states like Mississippi, he’s on shaky ground. It’s essential to remember that white folks in states like Mississippi haven’t been consistently challenged to overcome what lingers of their old racial biases and fears and vote for their own best economic interests. They’ve had little reason to believe that Democrats in Washington would make their lives substantially better than the conservatives they’ve been supporting.
It’s true that organized labor’s “meager presence” in the South makes economic populism a somewhat harder sell; there are simply fewer Southerners accustomed to viewing politics through the prism of pocketbook and workplace issues. But there is a tradition–pre-Southern Strategy–of white Southerners voting for economic liberalism. And economic conditions in the region–not just higher poverty levels but widespread losses of manufacturing jobs and a starker level of income inequality than anywhere in the country–make the region’s voters (white, black and Latino) a potentially receptive audience for a strong, unbending message of economic fairness. The idea that many white voters would shrink from such an alliance because of “residual tensions from the civil rights movement” strikes me, frankly, as absurd. The surprisingly passive acceptance of legal integration in the South, once it finally came, should long ago have laid to rest the notion that white Southerners are somehow uniquely and incurably racist–especially when violent resistance to “forced busing” was so much more widespread in the North. (And as our Michigan picture-letter shows, other forms of bigotry are not unknown in the North.)
Schaller’s idea that moving more Yankees down South would “heal” the region’s politics is both insulting and wrongheaded. Millions of newcomers have blessed the region with their presence these past thirty years, but they don’t tend to be liberal-minded Democrats, to say the least. Over the past decade, for instance, North Carolina has picked up about 1.5 million new voters, two-thirds of them either Republican or unaffiliated (while overall 45 percent of the state’s voters are still registered Democrats). Far from being a boon to Southern political “enlightenment,” non-native Southerners have, in many areas, presented a new and sizable obstacle to progressive populism in Dixie.
The plain fact is that there is no way to know whether a strong Democratic message of progressive populism could transform Southern politics. Folks like Schaller can argue into infinity that it wouldn’t, and folks like me can argue that it would–but it’s all purely theoretical until Democrats decide to give it a go. Now’s the time.
WATCHING OUR N’S & Q’S–& KEVIN
An editing error caused a quote in Michael T. Klare’s “Targeting Tehran” [March 5] to misidentify Iraq as Iran. The quote should have begun, “When we find devices in [Iraq]….”
In Amanda Spake’s “Dying for a Home” [Feb. 26] the spokesman for the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association is Kevin Broom.