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?