The last thing my daddy wanted to do on a fine crisp fall Saturday in 1972, he made quite clear, was drive forty-five minutes in traffic just to hear “a bunch of Republicans yammering their rich man’s nonsense.” But I begged and whined until he caved. By the time Air Force One glinted down the runway of the Greensboro airport for the big rally, this die-hard Democrat–a blue-collar veteran of World War II who would sooner cast a posthumous vote for Mussolini than pull the lever for a candidate of the Grand Old Party–was straining under the bulk of his fat, nerdy 9-year-old boy, aloft on his shoulders as I chanted with a lusty throng of pent-up crackers: “Nixon now! Nixon now!”
No wonder I was carried away by the excitement: We were, after all, witnessing one of the most brazen acts of political thievery in American history. Not only had Democrats owned the South since Reconstruction (a grip so tight that there was not a single Republican governor or US senator in the region when I was born), the party had also personified the political philosophy that long knit white Dixie voters together almost as strongly as their segregated “way of life”: that shape-shifting beast called populism. Before the backlash set off by President Lyndon Johnson’s championing of civil rights in the 1960s, the region’s Republicans were so anemic that historian V.O. Key wrote in 1949 that the Dixie GOP “scarcely deserves the name of a party,” more closely resembling “an esoteric cult on the order of a lodge.” My maternal grandfather, a violent yellow-dog Democrat who’d been known to wield his cane against outspoken Republicans, called it the “lily-livered cocktail party,” and his opinion had long been nearly universal in the South. Democrats were us; Republicans were meddlesome, superior, pro-corporate Ivy Leaguers endlessly devising fresh ways to screw us over.
Now Republicans were doing the unthinkable: convincing folks they were on their side. Up on a platform erected on the runway, two key architects of the GOP’s new Southern strategy, President Nixon and North Carolina’s own Jesse Helms, were railing against hippies and atheists and other un-American elements holding down the “silent majority” of white working folk. Mixing pietistic appeals for school prayer and nostalgia for “traditional American values,” they were mouthing a neopopulist pitch borrowed from George Wallace’s scarily successful 1968 backlash campaign and scripted by Kevin Phillips’s The Emerging Republican Majority. And the blue-collar Democrats were eating it up, roaring approval at every racially coded “law and order” applause line and spitting epithets back and forth with antiwar protesters. All except for my father, who had glanced around forlornly when we arrived and seen a depressing array of crew cuts, work shirts with names on the patches and rebel-flag mesh caps. “Good grief,” he muttered. “Looks like a bunch of Democrats. What in the world?”
It was a neat trick, really: Stepping into the void created for white Southern conservatives when the Democrats became the party of civil rights and 1960s-style social liberalism, Republicans were adapting the old rhetoric of populism–the sword so long wielded against them–to “flip” white Dixie and create an electoral stronghold of their own. But Republican populism would be all about white cultural unity, not economic fairness. The enemy would no longer be the greedy corporate “Big Mules” scorned by legendary Alabama populist Jim Folsom but the broad coalition of “pointy-headed intellectuals” ridiculed by Wallace.
Far more than Nixon, who privately cursed conservative Southerners’ “right-wing bitching” while publicly courting their votes, Helms embodied the new Republican breed. The son of a small-town police chief, the owl-faced Helms became the voice of white backlash in 1960s North Carolina with rabble-rousing, “lubrul”-whacking, nightly TV commentaries. “What is needed is a revolt against revolution,” he prophesied in 1964. In his ’72 campaign to become the state’s first Republican US senator in the twentieth century, Helms was facing a Greek-American Democrat with the funny-sounding name of Nick Galifianakis. The culture warrior knew just what to do: Helms boiled down the new Republican populism to a campaign slogan that spoke volumes in four simple words: “He’s One of Us.”
It worked like a charm–or better yet, a spell. Just three days after my disgusted father and I watched Nixon and Helms clasp hands in a “V” for victory at that raucous airport rally, Helms got his breakthrough win on the coattails of the President’s stunning Southern sweep. Not only was Nixon the first Republican ever to ride a “solid South” to victory, he napalmed the old “Southern Democracy,” capturing a gaudy 70 percent of the region’s votes. Giddy with triumph, Nixon’s chief Southern strategist, arch-segregationist Harry Dent of South Carolina, was widely quoted as boasting that “the South will never go back.” Southerners, Dent said, “now realize they have been Republicans philosophically for a long time.”
And so commenced the most misleading and destructive myth of contemporary American politics: the notion that the century-long Democratic “solid South” had morphed into an equally solid and enduring Republican South.
It was a threadbare myth from the start. The uniformity of Southern politics has always been overblown, even before the demise of Jim Crow in the 1960s. In what is still the most insightful book on the subject, 1949’s Southern Politics in State and Nation, V.O. Key found that “even on the question of race the unity of the region has been greatly exaggerated in the national mind. Nor do the conventional stereotypes of Southern politics convey any conception of the diversity of political attitude, organization and tradition among the Southern states. The term ‘Southern,'” Key concluded, “conjures up notions that have little resemblance to reality.”
Democrats were bound to take a hit after Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts of 1964 and ’65. The Texan worried out loud that he had “handed the South to the Republicans” for decades to come. But while segregationist whites did slowly but steadily defect to the formerly hated “party of Lincoln,” voting rights brought a massive infusion of Southern blacks into the Democratic Party. Progressives had long nourished the hope that integration would spawn a new coalition of blacks with moderate and liberal whites–a revival of the short-lived, biracial Southern Farmers’ Alliance led by Georgia’s Tom Watson in the 1890s. Even as Nixon took Dixie in 1972, there were encouraging signs–none more so than the election of moderate-to-progressive governors in ten of the eleven old Confederate states, most calling for both economic fairness and racial reconciliation. In Georgia, Jimmy Carter–replacing segregationist Governor Lester Maddox–bracingly declared in his 1971 inaugural address that “the time for racial discrimination is over.” In Florida, Reubin Askew hailed the emergence of “a humanistic South, which has always been there, just below the surface of racism and despair, struggling for a chance to emerge.” A new cadre of black elected officials was pointing forward in the same direction. “We in the South have an exciting opportunity,” Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson wrote in 1972, “to prove that, ultimately, black and white have only one enemy: not each other, but those economic, social, educational, and political conditions which cause and maintain hunger, neglect, bigotry and disease.”
When a near-solid South propelled Carter to the presidency in 1976, it appeared that the long-delayed dream might be coming to life. But Carter’s White House stint, like Bill Clinton’s after it, failed to live up to its populist promise. And while GOP fortunes were being bolstered by a new Christian-right politics that sent another wave of traditional Democrats into the Republican camp, the national Democrats began to beat a retreat from Dixie. Democratic state parties in the South, which had never had to mount full-scale general-election campaigns in the past, were woefully unprepared to counter the Republican surge–and were largely left high and dry. “We’d had it so easy for so long that when Republicans started to crest, we had no idea what to do or how to do it,” says Maxie Duke, a longtime Democratic activist in Oconee County, South Carolina. National Democrats, she says, “just didn’t care.”
Worse, the Democrats failed to take the opening left them by the Republicans’ Southern strategy: Adapt the South’s economic populist tradition into a fresh, class-based politics with broad appeal to blacks and whites alike, directly challenging the politics of cultural fear and racial unity. “The party abandoned its New Deal legacy as a positive force for change and hunkered down behind a defensive shield,” writes John Egerton, author of The Americanization of Dixie. “The leaders failed to comprehend that Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson died for their sins, and in so doing freed the Democrats to reclaim their heritage as the fountainhead of egalitarian opportunity.”
By 1988 the sight of a Democratic presidential nominee in Dixie had become about as rare as a glimpse of the ivory-billed woodpecker. But while white Southerners were voting in huge numbers for Republicans in “Washington elections” for President and Congress, Democrats did not go extinct. “Southern politics remains a complex mix,” says Ferrell Guillory, head of the University of North Carolina’s Program on Southern Politics, Media and Public Life. “Between the solid South of yesteryear and the ‘GOP lock’ of today, there is a distinct difference. Then, the underdog party hardly mattered. Now, the underdog party has not gone away.” A poll of Southern voters on election day 2000 found 35 percent identifying as Democrats–just 26 percent as Republicans. Southern Democrats still win more state and local elections, where candidates matter more than party identities. The parity between the parties, unprecedented in the South’s history, was neatly symbolized by the total tally of state legislative seats in the old Confederate states after the 2004 elections: 891 Democrats, 891 Republicans. The vast bulk of the region–including old Confederate states like Florida, North Carolina, Arkansas and Virginia and “border South” states like Kentucky, West Virginia and Missouri–is more purple than red.
But when it comes to the South, myth always overwhelms reality. The Republican Party has come to rely on the mystical powers of its “solid South” to produce nearly two-thirds of the electoral votes its presidential candidates need every four years. National Democrats have leaned on the myth, too, using it to justify their drift from economic populism toward a Clinton-style, Wall Street-friendly centrism. Coming off three straight Democratic wipeouts in the 1980s, Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council persuaded many in the party that their only chance to compete in the vote-rich South was by “neutralizing” distinctions with the omnipotent Republicans. The “Republican Lite” strategy led to some statewide Democratic victories in Dixie in the 1990s, and Clinton used it to win eight Old South and border South states in both his 1992 and ’96 presidential victories. But Republican Lite gave Democrats an eerie resemblance to the old mushy, stand-for-nothing Republican Party, and the strategy has paid diminishing returns over time. For the Democrats’ largest and most loyal Southern constituency, Republican Lite represents an outright betrayal. “They spend 95 percent of the time trying to sway away white moderates and even conservatives,” says Willie Legette, a longtime African-American political organizer in South Carolina. “The message is, ‘We’re no longer the party concerned with reducing racial and class inequalities.’ They’re so bent on not being identified as the party of liberalism that they give us no reason to vote.”
When the Democrats’ “me too” version of a Southern strategy failed them in 2000, with DLC stalwart Al Gore unable to carry a single state in Dixie (unless you count Florida), a backlash broke out among blue-state progressives understandably fed up with centrist compromises that weren’t even helping to win national elections anymore. But rather than call for a recommitment to core Democratic values, the loudest voices blamed the South. “For Democrats, the South has become the Sahara of the Electoral College,” wrote Slate columnist Timothy Noah. “Give it up.” In the run-up to 2004, Thomas Schaller, a University of Maryland political scientist, wrote an influential Washington Post op-ed calling for a non-Southern strategy. “Trying to recapture the region is a futile, counterproductive exercise because the South is no longer the swing region,” he declared. “It has swung: Richard Nixon’s ‘Southern strategy’ of 1968 has reached full fruition.” Freed from their Southern bondage, wrote Mary Lynn Jones in The American Prospect, Democrats could focus on their “natural liberal base” and come up with “stronger, more compelling nominees” to champion a less compromised progressivism.
While no President had ever been elected without winning a sizable chunk of Dixie, a growing number of Democrats were eager to take the gamble. And they were about to find the perfect champion for their suicidal strategy.
On the doleful morning of January 21, 2004, my Alabama friend Todd had just one question: “What are the Democrats smoking this time? ‘Cause whatever it is, if it can make you that oblivious to reality, I want some.”
The night before, Iowans had held their quadrennial caucuses and made John Kerry the presumptive favorite for the nomination. I was living then in the heart of old Dixie, Montgomery, “cradle” of both the Confederacy and the civil rights movement, and getting a taste of how unaccountably strange national Democratic politics looks in red America. For beleaguered Southern liberals like Todd, the Democrats’ misunderstanding of what appeals to the South and to Middle America falls somewhere between a bad joke and a tragedy–and Kerry’s win looked like the perfect example. Since 1972 most Southerners’ image of the two parties had flipped, even if their voting habits hadn’t; now it was Democrats who entered every campaign suspected of being wine-and-cheese elitists out to screw the folk. Kerry was the very personification of that image. “You only have to listen to him for thirty seconds,” Todd said, “to know that’s somebody who’d be afraid to even dip a toe in Alabama.”
If there was any doubt about that, Kerry dispelled it three days later. “Everybody always makes the mistake of looking South,” he tut-tutted to a Dartmouth College crowd. “Al Gore proved he could have been President of the United States without winning one Southern state.” It was an odd interpretation of events, given that Gore’s Southern wipeout had sealed his doom in 2000. In fact, according to Gore’s campaign manager, Donna Brazile, Gore shut down most campaign operations in the South before Labor Day of that year. Now Kerry, who repeated his non-Southern intentions twice in the following days, was planning to replicate Gore’s losing strategy–and further widen the gulf between national Democrats and the South.
“Presidential campaigns are the primary vehicle for selling a party’s identity,” notes Steve Jarding, a Democratic strategist who steered Mark Warner and Jim Webb to upset victories in Virginia in 2001 and 2006. “When John Kerry says, ‘I’m not going South,’ that means that there’s some $40 to $50 million in Democratic investments not going South, either. It means digging a deeper and deeper hole in those states.”
For a moment in the summer of 2004, it appeared that Kerry might “look South” after all when he tapped John Edwards as his vice presidential running mate. But shortly after the Democratic convention, Kerry’s brain trust decided to wave a big white hanky, “suspending operations” in Purple South states–Virginia, Louisiana, Missouri and Arkansas–as well as in competitive states outside the region like Nevada, Arizona and Colorado. All told, even before Labor Day, Kerry had “strategically” conceded twenty-seven states, including all of the South but Florida–and all but forty-three of the electoral votes Bush needed for re-election.
Once again, Republicans were left to preach their divisive cultural populism to Southerners in a virtual echo chamber. The Democratic presidential campaign–and whatever its message might have been–was little more than a distant rumor. “In most of the South, and most of the country for that matter,” Edwards told me ruefully after the election, “you couldn’t hardly tell we were running a candidate. It’s tough to convince people you’re right when you can’t be bothered to talk to them.”
When the inevitable went down on November 2, 2004, with another non-Southern campaign sending the Democrats down in flames, it seemed high time to reassess the strategy. Instead, the blue-state backlash only intensified. “Fuck the South,” began the most popular in a parade of blogs laying blame for Bush’s re-election on the dimwits of Dixie. It wasn’t just bloggers: On the morning of November 3, prominent Democratic strategist Bob Beckel called on the South to “form its own nation.” Democratic wise man Lawrence O’Donnell, creator of The West Wing, ordered Southerners to shape up or be shipped out of the Union. “Some would say, ‘Oh, poor Alabama. It’s cut off from the wealth infusion that it gets from New York and California.’ But the more this political condition goes on at the presidential level,” O’Donnell blustered, “the more you’re testing the inclination of the blue states to say, ‘so what?'”
The new cry among the punditocracy was for something bolder and more divisive than John Kerry’s approach: an anti-Southern strategy. “The Democrats need their own ‘them,'” writes Thomas Schaller in his 2005 book, Whistling Past Dixie, “and the social conservatives who are the bedrock of southern politics provide the most obvious and burdensome stone to hang around the Republicans’ necks…. If the GOP can build a national majority by ostracizing an entire region,” he says of the South’s animosity toward Yankees, “the Democrats should be able to run outside the South by running against the conservative South.” By picking off a few non-Southern “purple” states like Montana and Colorado, Schaller and others believe, the Democrats can cobble together small national majorities in presidential elections.
As a species of Democratic defeatism, this approach can hardly be topped. And for all the charts and graphs that accompany such strategic chess games, calls for a non-Southern strategy are rooted in cultural stereotypes. While probing deeply into the politics of states like Montana, Schaller offers mostly context-free statistical “evidence” and sweeping judgments when it comes to the South. Among the various “pathologies” of the region Schaller identifies, for instance: “The South is the most militarized region of the country.” But like everything else, it’s not nearly so simple: Despite Southerners’ often well-earned reputation for a patriotic belligerence unusual even among Americans, recent polls have found that they now oppose the Iraq War just as strongly as people in the rest of the country–and more Southerners now think the United States should “withdraw completely” from Iraq.
That’s no anomaly. The chasm supposedly yawning between Southern ideology and national norms is wildly, though routinely, overstated. In a 2003 comprehensive study of Southern political attitudes, pollster Scott Keeter found folks still tilting to the right on many issues of race, immigration and the use of military force. But Southerners are just as likely as other Americans to support government regulation, strong environmental protection and social welfare. They’re prochoice, too (though less than the rest of the country), and on another contentious “cultural” issue, gay civil unions, are just slightly less supportive than other Americans. Polls show that young Southern voters, along with the region’s booming Hispanic population, lean Democratic.
Rather than diverging from national political patterns, Southerners continue their post-Jim Crow evolution toward the American mainstream. And Democrats continue to run screaming in the other direction.
There was one hopeful sign of a wake-up call after 2004, when Howard Dean was elected chair of the Democratic National Committee, declaring in his acceptance speech, “People will vote for Democrats in Texas, in Utah, in West Virginia if we knock on their doors.” Dean’s election had been assured by enthusiastic support from Southern and Western delegates–folks who were not supposed to embrace an antiwar Yankee. But alone among Democratic leaders, Dean had shown some understanding of the price his party was paying for insulting and neglecting red America–and of the best remedy.
Stating his intention of competing for the votes of “guys with Confederate flags on their pickup trucks” in November 2003, Dean set off howls of protest among party leaders and his rivals for the presidential nomination, who said he was simultaneously stereotyping white Southerners and offending blacks. But few of the complaints originated in Dixie. As they “stand on their soapboxes to castigate Dr. Dean’s remarks,” wrote the Rev. Joe Darby, vice president of the Charleston NAACP, “Democratic candidates and party leadership should bear in mind that black voters think for themselves.” The previous February at a hamburger stand in Spartanburg, South Carolina, Dean had been applauded by black listeners when he said, “You know all those white guys riding around with Confederate flags in the back of their pickup trucks? Well, their kids don’t have health insurance either.” That same month, Dean had told a DNC meeting that white folks “who drive pickup trucks with Confederate flag decals in the back ought to be voting with us.” Maynard Jackson praised his words as “very gutsy,” while New Orleans native Donna Brazile called Dean’s comments “the medicine to cure my depression.”
Representative Jesse Jackson Jr., whose father’s 1988 presidential campaign had some success building a biracial coalition around economic populism in the South and Midwest, was one of several black Congressional leaders to endorse Dean soon after the “flag flap” erupted. Jackson praised Dean for moving past the Democrats’ “stereotypical and condescending approach of appealing to whites in the South with a ‘balanced ticket’ and ‘social conservatism.’ Dean dares a new approach–to join whites and blacks around a common economic agenda of good schools and healthcare.”
But Dean’s approach–both in his campaign and with his new “fifty-state strategy” for the DNC–was hardly a hit with white national party leaders, who complained bitterly about the expense of hiring Democratic organizers, in the words of ex-Clinton adviser Paul Begala, to “wander around Utah and Mississippi and pick their nose.” In the 2006 midterms, national Democratic campaign committees shunned the fifty-state approach and backed only a handful of Democrats in the South. The chosen Southerners fit the “Republican Lite” mold to a T: social conservatives who emphasized “fiscal responsibility” and steered clear of calling for troop withdrawals in Iraq. The ideal Southern campaign, agreed Begala and his ilk, was Harold Ford Jr.’s lavishly financed Senate bid in Tennessee. Aiming to “out-Republican” his opponent, Ford spent the campaign bashing “illegals,” waving the flag, ridiculing the very notion of gay marriage and calling up a quote from the Bible to address every issue.
Ford’s loss was widely chalked up to race-baiting attack ads run by the Republican National Committee. But his defeat–like those of all but one of the Democrats’ chosen candidates in the South last year–can also be viewed as a lesson in the limitations of Clintonian compromise. So can the results from the border South state of Kentucky, where self-described “liberal” John Yarmuth–whose pleas for national funds fell on deaf ears–pulled off a startling upset in the state’s 3rd Congressional District by running a campaign that was the antithesis of Ford’s. “The mistake Democrats have made here over the years is that they never provided a sharp contrast,” says Yarmuth, who bested five-term Republican incumbent Anne Northup. “I said from day one, ‘Anne and I are 180 degrees apart. If she believes something, I don’t.’ I was that clear. I wanted the voters to have a real choice and see where they’d go.” They went with the frank-talking, antiwar, labor-loving candidate his own party considered too “liberal” to win. Meanwhile, the two party-funded challengers in Kentucky, both staunch social conservatives aiming to join the Blue Dog Coalition in Congress, got their clocks cleaned. “There’s a Beltway mentality that succumbs too much to conventional punditry,” says Yarmuth. “The voters are way ahead of the Democrats and way ahead of Washington.”
That was true in North Carolina, too, where blue-collar populist Larry Kissell challenged four-term incumbent Robin Hayes, the sixth-richest person in Congress. A mill worker turned high school teacher, Kissell ran the ultimate shoestring, grassroots campaign; in early October, when his GOP opponent reported $1.1 million cash on hand, Kissell trumpeted his campaign’s balance: $89.94. “I’m sure my bank account looks a lot more like a typical 8th District voter than Hayes’s,” he said. This was making a virtue of necessity: Kissell’s persistent pleas for help from the DCCC were ignored, even as the party spent more than $1 million on the nearby campaign of Christian conservative ex-quarterback Heath Shuler, who’d been personally recruited to run by DCCC chair Rahm Emanuel. Kissell had to make do with some backing from the netroots and John Edwards. Hopelessly outspent, he lost by 329 votes.
Democrats who bucked the script and offered Southerners a frank, unqualified brand of economic populism in 2006 were more successful than the Clinton clones–none more than Jim Webb, the Republican turned Democrat who unseated Senator George Allen in Virginia. Before Allen’s infamous “macaca moment,” Webb had also been shunned by the national party as a hopeless case. While antiwar sentiment boosted his chances, especially in the increasingly “blue” burbs of northern Virginia, Webb’s campaign was fired by an old-fashioned pocketbook populism similar to the messages that won for Yarmuth, Claire McCaskill in Missouri, Jon Tester in Montana and Sherrod Brown in Ohio. Webb believes a strong, clear economic message is the only way for Democrats to reconnect with working-class and middle-class folks who started voting Republican in the 1980s. “The natural base of the Democratic Party looked at both parties and saw they had both been taken over by elites,” Webb told me in September. “They could see they weren’t going to get helped on economic issues. The one place they thought they could make a difference was on these divisive social issues manipulated by the Republicans. But now they know that’s not going to happen. If they can be reached out to with respect, and in terms of fundamental fairness, I think a lot of them will come back.”
The populist resurgence of 2006 suggests a way past the false dilemma Democrats have long believed they faced: Either ditch the South, or try to compete there with a “me too” message. Rather than attempt to “neutralize” the GOP Southern strategy by mimicking it, Webb, Yarmuth and McCaskill–all strongly prochoice, antiwar and outspokenly opposed to wedge issues like anti-gay marriage initiatives and restrictions on stem-cell research–reasserted economic fairness as the central “moral” issue of politics. That will be key not only to attracting moderate evangelicals increasingly fed up with the narrowness and corruption of Republican “values” but also to firing up black voters in the South, who take a back seat to no one as strong Bible believers. A fresh, progressive “moral populism” could also help sway a lasting majority of Hispanics into the Democratic fold. “It’s a toss-up at this point whether people will go Democratic or Republican,” says former State Senator Sam Zamarripa of Georgia, a leading advocate for the South’s booming immigrant population. “On the one side, a lot of people are going evangelical; but a lot are also seeing that the politics that prevail in Republican America are not working to their benefit.”
An emphasis on the “value” of economic fairness (along with other Democratic issues popular with moderate evangelicals, including environmental stewardship) could help bridge those moral and pragmatic concerns–and help Democrats forge a new progressive coalition that cuts through racial divisions. “The greatest gap in the Democratic ‘narrative,'” Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne recently wrote in The American Prospect, “is a plausible account of how moral and economic concerns interact. That’s the real ‘values’ nexus.”
“Today the Democratic Party stands between two great forces,” an eminent populist once said. “On one side stand the corporate interests of the nation, its moneyed institutions, its aggregations of wealth and capital, imperious, arrogant, compassionless…. On the other side stands the unnumbered throng which gave a name to the Democratic Party and for which it has presumed to speak. Work-worn and dust-begrimed, they make their mute appeal, and too often find their cry for help beat in vain against the outer walls.”
That was 33-year-old William Jennings Bryan, the South’s favorite “prairie populist,” shaking the rafters on Capitol Hill in 1893. The Democratic Party then stood at a crossroads similar to today’s. Republicans had ruled national politics for decades, with Democrats offering an ever-more-mushy centrist alternative. When they heeded Bryan’s populist call, the party began its transformation into the progressive force behind Woodrow Wilson’s New Freedom and Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal–both more enthusiastically supported in the South than anywhere else.
Once again, the throng is restless–and large, as it now includes “the millions of middle-class citizens who have been whipsawed by the greedy elite,” notes Southern author John Egerton. “Now, all that stands between these loyal, hard-working Americans and a permanent condition of underclass subjugation is the Democratic Party.”
Just as it was in 1896, a new Democratic populism is anathema to party leaders who’ve counseled centrism as a way to neutralize not only Republican cultural populism but also the flow of corporate cash into GOP coffers. For many rank-and-file Democrats in the blue states, embracing a new economic populism would mean letting loose of the old Southern myths–which might be an even stiffer obstacle. The South has long amounted to little more than a swirl of stereotypes in the national mind (see Gone With the Wind; please do not see Forrest Gump). Many non-Southern progressives still see the region as a dank, magnolia-scented Otherworld where the cultural obsessions of race, religion and rifles hold white voters together in an unbreakable sway, making it hopeless terrain for planting any politics to the left of Jefferson Davis or Jerry Falwell.
“The Southern mystique,” liberal historian Howard Zinn calls it in his 1964 book of the same title. The “notion that the South is more than just ‘different,’ that it is distinct from the rest of the nation…an inexplicable variant from the national norm,” is a false exaggeration, wrote Zinn, that “feeds self-righteousness in the North…. And it stands so firmly and so high on a ledge of truth that one must strain to see the glitter of deception in its eye.” Forty years later, Jacob Levenson, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review about media coverage of the South during the 2004 campaign, echoed Zinn in identifying an important reason the myth persists even today: “The country, and by natural extension the press, often use the South as a convenient box to contain all sorts of problems, situations and conditions that are national in scope: race, white poverty, the cultural rift forming between the religious and the secular, guns, abortion, gay marriage…the contours of American morality, and the identity of the major political parties.”
Good thing it’s a big box. And getting bigger–no, not just because fundamentalists are making babies at a record clip. It’s also thanks to the millions of Yankees who’ve gone South in search of better jobs and cheaper McMansions; a thirty-year “remigration” of blacks from the industrial North; and the nation’s fastest-growing Hispanic population for more than a decade and counting. By the 2032 elections, the South is expected to control almost 40 percent of the electoral votes for President–more than the shrinking Northeast and Midwest combined.
And yet a stubborn belief in the poor, backward, reactionary cracker South of myth still shapes and distorts American politics. By surrendering the region, Democrats have simultaneously abandoned the old hope of a durable national progressive majority. They have passively allowed right-wingers to build a mighty fortress for the defense of free-market excess in a region that is home to almost half–47 percent–of the Americans who call themselves populists. They have allowed economic, racial and cultural divisions to fester. And now, even with the Republicans’ Southern strategy wearing thin, they are lurching toward an even more dramatic break with the South.
It ain’t wise, and it ain’t right. I can’t say it better than Chris Kromm, director of the liberal Institute for Southern Studies in Durham, North Carolina. “For Democrats to turn their back on a region that half of all African-Americans and a growing number of Latinos call home, a place devastated by Hurricane Katrina, plant closings, poverty and other indignities–in short, for progressives to give up on the very place where they could argue they are needed most–would rightfully be viewed as a historic retreat from the party’s commitment to justice for all.”