How Democrats can take back the South

The author of "Blue Dixie" says don't give up on the region -- but don't pander to it with Clintonian centrism.

Topics: 2008 Elections, Democratic Party

When a couple of fellows in North Georgia started hollering last week that they’d bagged a Bigfoot, I couldn’t help sniffing out a big, ungainly political metaphor. With apologies in advance, it goes like this: As I’ve chronicled in my new book, “Blue Dixie: Awakening the South’s Democratic Majority,” Democrats have been stalking an elusive beast in Dixie every four years since the Voting Rights Act broke apart the dominant old Democratic Party in the South. The beast has gone by several different names: the Social Voter, the Reagan Democrat, the NASCAR Dad, and the just plain White Swing Voter. It’s been viewed, by many a non-Southern liberal, as somewhat akin to a Bigfoot, in that nobody could be sure that the phenomenon really existed — and if it did, it was likely only half-human. But the hunt for this ghostly creature still struck most Democratic strategists and consultants as absolutely essential, because you supposedly couldn’t win Southern elections (no matter the region’s sizable numbers of black voters and progressive whites) without capturing a fair amount. Also, of course, because no Democrat in U.S. history has won the White House without carrying at least five states in Dixie, a historical pattern that seems particularly relevant as we head for what looks like a close presidential election.

The Democrats’ hapless pursuit of the Southern Sasquatch yielded its fair share of tabloid-worthy farces through the years: Jimmy Carter’s ill-conceived Conference on American Families, which ended up turning evangelicals against him; Michael Dukakis’ holding forth atop a hay bale in South Carolina to extol his Massachusetts Miracle; Bill Clinton’s shameless Sister Souljah moment. It motivated any number of Democratic candidates to take heavily photographed hunting detours from the campaign trail, feign an appreciation for stock-car racing, learn to work the word “family” into at least every other sentence, and babble about their sincere regard for “states’ rights.” And it spawned the once-powerful Democratic Leadership Council, whose co-founder Clinton helped reshape the party into a Wall Street-friendly, free-trading, Bible-quoting, culturally moderate shell of the New Deal coalition — every last compromise justified by the pressing need to woo those crucial Southern whites.

What the Democrats’ various Sasquatch strategies did not produce, however, were victories. Unless a close relative like Carter or Clinton was on top of the ticket, the creature evaded capture — so much so, in fact, that no other Democratic presidential candidate since 1968 has carried a single Southern state (with the exception of the border state of West Virginia, one of Mike Dukakis’ few electoral accomplishments in 1988). By 2000, the situation had become so grim, in the view of the frustrated strategists, that Al Gore ran no fall campaign in any Southern state but Florida — no ads, no staff, and almost no sightings, even in his home state of Tennessee. In 2004, John Kerry also conceded every Southern state but Florida — more than 140 electoral votes — without bothering to spend a cent after August, even in his vice presidential nominee’s home state of North Carolina. Nationally, Kerry lost the white vote by 16 points; in the South, it was even worse, as George W. Bush swept the region with 70 percent of all white votes.

Clearly, these people were simply unreachable. And not surprisingly, calls for Democrats to “whistle past Dixie,” in Tom Schaller’s terms, leaving the region a Republican backwater while forging a Democratic majority elsewhere (mathematically possible, though difficult), only became louder. But those leading cheers for a “non-Southern” Democratic strategy were ignoring a reality that Southerners themselves couldn’t miss: Bigfoot was changing colors and evolving into a whole new animal.

Thanks to a historic “re-migration” of millions of African Americans back South, combined with the country’s fastest growing Hispanic population, the political potency of Southern whites has started to shrivel. From 1990 to 2005, the white population percentage dropped in every Southern state — and in many places, the change portended revolutionary political shifts. The state of Texas is now officially “majority minority,” with large chunks of the South following suit. Georgia went from more than 70 percent white to less than 60 percent just between 1990 and 2005. Nashville, of all places, has been dubbed America’s “new Ellis Island” due to its large influx of not only Hispanics, but Kurds and Somalians (among others). These seismic demographic shifts, which the Census Bureau expects to accelerate over the next few decades, mean — among a world of other things — that the Democrats’ “threshold” of white votes needed to win Southern states (in Mississippi, for instance, it’s 31 percent with average black turnout) will keep falling for the foreseeable future.

The Southern swing voters of the future — and of 2008, at least in the closely competitive states of Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia and Florida — bear scant resemblance to the Bigfoot of yore. That’s not simply because fewer of them are Caucasian: It’s also because white Southerners’ political attitudes are undergoing a profound generational shift. The backlash whites, their anti-liberal politics forged in the ’60s and whipped to a froth by the GOP’s wedge issues in almost every election since, are losing members by natural attrition every day. (Rev. Falwell and Jesse Helms, RIP.) Younger Southerners — and the millions of college-educated Yankees who’ve migrated south for bigger houses and better jobs in recent decades — hold more moderate views on cultural and “moral” issues than their elders did. They support withdrawal from Iraq and strong environmental policies. And on economic issues, they lean populist: Like black Southerners, most whites in Dixie now support government action to reduce income inequities; increased regulation of business; more spending on education, Social Security and healthcare; and higher taxes to help the poor.

While all these trends are brightening Democratic prospects, the Republicans’ Southern juggernaut shows every sign of losing steam — if not breaking apart. The coalition of business conservatives and evangelical true believers that has made the party so powerful in Dixie has always been a shaky one, marked by mutual suspicion and downright dislike. It hasn’t helped that Republicans have had notorious difficulties governing Southern states when they’ve taken power — failures mirrored and magnified by the disastrous presidency of George W. Bush.

Even more worrying for the GOP, the religious right, such a mighty force in 2004, quickly became fractured and dispirited by the sex scandals and corruption of its political champions. Its most prominent Southern pols running in 2006 — Ralph Reed in Georgia, “Ten Commandments” Judge Roy Moore in Alabama and Representative Katherine Harris in Florida — all lost. Meanwhile, the rising generation of evangelicals is rebelling against the intolerance and power-grasping of its Falwell-era elders: They’re less likely to attend church weekly or believe in biblical literalism, more likely to register independent, and show greater interest in “creation care” and global poverty-fighting than in gay-bashing or volunteering for GOP turnout efforts. (They do, however, remain staunchly pro-life.)

With all these factors in their favor, Democrats have a new Southern quandary going forward: how to capitalize. The first step is to show up and stay — an effort begun by Howard Dean’s 50-state project in 2005, which has helped reanimate moribund state and local Democratic parties across the South with unprecedented infusions of field organizers, communications and Web specialists. Derided as downright silly by Clinton-era strategists like Paul Begala — who likened Dean’s plan to “hiring a bunch of staff people to wander around Utah and Mississippi and pick their nose” — the project helped Southern Democrats (in Mississippi, among other states) begin a belated catch-up process with the vastly superior grassroots organization and voter mobilization of their Republican counterparts. Despite Southern Democrats’ fear that the project would be set aside during this year’s presidential election, the Obama campaign has pledged to put voter-registration staff in all 50 states. That means the first Democratic presidential staffers in the non-Florida South during a fall campaign since 1996 — particularly important in a year with so much enthusiasm among African Americans, more than half of whom live in the South, and with so many Democratic-leaning Hispanics waiting to be wooed.

But showing up in Dixie will never be enough without the right message — one calibrated to appeal to open-minded evangelicals, younger whites, white-collar populists, Hispanics and African Americans alike. These folks tend to coalesce around an economic populism that once came naturally to the Democrats — but which has, ironically enough, become eroded in part by the quest for white Southern votes. For Democrats, winning in the new political South will require nothing less than the revival of the party’s populist soul. Yes, Democrats will need to respond to the moral (though not inevitably conservative) impulses of Southern voters — not by gay-bashing or abortion-denouncing, but by crafting bold proposals on a contemporary set of “values” issues like poverty and global warming. But most of all, Democrats will turn Dixie blue by remembering what it once meant to be “the people’s party.” Maybe the best advice comes from Pete MacDowell, a fierce and funny liberal activist from my native North Carolina: “Shit, just try being Democrats here.”

Bob Moser is the autho of "Blue Dixie: Awakening the South's Democratic Majority." A native and longtime resident of North Carolina, he reports on middle American politics for The Nation and is temporarily housed in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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