History and Heath Shuler

Pundit poppycock: The "rise" of the socially conservative Democrat.

Andrew Leonard
November 9, 2006 2:49AM (UTC)

Florida Gator fans, among which proud group I count myself, have always been a little suspicious of Heath Shuler, the former quarterback for the University of Tennessee Volunteers, a hated Florida rival. But if one was to believe the talking heads from Tuesday night's election coverage, good old-fashioned liberals should be even more wary of the newly elected Democratic House representative from North Carolina. That's because, as was repeated ad infinitum by the likes of Candy Crowley and numerous others, Heath Shuler is the embodiment of the new, socially conservative Democrat.

Anti-same-sex marriage, anti-choice, eager to drop the name of Jesus at every opportunity, the new socially conservative Democrats are being offered as proof that for the Democratic Party to win power, it had to become Republican. So don't you dare interpret these election results as some kind of ratification of meat-and-potatos Democratic liberalism. And you better watch out, because trouble's gonna start brewing when these new socially conservative Democrats arrive in Washington and start getting ordered around by Nancy Pelosi and her ilk.


As pathetic, desperate efforts to spin an electoral loss of historic proportions go, this line of thinking makes the kind of faux intuitive sense that is pure talking point gold. The concocters of this poppycock deserve some credit. They were ready and waiting to unleash the conservative Democratic mandate and we'll hear no end of pontificating about the new zeitgeist in the months ahead. Never mind, as the left-wing blogs have been pointing out with alacrity all morning, that the theory doesn't hold up when you look at who actually won the majority of the Democratic takeaways from Republicans. If anything, the Northeast, with the possible exception of new Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey, is sending a more solid block of liberal Democrats to Congress than has been seen in generations, if ever. New Hampshire's utter transformation into the bluest of blue states has nothing to do with any purported rise of social conservatism. And even in Pennsylvania, it's hard not to look at the humiliating annihilation of the Senate's third most powerful leader, Rick Santorum, as anything other than a triumph over the most backward, homophobic, caveman-style conservativism this country has to offer.

But what isn't getting mentioned is the rank absurdity of even suggesting that the emergence of a handful of Southern conservative Democrats represents anything new or surprising under the sun. White Southern Democrats, by and large, have always been conservative. Heath Shuler is the latest in a long tradition. But you want to know the real difference between Shuler and the likes of Zell Miller or the Dixiecrats of yore? Shuler was born in 1971, six years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. So unlike generations of Southern Democrats before him, he probably won't change his registration to Republican because his party forced through historic civil rights legislation.

This point, absolutely central to the history of modern politics in the United States, rarely gets mentioned by pundits blathering on about red and blue states. Instead the South's transformation from blue bastion to rock-ribbed red Republicanism has been painted as some kind of tactical failure by Democrats -- they "lost" the South because they weren't as smart or organized or respectful of "family values" as the Republicans. When, in point of fact, any student of political history understands that the Republican takeover of the South is the result of Lyndon Johnson's passage of the Voting Rights Act. The so-called conservative ascendancy did not begin in 1980, when Ronald Reagan was elected. It began in 1965.

Sometimes, you pay a price for being right. The price paid by Democrats for forcing through landmark civil rights legislation was the collapse of a big tent that held both Northern liberals and Southern conservatives -- an uneasy alliance at best, and one that only as masterly a politician as Johnson could manipulate into a unified force. Ever since, Democrats have faced a political landscape in which the electoral math hasn't worked in their favor.

But, as is abundantly clear from Tuesday's election results, many Southerners no longer feel that Republicans represent their interests. So now some new politicians like Heath Shuler are making the scene. The Democratic Party is big enough to handle it.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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