Dixie is gone with the wind

No economic-populism-inspired revivals are going to turn the region blue. Virginia's Jim Webb is a lonely exception.

Published August 19, 2008 10:58AM (EDT)

Can economic populism return the white South to the Democratic Party?

Bob Moser thinks so. In his newly published and smartly written book, "Blue Dixie: Awakening the South's Democratic Majority," Moser argues that the conventional wisdom that took hold in the mid-1990s -- namely, that Bill Clinton-led, Democratic Leadership Council-inspired centrism had saved the Democratic Party nationally, and at least partially in the South as well -- was in fact the force that drove wary working-class white Southerners into the arms of the Republicans for good.

Moser, a North Carolina native who now lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., relays the story of a conversation he had at the 2000 Democratic National Convention with a female Democrat from his home state who laughed when he told her he was looking to talk to liberals in the Tar Heel State delegation. "The state had historically been the South's most progressive," writes Moser, saddened and dismayed by the woman's laughter. "But after eight years of Bill Clinton and his pro-corporate, anti-New Deal, Republican-Lite DLC having assumed near-complete control of the national party, were there any liberals still active enough to be delegates?"

In the years following that fateful 2000 presidential election, economic populism has come into vogue on the left. In fact, some liberals have elevated it to the status of panacea for the Democratic Party, and it has been cited as the key thread that weaves together the elections of politicians ranging from Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer to Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown to Virginia Sen. Jim Webb.

However, leaving aside a few Southerners like Webb (more on the rookie senator in a moment), economic populism tends to be more useful politically in the post-globalization Rust Belt, or the new growth economies of the Far West, than in the South. Though the South is the nation's poorest region and millions of Southerners of all races are hurting financially, the conclusion reached by many demographic analysts, myself included, is that the deep-seated social conservatism and widespread resistance to race-blind redistribution in the South serve as powerful bulwarks against the curative effects of economic populism.

Bob Moser is a rare specimen. It is hard enough to find Southern white Democrats today, but fewer are that subspecies of Southern white Democrats who, like him, are also avowed liberals. Because there is no tougher part of the country to lay down markers as an economic populist and social liberal, it took courage for Moser to write his book while advancing this argument. Though it would have drawn mostly yawns, the safer bet would have been to rehash the old centrism-based arguments for retaking the South.

But is Moser right?

Unfortunately, the prescriptions Moser offers in "Blue Dixie" are closer to overstated hopes, often based on anecdotal evidence contradicted by broader patterns or wholesale data. If economic populism were an untapped electoral reservoir in the South, Southern state budgets would not be among the lowest per capita in the country, unions would not be weaker than in any other region, and working-class white Southerners would already be joined at the hip with working-class black Southerners as the backbone of the most Democratic region in America. But these are not Southern political realities, and wishing them so will not make them so.

What is indisputable is that in 2006, with economic populism on the rise, the Democrats had a great cycle nationally -- but not in the South. As I explain in the afterword to the paperback edition of my own book, "Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South," 85 percent of all new-seat gains in Senate, House, gubernatorial and state legislative races in 2006 came outside the 11 states of the former Confederacy. Exit polls showed Democrats carrying every region but the South. In the long history of the Democratic Party, national fortunes were almost always pegged to the party's Southern fortunes, with good Southern years also being good national years (recently: 1986 congressional, 1992 presidential) and bad years regionally also being bad nationally (1980 presidential, 1994 congressional). But in 2006, the link between the Democrats' Southern fortunes and national fortunes was severed.

That said, if the South were in fact primed for and desperately in need of an infusion of economic populism, why weren't electoral gains at the very least uniform across the country? Indeed, given the greater poverty of the South and the already-higher share of Democrats outside the South, shouldn't the party's new economic populism have produced in 2006 better-than-average gains in the South relative to other regions?

All of which brings us to the success story of one Southern politician Moser adduces as Exhibit A in the case for a newly emergent blue Dixie: Jim Webb. Virginia's rookie senator has become a one-man wellspring for Southern Democratic revivalists trying to extrapolate from Webb's victory regionwide conclusions about how to win back the South.

Yes, Webb won against George Allen. But consider how favorable the conditions were. He is a native-stock Scots-Irishman. He is a former Republican. He is an ex-Marine who not only fought in Vietnam but has a son who served in Iraq. And Webb's wife is Asian, which matters more than you might think, given that the key Northern Virginia suburban counties that ring Washington, D.C., are about 15 percent Asian now.

Those are just Webb's biographical assets. The state's demography and the national political environment in 2006 were also extremely favorable. Those Northern Virginia suburbs have made Virginia one of the fastest-changing states in the South, and one with the highest median income of any former Confederate state. The 2006 midterm cycle was the best for Democrats since at least 1974, and maybe going back to 1954. Rarely is a party blessed at once with a candidate biography so favorable and a demographic-electoral tailwind so strong. As if all of this were somehow not enough, Webb was the beneficiary of one of the greatest media-electoral windfalls of modern American history: the infamous "macaca" moment. (Though I can't prove the counterfactual, I firmly believe that despite all the other advantages, sans macaca, Webb still loses. Remember: This race was too close to call on election night.)

The point is that Webb-Allen contests are rare in the South, and are sometimes lost even when they do fall into Democrats' laps. It is sobering to remember that even while Webb was winning in Northern Virginia he was losing badly among native white Southerners downstate. Even if Moser joined forces with fellow Southern revivalists like Donna Brazile, Don Fowler and Steve Jarding to recruit 500 Jim Webbs for Southern campaigns at all levels of government -- which would surely help -- it is beyond their powers to produce Democratic tsunamis every two years, not to mention 500 separate macaca moments, one each for those 500 recruits.

Moser's book has much to recommend it. Stylistically, Moser delivers solid prose and shows a keen eye for the lesson-filled vignette. Substantively, he warns against the perils of what he calls "Dixiephobia," deconstructs some outdated myths about Southern exceptionalism, offers a compelling case that Democrats had better be careful not to take for granted their support from African-Americans in the region, and literally provides some cautionary tales about the dangers of rising nativist sentiment in response to the South's growing immigrant population.

But the crux of the book is his prescription for a heavy dose of economic populism. That worked well in the South before LBJ's Great Society precisely because the New Deal's redistributive policies benefited whites almost exclusively. After the civil rights movement and Great Society, however, redistribution had to be racially inclusive, and economic populism just doesn't sell as well now that "populism" means all of the people. Were the South not the most racially polarized region in America, that wouldn't matter. But as the 2004 National Election Study shows, it remains so. The golden era of the pre-Great Society, solid Democratic South can never be reconstituted.

Moser knows that, but insists that Dixie can at least get back some of its blue hue. He may be right about that in the long term, but doing so in the near future will take more than strong populist messaging or authentic, Webb-like candidates. (This November, if Barack Obama wins any Southern state except Virginia it will be because he was swept into office in an electoral landslide.) At minimum, at least two preconditions must be in place: a fundamental shift in the social attitudes of Southerners and a racial détente between working-class whites and blacks. Barring that, calls for economic-populism-inspired revivals will only leave Southern Democrats blue in the face.

By Thomas Schaller

Thomas F. Schaller is professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the author of "Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South." Follow him @schaller67.

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2006 Elections 2008 Elections Democratic Party Jim Webb