Earlier this week, the activist group Progressive Democrats of America sent out an email in which it tried to downplay Hillary Clinton’s primary victories by noting she has “won the Confederacy” while the rest of the country is “primed to go for Bernie.” This was an awkward attempt to make the case for not giving up on the Bernie Sanders campaign despite Clinton’s almost insurmountable lead in pledged delegates. The race, this line of thinking goes, is now moving on to western states where Sanders has enormous support. A few significant victories, and he could be right back in it.
The backlash to the letter was swift. Detractors pointed out that, for starters, it's not true -- unless Massachusetts, Illinois and Ohio are now considered part of the Confederacy. Also, the argument elided the widely reported fact that Clinton owes a great deal of the margin of her victories in Southern states to African American voters, a group traditionally not, to put it mildly, great supporters of the explicit white-supremacist ideology associated with the Confederacy. That word itself has become shorthand for the voting advantages enjoyed by the majority-white Republican Party in the South. Tying it to wins involving a large share of the African-American vote is silly.
The PDA quickly apologized. In truth, however, the organization was parroting an argument I’ve seen made by scattered Sanders fans on social media over the last few weeks. (Note: I am not saying Sanders himself is responsible for his supporters' dumb comments, implying Hillary is winning with the votes of unreconstructed Confederates, nor that he and his fans are racists. PLEASE DON'T @ ME!) It has taken a couple of different forms – sometimes the claim substitutes “red states” for “Southern states” – but the implication is always the same: Hillary Clinton is winning states that no Democrat will win in the general election, So we shouldn’t assume they reflect a wider base of support for her in the country.
As an argument about who the Democrats should nominate, this is a supremely dumb one. This is a primary election. The issue of whether Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders is better suited to win, say, Alabama in the general election is not the question that is up for debate.
But there is a wider issue here, of which this dust-up is just an example, and that is the tendency of Democrats and left-of-center voters to throw up our hands and sneer at the South when it comes to talk of a voting coalition, or just about anything else.
Call it the “Fuck the South” reflex.
Now, “Fuck the South” is an understandable reaction when one reads about old Confederate states like Texas and North Carolina taking advantage of the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act to make it harder for blacks and other minorities to vote. It’s understandable when we see Southerners flipping out over the removal of Confederate flags from the grounds of state capitol buildings. It’s understandable that the stain of its resistance to ending slavery, its Jim Crow laws, its incubation of the Ku Klux Klan, would give the South a reputation it cannot overcome.
I get it. I grew up in southeastern Virginia and still often drive past the Confederate memorial in the middle of my hometown’s downtown area when I go back for a visit. The fact that there are roads and schools down there named after Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee is to the region’s eternal shame, at least until is renames them. Even if that happens, we will probably always stereotype the South for being filled with slow-witted backwoods hillbillies forever strumming their banjos and shouting “Squeal like a piggie!” at unsuspecting lost canoeists.
But the refusal to take the South seriously as a source of electoral power for Democrats is to the party’s detriment. We hear this every election cycle, and in between election cycles, from loyal Democrats who live in states that are so deeply red we might as well write their Electoral College votes into the totals for Republican candidates for every presidential race for the foreseeable future. We hear complaints that even the national Democratic Party won’t commit enough resources to Southern states because they have long since given up on making inroads there.
That Progressive Democrats of America would make this argument is supremely ironic. The organization was founded in part by remnants of Howard Dean’s presidential campaign in 2004. It was Dean who, as chairman of the Democratic National Committee, later pushed the party to adopt the “fifty-state strategy” for elections. This strategy was predicated in part on the idea that putting resources even into states that were unwinnable in a presidential election might at least lead to gains for Democrats at the local and state levels. This would be a hugely important step for gaining more progressive governance at the federal level down the road as well, since so many state politicians go on to Congress.
Republicans understand this dynamic very well. Which is one reason why they now control the majority of state houses and governor's mansions.
But beyond that, not saying “Who cares about Clinton’s wins, they’re in the Confederacy anyway” is simply good team-building. Does the left really want to tell Democrats trapped behind enemy lines, sorry, your vote for your preferred party candidate means less because you’re in a Southern state that no Democrat can win, or living in the Confederacy means you’re probably a conservative white Democrat, so screw you?
So be nice to Southern Democrats, even if they do vote for Hillary Clinton. You’re still going to want them on your team down the road.