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Democrats In the South

Monday, March 05, 2007
A guest post by Zola.

Given the perpetual campaign we’ve lapsed into in America, the formerly quadrennial question “What should Democrats do about the South?!?” hand-wringing has become a much more frequent activity.

Based on my extensive qualifications, Arbitrista asked me to comment on the party’s situation. In addition to living in Georgia and being from Tennessee (surely qualification enough), I’m a former labor organizer and election campaign staffer who has been a member of three Democratic county-level parties in three different areas of the state.

That being said, I’m not from a political science background. The closest I’ve gotten to serious poli sci study is picking up district maps from the Secretary of State’s office. This is based on my reading of history and my ‘feel’ for my situation and the situation of being a Democrat in Dixie.

How this started

As everyone who graduated from public school (hopefully - A) knows, the South became a consistently Democratic voting bloc after the defeat of the Confederacy in the Civil War. This made sense, both to come home to pre-war political allegiances and to oppose the Republican North that had spent the early 1860s shooting traitors and slavemongers. With the exception of blacks and a few scalawags, Republicans didn’t exist south of Lexington after the Hayes-Tilden deal ended Reconstruction.

The party benefited from Dixie’s loyalty (and vice versa). But as the party on the whole moved leftward with the New Deal coalition of progressive economic policy types, organized labor and big city ethnic groups, the Southern party remained entrenched. The twin pillars of the Southern party were maintenance of the existing political patronage network and preservation of the social hierarchy, including segregation.

While WWII put a damper on this impending breakup, the post-war period kicked it back in overdrive. It wasn’t just civil rights, though...everything the party stood for nationally circa 1972 was alien to Democrats in the South. With the social order the party stood for long dead, the only value that Southern Democrats saw in their party was the access it provided to government largess.

It’s a testament to political inertia that people hung around as long as they did. For example, the state legislature in Georgia was controlled by the Democrats for 137 years(!), right up until the 2002 elections (not that it did any Democrats activists any good). Once the patronage dried up, the rats jumped ship quickly, joining early starters like Republican Governor Sonny Perdue, who had switched parties in the mid-90s (and who I actually campaigned for when he was a D in 1992. Ugh. -A).

What is it like today?

In a word, it’s hard. A side effect of being a patronage organization is that the folks rebelling for change are rebelling against you. In a sense, the party reminds me of a pro sports franchise that traded away its draft picks for years on end. We missed the draft of organized labor, womens/civil rights folks, college types and upper middle class professionals that make up the Democratic voting bloc nationally.

As a result, certain of these groups in the South withered away (organized labor), went Republican (the professional folks) or built their own infrastructure (all the rest). Everything suffers under this setup. During the 2002 election, my union was one of five groups that were shuttling voters to polling places…the same polling places! Meaningful centralized coordination doesn’t happen.

The terrain doesn’t help either. The sprawl of Southern cities, allies getting weaker all the time (Atlanta lost two UAW locals this year alone), the split between rural and urban citizens (exacerbated by cities being identified as ‘black’)…all these characteristics make progressive organizing difficult to do, let alone argue for.

If all that wasn’t enough, you also have to deal with the view of the party held by Southerners. Blogosphere types are always saying “Why do these people vote against their interests?!? Why do working-class poor types vote for Republicans who will make them poorer?”

They do it for the social issues...the perception is that if you are a Democrat, you are for generally unfettered access to abortion, marriage rights for homosexuals and possess a disdain for faith in general and organized religion in particular. This is ANATHEMA to your average Southerner, and not just for those who fit the stereotypical Bible-thumping fire-breathing fundamentalist. It is impossible for me to explain (yes, I’ve tried) to liberals from outside the South how much of an albatross our party’s de facto stance on these issues is.

What now?

Well, it depends. You could…

Wait for the South to become the North

It could happen. As populations and cities getter bigger and bigger, the resultant societal, environmental and political concerns tend to push populations toward more Democratic-friendly mindsets. With support for the right ideas on party growth (like Howard Dean’s 50 state plan), the party could grow right up with the region. Get comfy, though, you could be waiting 50 to 100 years before this bears fruit.

Get serious about economic issues/the middle class

The tension between Dixie Democrats and FDR Progressives got ameliorated by a key factor during the New Deal: wads of cash. Southerners were willing to go along with the New Deal because they got ‘paid’ for it, both in federal project largess and the boom economy it and WWII created.

We could come back to this, assuming the party rallies around someone like a John Edwards, gets organized labor of life support and gets serious about trade policy focused on American needs, not the needs of some airy internationalist ideal that in reality benefits folks inimicable to Democratic interests.

The brick wall here is the DLC/centrist folks (read: the Clinton wing of the party). I’ve never understood how screwing your working class constituency gets you anywhere, but they’re big on it for some reason.

Reorient on social issues

It is possible to be be on the ‘other side’ of the hot button social issues I mentioned earlier without being a knuckledragging throwback or oppressive agent of the patriarchy (some would disagree! - A). There are good people with good intentions in the South who are horrified with our stance on these issues. We need to reach a compromise or middle-ground to allow the regional differences on these issues be worked out regionally.

What could possibly go wrong? Well, abortion would be de facto illegal in 20 or so states and the folks on the left who care about the issues (you know, our constituency?) would riot.

In Conclusion

What do we do? I don’t like the “Screw the South” strategy that’s getting kicked around now, but I don’t know whether the party can do something that is both effective in the South and palatable to the national party. It’s sad, but I think the national party views the costs of gaining access to a quarter of the nation, the costs of being truly national, to be too steep.

Our nation is in a period of pronounced regional political conflict and our parties have become pronouncedly regional in response. The loss of the South is the price the Democratic Party is paying to gain the rest of the nation.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 10:39 AM
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