Why Democrats should write off the South.

Why Democrats should write off the South.

Why Democrats should write off the South.

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
Jan. 27 2004 8:55 PM

Forget the South, Democrats

Stop coddling the spoiled brat of presidential politics.

"There goes the South for a generation," Lyndon Johnson is said to have predicted as he signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act into law. Actually, it's been two generations, but otherwise Johnson was dead-on. For 40 years, the Democratic Party begged Southern Democrats to return to the fold. Always undignified, this pleading eventually became futile as well, like Shirley Booth calling for her dead puppy in Come Back, Little Sheba. Now John Kerry, winner of the New Hampshire primary, is taking some heat for saying so. But it's about time somebody did.

"Everybody always makes the mistake of looking south," the Massachusetts Democrat said in a Jan. 24 appearance at Dartmouth. And so they have. For two decades, it's been axiomatic that Democratic presidential candidates couldn't win unless they were Southerners. It worked once for Jimmy Carter and twice for Bill Clinton; Walter Mondale's and Mike Dukakis' defeats reinforced the logic. But it didn't work in 2000 for Al Gore—or rather, it didn't work well enough to counterbalance the Supreme Court's decision to hand over Florida's electors to George W. Bush. Gore lost every Southern state, including his home state of Tennessee. Thus Lesson 1: Southerners won't vote for you just because you're a Good Ole Boy. But Gore still came within four electoral votes of winning. If he'd taken Florida, which in many ways is not really a southern state, he'd be president. (Some people still argue that he did.) Thus Lesson 2: Democrats don't really need those southern votes.

Advertisement

Since 2000, many Democrats have questioned quietly why they should expend so much effort trying to win votes in what is now a solidly Republican region. The Democrats' ceaseless courtship of Southern votes has fostered an unhealthy sense of entitlement. Southerners now consider it their God-given right to supply Democrats with presidential candidates or, failing that, to force non-Southern candidates to discuss Him using an alien evangelical vocabulary. (God doesn't hear the prayers of Episcopalians, Congregationalists, or Presbyterians. No use even discussing Unitarians, Jews, and atheists.) Overindulgence has also made the South grotesquely hypersensitive to what non-Southern liberals say about it; to quote a famous witticism about the writer John O'Hara, today's South is "master of the fancied slight." Thus when Vermonter Howard Dean made the perfectly innocent remark that he'd like to win votes from "guys with Confederate flags on their pickup trucks"—a comment, incidentally, that indicated he did not intend to write off the South—he had to fall all over himself apologizing to Southerners offended by the shorthand. Never mind that subgroups in other parts of the country are routinely referred to in political discourse as "Joe Six-pack," "wealthy Jews," "blue-collar Midwesterners," "metrosexuals," inhabitants of "McMansions," "buppies," the "underclass," and so on without causing noticeable offense.

The taboo extends to discussing whether the South has enough votes to justify Democratic solicitude. Kerry's remarks prompted Dick Harpootlian, former chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party, to tell ABC's Jake Tapper, "I'm shocked he would be talking about a strategy of avoiding the South." Tapper also quoted Kerry rival John Edwards, political scientist Merle Black, and Sen. Zell Miller, D-Ga., emphasizing the importance of the South to the Democrats. But they're all Southerners; of course they think Democrats shouldn't write off their region. (Miller, who's starting to sound like a right-fringe crackpot, has the gall to tell Democrats what to do even though he's already endorsed President Bush.) Pressed by Mary Lynn F. Jones of the American Prospect, Black's brother and fellow political scientist Earl Black conceded that the Democrats' loss of the South didn't have to deprive them of the presidency. Republicans don't pretend they're trying to win approval from voters in the Northeast; why must Democrats keep mum about their diminishing returns in the South?

In a very persuasive recent essay for the Washington Post's "Outlook" section, Thomas Schaller, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, argues,

Trying to recapture the South is a futile, counterproductive exercise for Democrats because the South is no longer the swing region. It has swung: Richard Nixon's "Southern strategy" of 1968 has reached full fruition.

Advertisement

The centrist Democratic Leadership Council counters that writing off the South is a "bad idea." Democrats, it says, need

a national ticket that's determined to advance a tough, positive message on national security; that convinces middle-class voters that Democrats have a vision and a plan for restoring the broad-based economic and social progress, along with the fiscal responsibility, of the Clinton years; and that addresses the cultural concerns about Democrats that conservatives have spent so much time and money instilling and exploiting.

This is another way of saying that the Democratic Party needs swing voters. That's true; Clinton's "New Democrat" strategy of chasing swing voters remains a wise one. But Schaller punctures the myth that the South is a good place to seek them:

[T]he South has the fewest independent-minded voters available for Democratic conversion. Protest candidates John McCain, Ralph Nader and Perot all bombed there. Of the 10 states where Perot fared worst in 1992, all were Southern. … The South is where insurgents and independents go to die.

Advertisement

What about African-Americans, a key Democratic constituency? Even after the Great Migration northward, the South continues to harbor a majority of the nation's blacks. Unfortunately for Democrats, though, they're outnumbered by a white majority that prefers Republicans. Ironically, Schaller notes, this problem is compounded by the Voting Rights Act because the creation of overwhelmingly black congressional districts gives less-politically committed black voters little incentive to maintain the habit of going to the polls. (It would be different if black incumbents faced a serious risk of being unseated by white challengers.) "Low turnout may not threaten the election of black legislators," Schaller observes, "but it severely damages the chances of Democrats running for statewide offices and for president." Democrats do much better seeking black votes in places like Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania, where they can be combined with the votes of white and Latino Democrats.

Rather than seek votes in the South, Schaller suggests that Democrats place greater emphasis on the Southwest, where there's a large Latino community and growing numbers of Democrat-friendly "ideopolises" (as John Judis and Ruy Teixeira have dubbed the high-tech yuppie colonies proliferating throughout the country). They'd have to carry the Midwest, too, including unreliably Democratic Ohio. As the DLC points out, this doesn't leave a large margin of error. But shouldn't Democrats seek votes where they're likeliest to find them?

Teixeira, oddly, told the Philadelphia Inquirer last November that while it's tempting to write off the South—"It's common sense, you go hunt where the ducks are"—Democrats should resist "wholesale abandonment" because it's … impolite:

It would imply that we see all Southerners as a culturally alien mass that we don't know how to talk to. And that would further skew our image, identifying us even more with upscale social liberalismwhich is a tendency that we already have.

Advertisement

But abandoning the South doesn't have to mean abandoning the white working class; indeed, Democrats can't hope to win the White House unless they win white working-class votes elsewhere. Teixeira surely knows this.

Chatterbox won't deny that there's a long cultural history of Northerners snubbing Southerners, going back to 1917, when H.L. Mencken dubbed the South "The Sahara of the Bozart." (In addition to being snotty, Mencken was wrong; at the time, the South was germinating the musical forms—jazz, the blues, and what would become rock 'n' roll—that now dominate American music. It was also getting ready to disgorge a literary renaissance that would include the work of Thomas Wolfe, Alan Tate, Robert Penn Warren, Flannery O'Connor, and Eudora Welty.)

But there's an even longer political history of Southerners whining and wheedling their way into disproportionate and undeserved power. For all its resistance to Big Government, the South is arguably the most socialistic region in the country; nearly half of all U.S. military personnel are stationed there, and the region was only lightly affected by the post-Cold War base closings of the 1980s and 1990s. This is the legacy of the Southern congressional barons on Capitol Hill, who blocked civil rights legislation from Reconstruction until 1957. Before that, Southerners successfully turned defeat in the Civil War into an occasion to erect Jim Crow laws. Before that, the South treasonously separated itself from the Union. Before that, the South successfully battled all attempts to end the practice of slavery, which the Founding Fathers well understood was incompatible with the principles of the American Revolution. In this, Garry Wills points out in his new book, " Negro President": Jefferson and the Slave Power, the South was greatly assisted by the Constitution's provision that each slave be counted in the Census as three-fifths of a person. That boosted the South's representation in the House of Representatives and the Electoral College, in effect allowing Southerners to make the owning of (disenfranchised) slaves the very basis for maintaining the necessary political clout to perpetuate slavery. If only "real" votes had been counted, Wills argues, John Adams would have defeated Thomas Jefferson in the election of 1800. In addition,

slavery would have been excluded from Missouri; Andrew Jackson's policy of removing Indians from territories they occupied in several states would have failed; the 1840 gag rule, protecting slavery in the District of Columbia, would not have been imposed; the Wilmot Proviso would have banned slavery from territories won from Mexico. Moreover, the Kansas and Nebraska bill outlawing slavery in Nebraska territory and allowing it in Kansas would have failed.

Of course, without the three-fifths rule, there wouldn't have been a Constitution of the United States—not one that governed the American South, at any rate—because the South wouldn't have ratified it. But that only underscores further the perils of paying the South too much attention. For Democrats, the South has become the Sahara of the Electoral College. Give it up.