Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The Democrats and the South

It's funny, I've lived for years in Calfornia but I still think of myself as a "Southern Democrat".  The whole Old Hickory theme is kind of a clue.

Speaking of whom, Molly Ivins gave the great man a mention this week in defining her own fight-the-plutocrats brand of Texas "populism".  Molly is one of the few people who use the word "populism" with some actual meaning.  I've started to think that for the Establishment press in the United States, it just means "anything that might sound a little unsettling to a small-town Chamber of Commerce".

It's also a bit sad that in Europe it's pretty much come to be "rightwing demagogue".  Because the original American Populists were a farmers and workers movement that was distinctly left-leaning in the terms of both then and now.  And Molly Ivins is even willing to trace it back to the General himself (Now They’re All for Bipartisanship Truthdig.com 11/14/06):

A populist is pretty much for the PEOPLE and generally in this case exactly the same as a liberal—we just put the em-PHA-sis on a different syl-LA-ble. We also tend to be more fun. We do not vote to hurt average Americans, even if the corporate payoff is really big. Even if it’s just a little bit—like the bankruptcy bill.

We tend to focus less on social issues and more on who’s gettin’ screwed and who’s doin’ the screwin’. In my opinion, Americans are not getting screwed by the Republican Party. They are getting screwed by the Large Corporations that bought and own the Republican Party. ...

If you read back to the beginning of the populist movement, however, you will find Andy Jackson and the West set against all those dreary snobs of the East. When Andy opened up the White House and let in the people, all the snobs had the fantods.

OK, it’s not the 19th century anymore, but it is always the right time to point out that the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes. Honest. There stands George W. Bush, buck nekkid. We want to help him out of this fix because he’s dragging the whole Army, the country and the world down with him. But don’t ask us to call those clothes.

I like her style.  She gets from Andrew Jackson to Bush buck nekkid in the very next paragraph.  (For my Yankee readers, "nekkid" is actually the preferred spelling.  Only Yankees would use "naked".)

Thomas Schaller is the author of Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South (2006), which argues that the Democrats as a national party should stop worrying so much about looking for programs and candidates that will peel off some white Southern votes from the Republicans.  Instead, they should concentrate on building governing majorities outside the South, which would put them in the position to pursue policies that would demonstrate results that would begin to win over more Southern votes.

I haven't read Schaller's book.  But from what I know of his argument, it seems to me he's hit on an important point.  But at the same time, there's something missing from his argument.

The point that he does have he points out well in his post-mortem on last week's election, Do Democrats need the South? Salon 11/14/06.  He points out that the recent Democratic shift in the two Houses of Congress was due to shift in votes outside the South:

For the first time in 50 years, the party that controls both chambers of Congress is a minority party in the South.  And in the last four presidential elections, the Democratic candidate has either garnered 270 electoral votes, the minimum needed to win, or has come within one state of doing so before a single Southern vote was tallied.  Outside the old Confederacy, the nation is turning blue, and that portends a new map for a future Democratic majority.

While [Harold] Ford was losing [his Tennessee Senate race] and [James] Carville was grumbling, that process took a giant leap forward last Tuesday. Though trailing in generic House race exit polls in the South by 8 points, the Democrats won the West by 11 points, the Midwest by five and the Northeast by an incredible 28. Democrats picked up 11 House seats in the Northeast, turning that region into a power base as solidly blue as the South is red.  Democrats added 21 seats in state legislatures in Dixie, but that was a disproportionately small percentage of the more than 270 they gained nationwide. They captured new legislative majorities in nine chambers, none of them Southern.   (my emphasis in bold)

And there's more than a little ring of truth in his conclusion:

In short, Republicans have squeezed every last vote out of their mostly white, largely Southern, highly divisive, screw-the-coasts national strategy. First the South turned Republicans; now the Republicans have turned Southern. Their identity is becoming more and more bound to a philosophy and a region. Last week was the first sign that the electoral accountants are knocking on the door, asking to see the GOP's receipts.

Like with many other things, our punditocracy isn't ready to recognize the extent to which the Republican Party of today is a neosegregationist party, the spiritual and political descendant of the Southern Democratic Party of Ross Barnett and Orville Faubus.  And I like the fact that Schaller is encouraging his readers to focus on that critical aspect of today's Republican Party.

But as a political strategy, Democratic Party chair Howard Dean has the right idea with his "50 state" strategy, and last week's election validated that in a big way.  And it doesn't seem to me that Schaller's recommended approach is consistent with that.

Jerome Armstrong frets over the whole thing a bit in Harold Ford & the South, Big Tent & 50 State Strategy MyDD 11/14/06, and points out some of the problems with the Schaller idea.

Part of the problem is the "red-state/blue-state" dichotomy that the punditocracy has been hung up on since 2000.  Mississippi is clearly a "red" state in the sense that its Presidential vote normally goes to Republicans and its Governor and both Senators are Republicans.  But two of its four Congressional Representatives are Democrats.

So even if the state tends to vote Republican, the fact that the state party there is very weak is not a good thing.  Trent Lott, one of the worst specimens in a bad bunch of Republicans, won re-election handily this year.  His Democratic opponent was scarcely competitive.

But Dean's 50-state strategy addresses a couple of opportunities.  If there is a Democratic trend like this year, if the Party isn't actively contesting elections in presumably safe Republicans districts, we won't be positioned to take advantage of a year like this one.  The other is, even a long-shot race can force the Reps to invest advertising dollars in a race like Trent Lott's this year that will then not be available to Republicans in some of the more competitive races.

Plus, if the national Democratic Party gets too much in the habit of thinking of the South as a lost cause (ouch! sorry, I couldn't resist), then Party leaders will start saying impolitic things like Charles Rangel last week: "Mississippi gets more than their fair share back in federal money, but who the hell wants to live in Mississippi?" (Biloxi Blues (and Reds) Truthdig.com 11/11/06)

Not a good thing to say.  Instead, it would help at least a bit if Democrats outside the South would point out in a somewhat more positive way that, in fact, those federal social programs that their Republican representatives at all level consistently oppose and try to reduce funding for are a big reason that Mississippi gets back more tax dollars than it contributes.  That's only one factor among many in Southern voter behavior.  But the Democratic Party nationally needs to keep strong state parties going in the South.  Even if the major payoff doesn't come for another two decades.


sanskritg6 said...

See Chris Kromm at "Facing South" on this very subject:


bmiller224 said...

Facing South is a really good blog, on Southern politics and other things as well. - Bruce