Should the Democratic Party Abandon the South
The Solid South is nearly Solid again. There are now only three Democratic Senators from Southern states and they are Bill Nelson from Florida, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine from Virginia. The 2014 Midterm election might be noticeable for being the final nail in the coffin of a process that began in 1948 when Strom Thurmond and other Southeners marched out of the Democratic Convention when Hubert Humphrey gave a strong speech endorsing a civil rights plank and for the Democratic Party to become the “party of human rights.”
The question is whether the Democratic Party should or can afford to write off the South especially when it comes to State-wide and Congressional elections. Michael Tomasky and Jon Chait are firmly in the yes camp. Both feel that the South has always been the socially and culturally conservative part of the United States and it does not make sense for a liberal party to find positions that pleasing to older, whiter, Southern conservatives. Chait and Tomansky believe that the Democratic future lies with the North, the Midwest, West, union voters, women, minorities, professionals, and other groups that remained true to the Democratic Party. Tomansky and Chait are also cynical about the chances of economic populism/liberalism winning in the South. Any attempt to woo the South is going to alienate the North, the West, and the people who voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012.
Matt Yglesias makes a simple math argument about why the Democratic Party can’t lose the South. There are only 50 States and the South represents 18 Senate seats. Neal Dewing argues that the South did not abandon the Democratic Party but the Democratic Party abandoned the South.
There are a few points that everyone agrees on without agreeing on. Everyone acknowledges that Florida, Virginia, and maybe North Carolina are important for the Democratic Party and the Democratic Party is still competitive in those states. Chait and Tomansky explain this by arguing that those states have more residents who were born out of state and that Miami is not really a Southern city. There are also liberal congressional districts in many Southern areas but these areas tend to be majority-minority districts. Democratic districts tend to be absurdly safe whereas Republican districts are merely comfortably safe. This is true on the state legislative and Congressional level.
I was not very convinced by Dewing’s article. He claims that younger white Southerners are non-racist are tired of being reminded of the South’s long history or being given by guilty by association. He also thinks that the Democratic Party is too patronizing towards Southern cultural traditionalism. The problem with the patronizing argument is that it is a two-way street. If someone can be a proud Southerner, someone can be a proud midwesterner or west coaster or a Northeast Urbanite like yours truly. I feel patronized by many arguments made by the Republican Party about why Jews should vote Republican because it often comes from non-Jews who think it is all about Israel and/or have scant knowledge of Judaism. While Israel is important to me, I don’t think Israel is helped by slavish devotion. The Democratic Party’s firm but sometimes critical defense of Israel is what the country needs. The Republican Party can’t seem to make ads that appeal to women without getting called out on patronizing. It is always easy to tell when you are being patronized than when you are doing the patronizing. It is entirely possible that both parties patronize without realizing it or it is impossible to appeal to the base without patronizing another segment.
Dewing also does not realize that he is making the same point that Chait and Tomasky are making. You can be socially liberal or you can appeal to white Southerners, you can seemingly not do both.
The sad part might be that Tomasky, Chait, and Yglesias are all probably right. I don’t necessarily mind the existence of heterodox or somewhat conservative Democratic politicians. I do mind that heterodox Democratic politicians can’t seemingly do it without taking a piss on their party. The Republicans are pretty good at running heterodox politicians who are still proud rock-ribbed Republicans. I am proud to be a Democratic Voter. Being from the Party of Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, Johnson Humphrey, Milk, and Obama is just as much as source of pride as being from the Party of Lincoln and Eisenhower. The Democratic Party can stand to be a big tent party with internal disagreement. We can’t stand to be a party where one half is really sheepish about the D next to their name. Be proud of being a Donkey or get out. The rest is in the details.
The above being said if there is a party attuned to social and cultural conservatism, there should also be a party attuned to social and conservative liberalism. If there is a party whose heart and soul is in the South, there should be a party whose heart and soul is in the North and the West. Matt Yglesias is probably right on the numbers but I am not sure how to square the circle and have the Democratic Party say that they are the party of the urban North, Midwest, and West while also remaining competitive in the South.
My argument would be for the Democratic Party to find good candidates in the South but we should not bend over backwards for the region. We should not take our current Southern voters for granted either. Civil rights and voting rights should be a priority but one fought on the federal level and potentially with a constitutional amendment or laws passed by Congress. We should also return to out trade union roots but it is also important to note that trade unionism was always more of a thing in the Northeast and Industrial Midwest and West than the South. The Democratic Party should not abandon social or cultural liberalism or environmentalism to appeal to Southerners who might not have a predisposition to vote for us anyway. Expand the coalition by going after people who are similar to the base but do not vote. Don’t expand the base by going after conservatives who are probably a lost cause.
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