Whistling Past Dixie?

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So the new topic of hot conversation among some Democrats these days is what this election means — and specifically, one theme that has arisen again and again is the question of what role the South plays in politics vis a vis other regions. The message some gleaned from last Tuesday’s election is that the West and Midwest have rejected the far-right agenda of the Republican party, and that indeed the South is the only region that embraces this agenda in large/majority numbers.

Tied in to that is the idea that Howard Dean’s 50-state strategy was either vindicated or proven folly by this election. But with the West and Midwest in play, the states some Democrats think should be excluded from our efforts are the Southern states. Thomas Schaller, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, forcefully advocates that we should forget the South, that it’s beyond hope, and concentrate our time and money on states we have a chance of winning. This generated a firestorm of debate on the letters board, with the vast majority of people who wrote in disagreeing with Schaller and supporting the 50-state strategy.

As you may know, I have a troubled relationship with the South. I don’t understand the embarrassingly large chip that so many Southerners have on their shoulder. I find the (white) people there largely insecure and unpleasant. The whole Civil War thing mystifies me — you can’t get over something that happened 150 years ago (and in which, by the way, you’re still in the wrong)? The churchiness and sanctimony about religion are obnoxious. The racism is palpable and disgusting (and yes, having lived in both places, it is worse in the South than in the Northeast, contrary to the party line among defensive Southerners). And as much as Southerners will try to defend their homeland (I don’t anymore), the stereotypes exist for a reason: with respect to a large majority of the white population, they are true. I have never seen another place where people cling with such ferocity to notions that have been disgraced by, like, basically everyone else. I would be embarrassed for them if they weren’t just so hateful that it isn’t worth the effort.

People aren’t monolithically like this, of course. There are tons of sane people living in the South, and they find their neighbors just as strange as I do. The key is that the people who are not sane are very loud, visible, and memorable. And there are a lot of them. You know what I’m talking about — they still use the N-word, they hold and espouse egregious stereotypes about Jews, Muslims and anyone else they know nothing about, and they are dittoheads, whether they listen to Rush Limbaugh or not. I.e., never had an independent or critical thought, just parrot whatever the current angry white man grievance is. Their numbers and volume just give the whole region a regressive feel that stifles opposition and debate. So, yes, I kind of despise the South.

Still yet, I count myself among the many who disagree with Schaller about writing the South off. Maybe it’s my optimism that there are well-meaning hearts and minds that can turn away from the dark side if educated. Or, maybe it’s just the fact that demographic trends indicate some openings for my people. The Latino population is growing exponentially in many areas. The Southern population, particularly in urban areas, is not nearly as homogeneous as it once was. Things are changing slowly but surely. Too slowly for my taste in terms of subjecting myself to it day in and day out, mind you, but changing nonetheless. Moreover, as several letter writers pointed out on Salon, the divide is as much urban versus rural as it is South versus everywhere else. Rural voters in Pennsylvania voted for Rick Santorum by a wide margin, for example. So there’s something to that. I think that means we need to reach out to less populated areas, as Claire McCaskill did in Missouri.

The other thing the Democrats need to do (in addition to redefining themselves as a party, of course) is to engage in some long-term thinking and start putting in place an infrastructure as the Republicans did starting in the late 60s and 70s. The Republican ascendancy didn’t happen overnight, and Democrats won’t start winning Southern states quickly either. But permanently excluding a changing region from a party’s vision is a sure way to alienate people who might otherwise be inclined to vote for them one day. As Howard Dean says, you show people respect by asking for their vote. And because I firmly believe that you have to give respect to get respect, that’s exactly what we should do.

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4 Responses to “Whistling Past Dixie?”

  1. juvenal_urbino Says:

    If Dems want to better endear themselves to rural voters, a great place to start would be to attack the crystal meth problem. And now that they’re back in the driver’s seat in Congress, it’s very doable. They would get a lot of crossover support from Republican members, and Pres. Bush can hardly veto — or even oppose — an anti-crime program.

  2. Al Sturgeon Says:

    Anyone remember the Solid South?

    My brief & simple thoughts:
    * Health insurance
    * Gas prices
    * Poor people
    * Old People
    * Ethnic minorities

    Plenty of things Southerners are concerned about that Democrats are traditionally concerned about, too.

    The big trouble, however, is that “godless” moniker attached to political liberals.

  3. juvenal_urbino Says:

    Anyone remember the Solid South?

    IIRC, it went from a solid straight to a [noxious] gas when the Dems and Reps finally reversed polarity on the race issue and Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

    I think you’re right about the 1st, 3rd, and 4th issues you listed, especially the 1st. Gas prices, OTOH, can’t (and shouldn’t) be addressed directly. A long-term energy policy to make gasoline (and possibly the oil companies) obsolete is what we need, but there probably aren’t many votes to be gained in the South or anywhere else for doing it, since it would be painful over the short- and medium-term. The Dems could beat up on the oil companies, though, which would be popular.

    The ethnic minorities issue is sort of a good news/bad news situation for the Dems. They might be able to pick up some seats in Congress on it, but in a presidential election, given the all-or-nothing nature of the electoral system, I think they’re still on the wrong side of it to pick up any southern states.

  4. juvenal_urbino Says:

    BTW, Sandi, I haven’t read Schaller’s book, but I do think there’s something to a strategy of focusing the Dem’s resources elsewhere before making any major effort to make headway in the South.

    You pretty much have to sell your soul to win in the South. The Dems did it for a long time, then they bought it back and the GOP sold theirs. I say let ’em keep it until either the South changes enough that you don’t have to, or somebody figures out a way to win without having to.

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