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How Can the Democrats Make Progress in the South?

That's a tough question that deserves a full and frank discussion among Democrats. After 2004, it has become clear that, while Democrats' primary emphasis must lie elsewhere, they cannot afford to concede an entire region to the opposing party.

In the interests of promoting such a discussion, I present here a contribution from Glen Browder, a former Democratic Congressman from Alabama and currently Eminent Scholar in American Democracy at Jacksonville State University. You may not agree with everything he says but I do think you will find it interesting and provocative.

Memo to Howard Dean: The Real Southern Problem and Our Party’s Future

It seems like everybody’s got a southern cure for our struggling Democratic Party these days. Everything from reframing progressive values for a southern audience, to energizing the region’s black voters, to putting a white southerner atop the national ticket, to simply ignoring the South. But most of these recommendations seem to be weak, narrow, self-serving fixes; what’s missing is practical advice grounded in sound analysis of the “southern problem”.

So, here I offer you some pointed advice of the latter sort from a former public official in Alabama and Washington who also is a long-time academic analyst of regional and national developments. More personally, I’m a southern white Democrat who’s not interested in switching parties, launching petty recriminations, or sitting in silent stupor while things get worse.

The Real Southern Problem

Democrats everywhere are aware of their so-called “southern problem”, the fact that most whites in this region used to vote for the donkey and now vote for the elephant.

However, I believe that the Democratic Party’s real problem—seriously impacting our presidential and congressional aspirations—is (1) its inability or refusal to recognize the transformational dynamics of southern and national politics, and (2) its stubborn reluctance to consider a potentially workable southern solution to our national troubles.

I contend that many Democratic leaders and activists evidence a mindset of extremely “Blue” indignation, with cultural disdain toward “Red America” in general and toward the white South as freakish, racist embodiment of that redness. While these extremely blue Democrats (I’ll call them BluDems) realize that we need “Red” votes, they reflexively flinch at the idea of coursing our party’s destiny, even partially, through Dixie.

Of course, this critique of “Blue Conceit” invites ridicule as trite provincial griping; but I wonder whether these powerful partisans can deal with the urgent, altered nature of southern and national politics.

Transforming Southern Politics and American Democracy

First, a quick review of transformational dynamics.

The 1960s GOP “Southern Strategy” successfully exploited racial tensions; but, over time, southern politics has shifted to broader considerations—factors historically grounded in the South’s perverse caste system but now just as often reflective, in relatively moderate areas, of cultural patterns among citizens, a logical normalization of politics similar to that of the rest of the country.

In the process, both southern politics and American democracy are transforming, thus far entrenching diminished Democratic standing in a new American political system (arguably the first real two-party system in our nation’s history).

But also evident in that process are areas of southern moderation that seem likely prospects for Democratic resurgence within a cooperative national party environment.

Democratic Convulsion

Our Democratic Party, however, is engaged in uncooperative convulsion.

Most commonly, BluDems dominate debate over basic values, contentious causes, and core constituencies, along with tactical arguments about organizing more effectively or speaking more clearly to an American public that doesn’t understand things appropriately. They generally finesse the southern issue, except for gratuitous rhetoric and frenzied discombobulation (as when you mentioned that guy in the Confederate-flagged pickup truck).

Of course, we can always hope for the cosmos to shift, magically, back in our favor; but that’s not likely.

The problem is that neither this debate nor tactical adjustment nor cosmic shift is likely to generate a reliable governing majority. Statistically, a Democrat can win the presidency without any southern state, and we can take over the House and Senate without a single southern member; but neither scenario is realistic. We are—absent sufficient and stable white southern support—a minority party into the foreseeable future.

What To Do?

So, what can the Democrats do?

(1) For openers, Democratic leaders might acknowledge that our current course is creating a new national party system, with Republicans running American government as long as we forfeit the Solid South.

(2) Then Democrats should confront BluDem attitudes impeding rational discussion of our southern problem.

(3) Finally, if we hope to ever get back on top, we have to aggressively develop and implement a “New Southern Strategy” for cracking the Solid South.

The South probably will remain a Republican bloc bonanza to the extent that national Democrats continue to ignore or misread southern political dynamics; and, as we’ve seen, fielding attractive candidates, energizing minority constituencies, and preaching to the liberal choir are futile as long as our national party views the region as an alien culture. Just as importantly, articulating that we can win without the South further alienates southerners and encourages a political agenda that loses places like Ohio as well as Alabama.

To speak the unspeakable, the Democrats must genuinely embrace the moderate South, balance traditional values with economic issues, and venture comfortably into the alliterative Guy-zone of white southern culture—guns, God, and Old Glory.

We need to reach out to white southerners through new attitude, policy, and organizational resources, while maintaining our base among blacks and other progressive voters and moderating some of the noisy distractions that play so well in GOP commercials down here. It’s not an easy assignment, but I believe we can compete in the South without becoming Republican-Lite, pandering to racists, or nominating Bubba for the presidency.

Our Democratic Destiny?

Whether you can lead the Democratic Party to craft a winning national strategy remains to be seen. However, our party is destined for permanent minority status unless it deals realistically with the fundamental transformation of both southern politics and American democracy.

Good luck, Mr. Chairman.