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More on the Democrats' Southern Problem

On March 28, I posted a contribution from Glen Browder, a former Democratic Congressman from Alabama and currently Eminent Scholar in American Democracy at Jacksonville State University on how the Democrats can make progress in the South. Browder has now expanded his analysis in a very useful paper that I commend to all who would like to see the GOP stranglehold on the South broken (which, as Browder argues, should include all Democrats). Below is the introducation to the paper; follow the link at the end for the full paper.

Entrenching Democratic Minority: The Democrats Are Destined To Be the Minority Party in a Rational/National Two-Party System as Long as They Forfeit the Solid South

It seems like everybody’s got a cure for the Democratic Party and its “southern problem” as our new leadership tries to chart a course through troubled times.

Few question the basic facts of this problem: (1) most whites in the South used to vote automatically for the donkey but now vote overwhelmingly for the elephant; (2) the Old Confederacy en bloc provided George W. Bush with an almost insurmountable lead over both Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004; (3) this vast, seemingly Republican region will gain Electoral College power in coming years; and finally, (4) any Democratic ideas about an emerging majority inevitably depend upon dealing successfully with the southern problem.

Unfortunately, most recommendations currently circulating among diverse sectors of Democratic society seem to be weak, narrow, self-serving fixes.

Liberals and Centrists: Finesse the South. Most often, curative types attempt to finesse the touchy southern issue with gratuitous rhetoric about aggressive outreach, bold talk about inclusion and marketing. For example, proud liberals press the party to take its historically progressive message more forcefully “to every voter, in every state, throughout America” (sometimes explicitly and at other times implicitly targeting the South for special attention without mentioning left-wing political baggage). Pragmatic centrists, citing success with a new and different brand in the past decade, push the party toward moderate voters of “mainstream America” (presumably enhancing its southern appeal without resorting to right-wing dogma). However, family discussions about the future of the Democratic Party inevitably erupt into frenzied discombobulation when someone mentions that guy in the Confederate-flagged pickup truck.

Radical Progressives: Forget the South. More radical thinkers question the continued logic of nationwide, regionally apportioned parties pandering to eclectic blocs; they claim that, in today’s setting, there is no sense trying to craft a hoary geo-national majority. These creative Democrats, armed with intellectual theory and think-tank resources, reject the politics of philosophical accommodation; instead, they imagine a differently defined, differently based, truly progressive agenda for Democratic America. Expectedly, many of them urge their party to forget the South altogether.

New Southerners: Preaching the Gospel of Southern Salvation. Also unsurprisingly, southern progressives (particularly academic and journalistic types encrusted in New South religion and unwilling to be finessed or forgotten) are jumping, once again, into the fray with old-time southern salvation for the soul of national Democracy—sanctifying liberal values with a southern accent, shepherding the region’s biracial underclass, converting errant rednecks, and anointing an enlightened southern prophet atop the national ticket.

But, despite their sincerity, these varied suggestions from proud liberals, pragmatic centrists, radical thinkers, and southern progressives strike me as inadequate potions for the real problems of southern and national politics; or perhaps to be honest about it, I just don’t like them for some reason or other. What’s missing is practical advice grounded in theoretical analysis that deals directly with the basic reasons and future prospects for our Democratic distemper.

My Advice: Crack Dixie with a Fresh, Moderate Embrace. So, here’s some very pointed advice—intended as the latter sort—for Chairman Howard Dean and my party. I believe that the Democrats are destined to be the minority party in an importantly altered environment, a new rational/national two-party system, as long as they forfeit the Solid South; so, in my opinion, the Democratic Party’s best bet for re-emergent majorityism is a revised version of an old idea, cracking this regional bloc with a new strategy embracing moderate southern voters.

I offer this personal perspective as a long-time public official in Alabama and Washington and as a longer-time academic analyst of regional and national developments. Just as pertinently, I’m a southern white Democrat who’s not interested in switching parties, launching petty recriminations, or sitting in silent stupor while things deteriorate beyond repair. What I offer is, like the other cures, pretty simple; it is not all new or original; nor do I expect Democratic bluebloods to accept my prescriptive analysis in toto. But I think it presents sound political criticism, useful theoretical insight, and some constructive guidance for my troubled party.

Click here to read the entire paper.