One silver lining that some Democrats seem to be taking away from the 2014 midterm elections is that the party’s fortunes in “the South” have reached such abysmal levels that the troublesome region can finally be either icily ignored or angrily anathematized. I’d argue, as I have for decades, for an unsentimental view of southern politics that treats Dixie as just another collection of challenges and opportunities, and neither the great hope nor the evil temptation for the donkey party.
As my use of quotations around “the South” suggests, this topic is plagued by definitional problems. When The Atlantic’s Molly Ball, for example, calls soon-to-be-former Sen. Mary Landrieu “the last southern Democrat,” she is excluding two states of the former Confederacy (Florida and Virginia) that have Democratic U.S. Senators and were carried twice by Barack Obama; non-statewide Democratic elected officials like Tennessee’s Steven Cohen who don’t fit the moderate-to-conservative stereotype of southern white pols; and most importantly, the African-Americans who are hardly an incidental presence in “the South” by any definition.
If anything is dying in southern Democratic politics, it’s the idea that you can forge successful statewide majorities with white candidates who hang onto 30 to 40 percent of the white vote by positioning themselves as far to the right as possible—and then expecting 90 percent of African-Americans to get them across the finish line. The Blue Dog model has almost certainly run its course. And I’m not remotely as optimistic as some progressives (almost invariably non-southerners) who think “populism” is some sort of magical formula for getting southern white working class voters to stop thinking about God and Guns and start thinking about their paychecks. The southern “populist” tradition (heavily associated with racism) is even more anachronistic than the Blue Dog model.
There is some room for creating a backlash against corporate lackeys like Rick Perry and Nikki Haley, whose idea of “economic development” is to eagerly sacrifice the people of their states to every whim of “investors.” But “the South” is going to be more pro-business and anti-government than other parts of the country for the foreseeable future, if only because there’s no social democratic Golden Age memories to conjure up the way there are in the once-heavily-unionized rust belt. Right now staunch support for public education, proud and unconditional anti-racism, and a vision of the social safety set, taxes, and basic regulations as something other than an inconvenience to “job creators,” is probably “populist” enough.
For the national Democratic Party, there’s really no longer any reason to agonize over “the South” as some sort of existential challenge to Democrats’ ambitions or principles. Democrats can win presidential elections while losing the region; the last Democrat to rely on southern states as anything other than electoral college gravy was Jimmy Carter way back in 1976. Nor is the decline in ticket-splitting that doomed Mary Landrieu and Mark Pryor this year an exclusively Democratic problem, as one might be misled to think by the very unusual Senate landscape of 2014. We’ll be reminded in 2016 of how many Republican senators are representing “blue states.”
But in any event, it is clear there was nothing the national party might have done to reverse the results in Arkansas, Louisiana, Georgia or North Carolina this year. Just as importantly, unless you buy the dubious argument that the brief delay in the president’s executive action on immigration was purely a pander to “the South,” the national party did not really undertake any “concessions” to the South. So there’s no reason to swear off the South as an evil conservative seductress tempting Democrats to stray from the paths of righteousness.
Treating the South like the rest of the country makes the most sense for Democrats going forward. A return to presidential cycle turnout patterns should, in any close election, again make Florida, North Carolina and Virginia winnable for Democrats. The demographics of Georgia are making that state more “purple” every day, especially in presidential elections.
At the state level, much is rightly being made of region-wide Republican hegemony in governorships and state legislative chambers. Some of this is cyclical; Republicans have won repeated state-level “breakthroughs” since the 1960s across the South, only to see the tide recede after Democratic adjustments and/or their own malfeasance. But in general, what we are seeing is the consequence of the long-playing realignment of older southern white small-town and rural voters towards the GOP, buttressed in some states by traditional “mountain” Republicans; in others by wealthy tax-averse retirees; and everywhere by politically mobilized conservative evangelicals.
It’s math, not diabolical magic, and Democratic prospects will reach a tipping point whenever and wherever a majority can be put together from the building blocks of nonwhite, younger and professional white, “knowledge sector,” and pro-public-education voters. That already exists in a few states, could exist soon in a couple of others, and probably will never exist in some. Seeing “the South” as a set of discrete political opportunities requiring skill, good candidate recruitment, the kind of ideological “flexibility” accorded to any other region, and resources calibrated to the risk and reward, is the best approach for Democrats. All the regional mythology should be treated as gone with the wind.