Eric Rauchway: How the Democrats Can Win the South Back

Roundup: Historians' Take

Eric Rauchway, writing in Altercation (Jan. 30, 2004):

Folks in the press are rattling on about South Carolina being "the gateway to Southern primaries," which is supposed to mean the white candidates have to get their good ol' boy on to win. So Dean flashes his NRA card, and Kerry -- well, Kerry says he's "mainstream," if you know what he means.

But did you notice what the actual Carolinian did? Edwards talked about jobs. In fact, when Edwards talks about growing up Southern he's talking about growing up with working people. I believe he knows something that the Yankees don't: it's no good putting on your safety-orange Remington cap and saying we're all the same. If Southern-ness means culture, Democrats lose this fight. But not if it means jobs.

Tim Noah's mostly right; Southern cultural identity has a dodgy history. In the modern era the South was solid for Democrats till the Democrats began edging toward Civil Rights. No sooner did Harry S. Truman's administration even think about what it'd take "to secure these rights" than a racist movement split the party and almost cost the Democrats the presidency. The same thing happened when the Democrats ran a Catholic who might look kindly on implementing neglected bits of the Constitution. (Oddly, this is almost never mentioned when wonks talk about how close the 1948 and 1960 Presidential elections were, but it's a major factor.)

There's one other wrinkle to this story, though: the South might have gone Republican earlier -- it was going Republican for racial/ethnic reasons in 1928 -- but the New Deal elevated economic over cultural concerns and brought the South back. Edwards sounds like he's trying to do the same thing.

Let South Carolina be about the peculiar cultural history of the region -- about, say, the Confederate flag and all that goes with it -- and George "butt out" Bush runs the table. But let South Carolina be about jobs and it's not the first primary that represents the South, it's the first one that represents America.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics local area unemployment data, unemployment rates in South Carolina run much closer to the national trend than those of New Hampshire or Iowa. (SC's on average within half a percentage point of the national rate; IA and NH are more than a point off whether over the last ten or twenty-five years, and they generally run much lower than the national rate.) And in this jobless recovery, the supposedly peculiar Palmetto state has had an exemplary rough time of it in the last few years.

So if this election is going to be, even in part, about the substandard health of the national economy, South Carolina is the first big test of how the Democrats deal with it. Are South Carolinians doing better than they were four years ago? Are they doing better than they have in recent memory? Are the rest of the U.S.? That's the real Southern question.

Oh, and as long as we're talking numbers: the budget deficit will be bigger than predicted. But you could have guessed that.

comments powered by Disqus