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May 13, 2011

Whither Southern Democrats?

Jamelle Bouie has an interesting piece in The American Prospect on the present state (grim) and future prospects of the Democratic Party in the South.  I like Bouie's southern commentary, because he writes with a ground-level knowledge notably lacking among liberal commentators, but in this piece I think he misses something.

In essence, he contends (like Tom Schaller) that white southerners are a lost cause to the Democrats, and that the future of the party in the region will be black and (increasingly) brown.  I'd respond that such a strategy would be bad news for Democrats, for black and brown southerners, and above all for the South itself.

A little history: As we all know, southern state Democratic parties up to the post-World War II era were obsessively focused on maintaining white supremacy--a focus that allowed them to corral most white voters under their banner while smothering real differences over a range of issues, assuring control of policy by what was in many respects a retrograde oligarchy.  As is also well known, those parties (described so well in V. O. Key's classic Southern Politics in State and Nation) went into crisis after the war, first as the New Deal shifted the balance of power in the national party away from the South and then as racial liberalism gained ascendency in national party councils.  The oft-told story goes that with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, followed by the Goldwater ascendency in the GOP, the Wallace insurgency of 1968, and the Nixon-Thurmond "southern strategy," the Democratic Party lost its grip on southern white voters.  It took a while, to be sure, but whatever Democratic loyalty remained among whites was strictly a matter of engrained cultural habit; newer white voters automatically went Republican, while older whites who remembered "the Hoover time" (a phrase I remember still hearing in a crossroads SC barbershop in the 1970s) died off.  The race issue was central, and the Republicans owned it.

Again, I think this misses a lot.  In particular, it misses an important, but overlooked, fact about the post-Civil Rights Era Democratic Party in the South--that by the 1970s it made an epochal transition from being the party of white supremacy to being a true coalition of blacks (browns weren't in the picture yet) and whites.  It was in many respects a jerry-built coalition (They were Democrats, after all), in particular incongruously welding the remnants of the old Black-Belt oligarchs with newer voters of sharply different priorities.  But for a long time (in states like North Carolina a very long time) they actually worked hard at trying to bring a backward region into the modern age.  They pushed hard to improve public education and public health, in particular, and more importantly extended social services to large swaths of the population that had hitherto been denied it.  Not that they were "liberal" in any rigorous meaning of the term; their notion of economic development, for instance,  remained wedded to "smokestack chasing" and the subservience to corporate interests such a strategy enforced (I'd argue that they had little choice, but whatever).  And despite their efforts, much of the region continues to trail the nation in educational attainment, infant mortality, and a host of other measures.  But the South of the post-Civil Rights Era was, in public policy terms, a much different, and better, place than it had been in the past.

OK, then, why the erosion, and recent collapse, in white support for the Democrats?  Race is certainly part of the answer, but not all of it, and its role is more subtle than white-South-bashers customarily depict it.  Part of it lies in the sharp postwar expansion of the southern urban middle class, which as observers from Merle and Earl Black to Matthew Latimer have pointed out, have led the surge into the GOP.  For them, economic conservatism was a ticket to prosperity and a means of keeping what they got.  But urban white southerners are increasingly unreliable for a party hostile to the public-service needs of city-dwellers.  The critical segment of the white southern electorate are the working-class white voters, many of them still rural, small-town, or small-city residents.  As Chris Kromm of Facing South notes in a good analysis of the recent Pew Center study of the American electorate, southerners are over-represented in two of their categories: "Hard-Pressed Democrats" (heavily female and black) and "Disaffecteds (heavily white working-class)."  Neither group is exactly "conservative"--certainly not in the normal sense of the term.  Both feel beleaguered and in need of help, but both are cynical about the good faith of government as well as business.  Above all, both groups are socially conservative and deeply religious.

Why does that matter?  Because it's arguable that, for the white working-class segment of these groups, both parties have failed them.  As I mentioned in an earlier posting, the traditional economic base of the working-class South as seriously eroded in recent years, and public policy of any sort has done little to stem the hemorrhaging.  Along with economic stress has come social and cultural stress as well; as Naomi Chan and June Carbone have recently argued in Red Families v. Blue Families, those Americans most passionately devoted to "family values" are increasingly those who have the hardest time living up to them.  In response to this crisis, Republicans offer what seems to be a compelling narrative; American culture is being degraded by libertine liberal elites and minorities, unproductive classes living off those who still try to work hard and live by the rules.  Restore the country to its rightful owners, they say, and all will be better.  It's a classic populist appeal; if it's incongruous coming from a party so closely allied to wealthy suburbanites, incongruity is a characteristic of any major American political party.  And what do Democrats have to say in response to this crisis?  Damned if I know.

So the GOP views an economic and social crisis through the lens of culture war--and Democrats ignore it.  Not a formula for a viable political party, and no help for either the ignored whites or the black and brown southerners who share many of the same afflictions.  I'm not sure how that crisis can be addressed in the present climate--but focusing on issues that divide southerners by race isn't a good plan.  Not to say that the peculiar concerns of black and brown southerners should be jettisoned; far from it.  But the future of the Democratic Party in the South--indeed the future of the South--requires a broader reach.

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