southernbeau

Making sense of the non-sensical world of American politics

The South Shall Rise Again – If We Fight For It

In contrast to many of my friends and colleagues, I was far from disconsolate immediately following the elections earlier this month. There is no shame, I figured, in losing an election from time to time, and, quite often, outside forces – macroeconomic factors, events in foreign countries, unforeseen domestic occurrences, etc. – can render a political party helpless at a particular point in history. Furthermore, it is well documented that the party of the sitting president most often loses seats in Congress in off-year elections, especially in the sixth year of a presidency. Unlike some, maybe most, I did not view the Republican wave as either a repudiation of Democratic principles or wholesale approval of Republican ones.

After all, where minimum wage increases were on the ballot (a Democratic policy priority), each referendum passed with flying colors. What’s more, it was four conservative states – Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota – joining Illinois in supporting wage hikes while at the same time largely supporting Republicans for office in those same states. Put simply (and forgiving the schizophrenia), the elections were more a measure of the national political climate than policy preferences.

The more I delved into the results, however, the more unsettling the picture became. Let’s start with my home state: North Carolina. Admittedly, it was difficult to watch Sen. Kay Hagan lose her seat, but I was somewhat heartened that North Carolina provided such a close race despite the toxic political environment for Democrats, and despite watching other Democrats lose far worse in other states (often bluer ones).  Unfortunately, however, the “heartened” part of me quickly dampened in the knowledge that someone in the mold of Thom Tillis remains electable in North Carolina.

I am not necessarily convinced that Kay Hagan has been a particularly effective freshman senator, but I do know that Thom Tillis is unapologetically regressive (not conservative), in the worst sense of the word, and was not, in my view, a viable alternative.  It was certainly a tough pill to swallow for those who participated in the various “Moral Monday” demonstrations specifically, but also for other North Carolinians who more generally lamented the way in which Tillis steered North Carolina back in time as Speaker of the North Carolina legislature.

Head due south from North Carolina down I-85, and the picture only grows bleaker.  In the Deep South, the Democratic Party is dying a slow and painful death, which has led many national observers to suggest that the Democrats give up on the South entirely. The statistics are stunning and unavoidable. According to the Associated Press, “South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas will not send a single white Democrat to Congress, if Mary Landrieu loses her runoff. The only Democrats in the House from Deep South states will be African-Americans.” In Mississippi in the 2012 election, 96 percent of blacks voted for the Democratic presidential ticket, while 89 percent of whites voted for the Republican ticket.  Separating ourselves into homogenous voting blocs is terrible for democracy, but even worse for the country. What does it say about our sameness as Americans?

Most cynics point to race as being the predominant factor contributing to this political phenomenon. There is some statistical evidence to support this contention. In March, Gallup reported, “Whites have become increasingly Republican, moving from an average 4.1-point Republican advantage under Clinton to an average 9.5-point advantage under Obama.” While acknowledging that race is a factor for some, I do not believe that it is the deciding factor for most. Though white, Hillary Clinton will not be winning any of these Deep South states, including Arkansas, in 2016. If recent trends hold, however, Ms. Clinton will do very well in the overwhelmingly white states of Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota – where Mr. Obama won quite handily in both 2008 and 2012. So what is the problem?

I believe the Democrats’ problems in the Deep South stem primarily from a lack of, or ineffective, communication and effort. Much like the Republican Party largely writes off the non-white vote, the Democratic Party has given up on Southern whites. They do so at their own political peril. Can the Democrats continue to win the White House without support in the Deep South? Obviously, yes; they have done so the past two elections (excluding, of course, North Carolina and Virginia from the Deep South), and by fairly healthy margins. But electoral politics shouldn’t be the sole driver of who a political party tries to reach.

Based on my experience, I would contend that Southern whites’ aversion to the Democratic Party is less about race and more about culture. I believe southern voters are uncomfortable being associated politically with voters in the Northeast and on the West Coast, whom they view as elitist and quacky. This might sound trite to some, but having grown up in the South, I can attest to the stigma that folks in these parts of the country possess in the eyes of southerners. Moreover, southerners feel as though Democrats, and liberals generally, talk down to them as somehow being inferior. Having spent the past 7 years in the North, I can attest that they are often right to feel this way.

The truth is, folks in the South care about the exact same issues as folks throughout America – the Northeast and West Coast included. They need a good (and fair) paying job, affordable healthcare, good schools for their kids to attend, and, yes, government to be there when adversity strikes. Traditionally, Democrats win on these kitchen table issues. We can win again, in the South, if we can articulate these values in a clear, coherent and persuasive way. But even more importantly, we must show the persistence, perseverance and, candidly, the care to take the fight to the people in the Deep South.

Finally, returning to the suggestion, as some national observers have espoused, that Democrats not waste their time and energies attracting white voters in the South. Perhaps I am biased, or even blinded, by my southern roots, but I emphatically contend that white voters in the South are worth the fight. These are decent, smart, hard-working people (not just my family and friends!) who are fully capable of being persuaded by a transformative message, if it resonates. The damage done is considerable, but not insurmountable. The odds are great, but the cause worthy. The South shall rise again – if we fight for it. And there ain’t nothing wrong with some BBQ and iced tea for our troubles along the way.

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November 21, 2014 Posted by | 2014 Elections, Democratic Party, Obama, Politics, South | , , , | 1 Comment