pundits and even some Democrats are taking the national Democratic Party to
task for losing the South, a trend thats viewed as a key reason why the
Republicans and George W. Bush are todays odds-on favorites to hold and
expand their power in next years elections.
In his new book A
National Party No More, retiring Sen. Zell Miller, a Georgia Democrat,
berated his party for effectively telling the South to go to hell and
warned that the Democrats are inviting the fate of the Whig Party in the
late 1850s. Similarly, New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof has
depicted Democrats as out of step with the trend toward Christian
fundamentalism, which is especially strong in the South. The most striking
cleavage is the God Gulf, and it should terrify the Democrats, Kristof
wrote in a column on Nov. 12.
But as trendy as it
might be to blame the Democratic Party for Southern white flight into
Republican arms, the answer is not as simple as these commentators suggest,
nor is the trend necessarily as politically dire for the Democrats. Indeed,
the Republicans could be hurt both in the near- and long-term if they
are viewed as pandering to the remnants of racial intolerance and to the
anti-gay bias of many Christian fundamentalists.
There is also an
argument that the South, with its higher poverty rates and relatively
greater dependence on federal social programs, may need the Democratic Party
as much as the Democrats need the South. The political irony of the party
realignment is that many white Southerners, who have benefited
disproportionately from the help of the federal government, are effectively
delivering themselves into the hands of Republican leaders who malign the
federal government and are closely allied with giant corporations.
Of the 13 southern
states, only 2 send more federal tax dollars to Washington than the federal
government spends within those states (Texas gets 96¢ and Georgia gets 99¢
for every tax dollar sent to Washington). Every other southern state
receives an economic benefit for sending their tax dollars to Washington.
For example, Oklahoma gets $1.46 back, Alabama gets $1.54 back and Mississippi
only New Mexico and North Dakota for return on its federal tax dollar
getting $1.78 back for every dollar sent to Washington.
By following the
political rhetoric of anti-government, social conservative Republicans,
modest-income white Southerners may be putting their opposition to groups
that dont fit narrowly defined family values paradigms, such as gays,
liberals and racial minorities, ahead of their economic interests. That was
the point that former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean tried to make recently with
his clumsy reference to the need for Democrats to appeal to white voters
with Confederate flag decals on their pick-up trucks.
Over time, Southern
whites also may find that intolerance toward gays and racial minorities will
again stigmatize their region, leaving them isolated from much of America
and the modern world.
Staying mad about
Americas multicultural trends and demanding a Biblical world view in a
country founded on the separation of church and state could restore the
Souths image as a region of reactionary attitudes, like those from the days
of Jim Crow segregation and the Scopes Monkey Trial assaults on the theory
of evolution. Many Southerners have worked hard to shed that legacy, but it
is in danger of coming back.
Republicans also could
overplay their hand if they are seen as encouraging intolerance. By
continuing to employ variations of Richard Nixons Southern Strategy, the
Republicans run the risk of offending more tolerant whites in the North,
Midwest and Pacific states as well as the South along with blocs of
minority citizens, including African-Americans, Hispanics and Muslims, who
could tip the balance in key battleground states.
Some of these political
developments could start as early as next years elections, while others
might be more long-range possibilities. Still, the political history of the
past century can shed light on todays Southern political trends and some of
the ugly forces behind them.
The emergence of the
solid Democratic South followed the end of Reconstruction when Republicans
used the post-Civil War period to help African-Americans emerge from slavery
and secure their political rights. When white Southerners reclaimed
political control in the late 1800s, often with the aid of terrorist
organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan and the lynching of black activists,
the region gave its political allegiance to the Democratic Party.
In effect, the
Republican Party was punished for its post-Civil War efforts to achieve
equality for African-Americans, a situation that would flip in the middle of
the 20th Century when the Democrats pushed for civil rights and
the Republicans reaped the political benefits of a white backlash.
The solid South,
however, didnt do much to win national elections for the Democrats a
century ago. The Republicans, with a strong base in Northern industrial
states and the Midwest farm states, prevailed in presidential election after
election, winning four straight from 1896 to 1908 while losing every
Southern state, with the exception of Kentucky in 1896.
Across the South, the
Democratic majorities often resembled vote tallies in a one-party
dictatorship. In Mississippi, for instance, Democrats won nine out of 10
votes in each of those four elections. In 1904, Democrat Alton Parker
carried South Carolina with more than 95 percent of the vote. Yet,
Republicans won the national elections in landslides.
Not until the Great
Depression and Democrat Franklin Roosevelts success in cracking the
Republican dominance in parts of the North and Midwest did the Democrats
develop a national strategy for victory. Roosevelts New Deal also benefited
the South with social and economic programs, including rural electrification
that brought lights to many Southern communities for the first time. In
1936, Roosevelt carried Mississippi with 97 percent of the vote.
The solid South held
into the early 1960s when even a Catholic from Massachusetts, John F.
Kennedy, could amass overwhelming margins in Southern states. As Sen. Miller
notes in his books, Kennedy won a greater percentage of the vote in Georgia
in 1960 than he won in Massachusetts.
But white reaction to
the black civil rights movement was soon to change all that. The Democratic
hold on the South was shaken first by a rebellion of Democratic
segregationists, such as Strom Thurmond and George Wallace, who promoted
The 1964 election was a
turning point. Young civil activists descended on Mississippi to help
register black voters in what was called Mississippi Summer. Three civil
rights workers Michael Schwerner, 24; Andrew Goodman, 20; and James
Chaney, 22 were murdered near Philadelphia, Miss, that June.
the next several months, under orders from President Lyndon Johnson, the FBI
engaged in an intensive investigation of the missing civil rights workers
dramatized in the 1988 movie Mississippi Burning. During this time,
President Johnson signed the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. Many Southern whites
grew outraged, feeling that their
traditions of racial segregation were not being fairly presented by the
national news media.
In November 1964,
whites lined up en masse in five Southern states South Carolina, Georgia,
Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana to vote for Republican Barry
Goldwater, the conservative who opposed the Voting Rights Act. Goldwater won
these southern states by 18, 8, 39, 74, and 14 points respectively, hitting
a high water mark in Mississippi with 87 percent of the vote, even as
President Lyndon Baines Johnson won in a national landslide.
Still, the opportunity
for a political realignment was not lost on savvy Republicans, such as
Richard Nixon, who soon adopted his Southern Strategy. The key to the
strategy was to use code words, such as "law and order" or "strict
constructionism," that sounded sufficiently neutral on race while sending
signals to Southern whites that Republicans shared their concerns.
Besides using these
racial and cultural wedge issues, Republicans sought to more generally
demonize liberals as tax and spenders determined to redistribute wealth to
blacks and other groups in lower-income brackets. Republicans were making it
clear that Southern whites were welcome in the Republican Party, though many
of these same political signals resonated with Northern whites as well.
Ronald Reagan perhaps
best personified the Republican "Southern Strategy" by wrapping what could
be viewed as offensive gestures in a personable aw' shucks style. Reagan
kicked off his 1980 post-convention presidential campaign with a rally near
Philadelphia, Miss., the site where Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney were
murdered. Reagan also peppered his speeches with appeals to states' rights
and attacks on welfare queens using food stamps to buy vodka that left his
listeners with a clear picture of what he was saying.
Broadening these subtle
references to race, conservatives retooled their message to appeal to young
white men by targeting so-called political correctness, the sometimes
clumsy attempts by universities to discourage racial and other epithets in
public discourse. Many young men, particularly whites, felt that these
pressures inhibited their freedom of expression and made them victims of
The Clinton Wars
By the 1990s, the
long-simmering white hostilities over race were merging with the moral
certainties of Christian fundamentalism. The mixing of these two elements
bubbled over in the animosity many conservatives directed toward Bill
Clinton, an Arkansas Democrat who had opposed segregation in his youth and
backed gay rights at a time when that movement remained outside the American
mainstream. In short, he was viewed by his enemies as a prototypical 1960s
Even at the distance of
only a decade, it is hard to remember how venomous the attacks on Clinton
election in 1992, some of Clintons long-time political enemies in Arkansas,
including former segregationists, collaborated with national Republicans to
promote scurrilous stories about the personal lives of Clinton and his wife.
Christian fundamentalist ministers, such as Jerry Falwell, spread some of
the wildest allegations accusing Clinton of drug trafficking and murder.
One of the devices
employed by Republican operatives was the distribution of a list of
mysterious deaths that suggested, without evidence, that Clinton was
responsible for a string of murders in Arkansas, Clinton's home state that
was depicted in national publications as a kind of brutal Third World
country. Some of these bizarre allegations were pursued aggressively and
fruitlessly by federal special prosecutors appointed by a
Republican-dominated three-judge panel led by Judge David Sentelle, a
protégé of conservative Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C.
The anti-Clinton fury
reached its peak with the Republican-led impeachment of the president over
his embarrassing attempts to conceal a sexual relationship with Monica
Lewinsky. Though the impeachment was rejected by the U.S. Senate, the
Republicans successfully used the political assault on Clinton to
consolidate their standing with Christian fundamentalists, especially in the
By Election 2000, the
South was solidly Republican, allowing George W. Bush to sweep the region
against Vice President Al Gore. Bush even won Gore's home state of
Tennessee. Republicans further consolidated their control in the South in
the 2002 congressional elections and appear poised to sweep the region from
Virginia to Texas again in 2004.
Though Republicans deny
that their political strategy relies on coded messages to bigots, the party
has entrenched its political power in the South by defending the display of
the Confederate flag on public grounds or keeping it as part of state flags.
The Confederate flag issue is credited for defeating incumbent Democratic
governors in South Carolina, Georgia, and Mississippi where Democratic
governors tried to address the prominent use of the Confederate flag on
Mississippi Republican Gubernatorial candidate Haley Barbour even used
images of the Confederate flag on his campaign material. Barbour was also
featured on the Website of the Council of Conservative Citizens, a group
that preaches the superiority of the white race.
Right-wing Christian fundamentalists also have flocked to the Republican
banner because of its appeals to "traditional family values," which are seen
as a signal that Republicans are opposed to the so-called homosexual
The current issue
stirring up passions on right-wing talk radio is gay marriage and other
violations of what talk-radio hosts call the Biblical world view. The
Democratic Party, with its support for gay civil rights, has effectively
become the party of Satan to some fundamentalists.
George W. Bush has been
particularly effective in playing to the fundamentalist vote by salting his
speeches with religious wording. He frequently cites the role of "the
Almighty" in justifying his government policies, including the war in Iraq.
religious views remain something of a mystery. He lists himself as a
Methodist but unlike Clinton and other many other presidents, Bush rarely
attends public church services. Still, he has convinced many Christian
fundamentalists that he is one of them, particularly with his use of
religious language and his staunch support of Israels right-wing Likud
In September 2003, GQ
published perhaps the fullest account of Bush's religious journey, entitled
"George W.'s Personal Jesus" by Guy Lawson. The story is a largely
sympathetic rendition of Bush's transformation from a hard-partying oilman
to a Christian evangelical who gave up drinking after his 40th
Yet, the article notes
how Bush and his advisers have taken pains to shield Bush's religious views
from any serious analysis. Whether intended or not, that secrecy has the
additional benefit of conveying a subliminal message to Christian
fundamentalists who have become more convinced that Bush must be one of them
because they, too, feel that their "Biblical world view" is under siege from
secular society and can't be discussed too openly.
Though Bush has proved
a master of appealing to Christian evangelicals through subtle messages,
Lawson's article includes an interview with one of President George H.W.
Bush's political advisers that raises doubt about the younger Bush's
sincerity in using religion for political ends.
According to the GQ
article, Doug Wead, a political adviser to the senior Bush in 1987, had
written a series of memos on how to communicate with evangelical Christians.
Wead's motto was "signal early and signal often," meaning that references to
God in speeches and contacts with celebrity evangelicals sent a message to
this important political group that would pass over the heads of
"George would read my
memos, and he would be licking his lips saying, 'I can use this to win in
Texas,'" Wead said.
Since then, George W.
Bush also has demonstrated that he can use Wead's strategies to win by
attracting evangelicals throughout the South and across the country.
commentators, such as the New York Times' Kristof, have faulted the
Democrats for failing to counter this trend, although many leading
Democrats, from Jimmy Carter to Al Gore, were active Christians who
frequently incorporated Biblical stories and quotations in their speeches.
It's also unclear how the Democrats could both defend the civil rights of
gays and not offend the Christian fundamentalists who want strict laws to
punish homosexual behavior.
mainstream critics like Kristof flip the issue around to allege that it is
the liberals who are to blame for dissing the fundamentalists.
In his Nov. 12 column,
entitled Hold the Vitriol, Kristof castigated liberals for supposedly
lacking political civility and unnecessarily offending evangelicals by
ridiculing Bushs religious beliefs. Since Americans are three times as
likely to believe in the virgin birth of Jesus as in evolution, liberal
derision for President Bushs religious beliefs risks marginalizing the
left, Kristof wrote.
In making this charge,
Kristof offers no example of liberals deriding Bushs religious beliefs,
though one might expect that a column decrying political "vitriol" might
want to muster some evidence before accusing any group of something as
serious as religious bigotry. But mainstream columnists have long understood
that despised libruls are America's safest whipping boys and that by
applying a few lashes themselves mainstream columnists can earn a little
protection from having themselves tied to that whipping post.
While it's possible
that someone on the Internet may have derided Bush's religion, the only
public criticism that liberals have expressed regarding Bush and religion is
toward the notion voiced by some fundamentalists that God put Bush in the
White House, apparently through a divine hand in the chaotic Florida voting
or in the U.S. Supreme Courts intervention to stop the counting of votes
that could have given the election to Al Gore.
But Kristof cannot
seriously mean that Americans objecting to the strange notion that God would
help rig their presidential elections constitutes "derision" for Bush's
The South, for its
part, now seems caught in a murky political transition without a clear
direction. Only a short time ago, much of the region appeared to be moving
dramatically forward accepting integration, supporting educational
opportunities for all children, recognizing a legitimate role for the
federal government in promoting economic progress, and guaranteeing
constitutional rights for all.
Yet, while the region
has seen great progress in the last half century, the South continues to be
ambivalent about its past. Slave-built antebellum mansions in graceful
Charleston, S.C., or Savannah, Ga., remain a point of regional pride, with
few acknowledgements of the injustice that went into their construction.
Confederate Flags are
displayed in shop windows. Judge Roy Moore's Ten Commandment statue is
cheered by many Southerners in defiance of the principle of separation of
church and state. At Bob Jones University and among leaders of the Christian
Right, many of the old prejudices die hard and may simply be seeking new
paths to a restoration of power.
The South sometimes
appears to be moving in two opposite directions at once. On one hand,
Southerners want to embrace the economic opportunities of the 21st
Century and play a larger role in national and international affairs. On the
other, many Southerners are determined to hold fast to their regional
heritage, even if it means rejecting the prevailing trends toward greater
tolerance of diversity, which is becoming a hallmark in many parts of the
United States and in much of the modern world.
In the short term,
however, the political realities of the South present the Democrats with
some tough choices. The national party must decide how and even whether
to mount a serious presidential campaign in the South. Beyond Bush's huge
advantage in campaign donations, with his war chest bursting with an
expected $200 million, the Democrats face difficulties in framing their
policies for white Southern voters who still dominate the politics of the
say that for the party to compete in the South, it must abandon or finesse
important issues, such as civil rights, labor protections, the environment
and an emphasis on multilateral cooperation in foreign policy. Some
strategists say the Democrats must make these concessions because if they
lose the South's 168 electoral votes in 2004, they will have to sweep just
about every other swing state to pile up the 270 electoral votes needed to
But trimming the
party's sails in the South can create problems elsewhere by demoralizing the
Democratic base or encouraging another third-party challenge from the Left.
Also, a political party that acts ashamed of its agenda sends a message of
uncertainty and doubt that is picked up by less-ideological Americans who
are looking more for leadership than policy prescriptions.
A Reverse Southern
political strategy could be simply for the party's presidential nominee to
seek the 270 electoral votes elsewhere, much as the Republicans successfully
did a century ago. Let Bush roll up the Deep South while the Democrat
concentrates on winning the Northeast, Midwest and Pacific coast.
The reason this is
possible is that while the press has written endlessly about the Democrats'
decline in the South, an equally seismic shift in voting patterns has been
occurring in other parts of the country.
In 2000, for instance,
Al Gore lost all 13 Southern states (Virginia, North Carolina, South
Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma,
Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky and Florida sort of). Gores performance in
most of these states was not just poor, it was abysmal. He lost Alabama and
Kentucky by 15 points, South Carolina by 16, Mississippi by 17, and Texas
and Oklahoma by 22.
And yet, in spite of
this Southern sweep, Gore won a national plurality over Bush by more than
500,000 votes and came close in a number of non-Southern states that could
have put him in the White House. Bush won New Hampshire by only about 7,000
votes and eked by in Ohio, Nevada and Missouri with margins of less than 3.5
percent. Also, in West Virginia, had Gore simply matched Michael Dukakiss
1988 vote total, he would have won there, too.
Similarly, in 1992 and
1996, Bill Clinton won five southern states both times. But, in both
elections, Clinton would have won the presidency anyway with more than 320
electoral votes even without carrying those southern states. The political
question, therefore, is not just whether Democrats are politically relevant
in the South, but whether the South is politically relevant for the
If demographic trends
hold and Democrats are able to maintain support among white progressives,
Latinos, African-Americans, and suburban soccer moms, they could lock down
the Northeast, Midwest and Pacific states, much as the Republicans have come
to dominate the South. Beyond 2004, these same trends could eventually
unlock states in the West and Southwest that now lean Republican.
Conceivably, Texas, with its growing Latino population, could be one.
In the meantime, if
Democrats can simply add Ohio, Missouri or some combination of smaller swing
states to their 2000 electoral victories, Bush would lose next year.
Of course, no national
Democrat is advocating abandoning the South. In fact, Democrats are almost
certain to wage serious campaigns in Florida, Arkansas, Louisiana, North
Carolina, and perhaps Virginia and Tennessee. The point is,
however, that Democrats dont need any of these states to win and thus may
not feel compelled to water down their national message to compete there.
The flip side of this
coin, however, is that once Republicans are confident that they can pocket
the South's electoral votes, they will have the advantage of concentrating
their political resources in swing regions like the Midwest and the
The larger tragedy for
the South, however, is that it is still a region in need of significant
economic and government investment. Of the 10 states with the highest level
of poverty, seven are in the South. Likewise, seven out of the 12 states
with per capita incomes below $26,000 are in the South.
When it comes to
education, there are only five states where less than 80 percent of the
adult population has attained a high school diploma and four are in the
South (Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas). The fifth state is the
border-state of West Virginia.
While Democrats have
traditionally favored aiding regions that lag behind the rest of the nation,
Republicans have advocated trusting the marketplace, which in reality means
giving corporations largely free rein to conduct their operations with
minimal government interference. Plus, by running up enormous federal budget
deficits, the Bush administration has put the
nation on a course that will limit what government can do for the poor in
America and for states in need.
These historic deficits coming at a time when the Baby-boomers are about to
retire will effectively handcuff the federal government, which some
Republicans say was a sub-rosa part of the plan all along. Also by cutting
taxes in a way that disproportionately helps the wealthy, the Republicans
are benefiting residents of high-wage states, such as Connecticut or New
Jersey, over low-wage states, such as Mississippi and Alabama.
commentators may feel more comfortable blaming Democrats for "losing" the
South, the fault could more fairly be spread around. It would include the
Republican leadership that has built its political base in the South through
more than a quarter century of a cynical "Southern Strategy" that exploited
the painful Southern legacy of racial discrimination.
The fault also could be
shared by Southern whites who long have found reasons whether cultural or
religious to discriminate against vulnerable members of society. For many
years, African-Americans were the chief targets of this bigotry. Today, much
of the conservative outrage is directed at gays.
In both cases, the
perpetrators of this discrimination have somehow managed to twist the
reality to make themselves the "real" victims, either because liberal
outsiders were destroying the Southern way of life on race or because
liberals were pushing a "homosexual agenda" in defiance of "the Biblical
As long as many white
Southerners hold to the righteousness of their discrimination against
others, there is only so much the Democratic Party can do or should do
to win back the South.