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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Answering Armando

I got a few emails about my last post on Southern Democrats, which also received an extensive discussion by Armando on the Daily Kos site. Since Armando raises some of the same points–along with several others–as the emails, and because this is the first non-abusive mention I think I’ve ever gotten from someone posting on Daily Kos, I’ll go through his questions (paraphrasing them to save space) one by one and try to address them.
Q– Even if there is a cyclical nature to modern southern politics, isn’t the long-term trend pretty clearly towards the GOP?

A–Yep, not much doubt about it. The questions I was trying to address were whether (a) the trend is linear and absolutely irreversable, which I don’t think it is, (b) there are lessons in the previous Democratic comebacks that might be relevant today, which I think there are (mainly the possibility and necessity of building new biracial coalitions), and (c) Democrats can hope to at least become competitive, if not dominant, once again, which I think they can, maybe not in every southern state but certainly in some. I tried to set a pretty low threshold in this piece, basically urging national Democrats not to write off the region and local Democrats not to despair. And that answers another implicit Armando question which I didn’t raise: no, I’m not arguing for the Party to obsess about the South or put all their chips on the South or even “target” the South, as a region at least. I’m just saying don’t write it off without thinking about it and really looking at the record.
Q–Does your passage on Carter imply that evangelical Christians are swing voters, and hey, aren’t you ignoring Watergate as a factor in 1976?

A–Without getting into an obscure discussion of varying definitions of evangelical Christians, I certainly am not suggesting that the kind of proto-Christian Right voters who were, as a matter of historical fact, often attracted to Jimmy Carter can be won back by Democrats. And more generally, I hope neither Armando nor anybody else thinks I’m saying Democrats can reduplicate the particular alliances they forged in the past. The point is that they did keep coming up with new alliances in response to the Republican surge, and perhaps, as the three contemporary governors I talke about have shown, they can do it again.
As for Watergate: yes, this was crucial to Carter’s national victory in 1976, but he would have carried much of the South anyway. Look at the margins.
Q–What the hell is a “centrist African-American” candidate?
A–Okay, Armando, you caught me in the bad habit of ideological shorthand, which I generally try to avoid. Maybe the better way to describe the kind of candidates I’m talking about is to say they have an agenda and message that’s squarely within the Democratic mainstream in their state, with some demonstrated ability to appeal beyond racial and partisan boundaries. The African-American politicians I mentioned fit that definition (Georgia’s Thurmond and Baker have repeatedly won statewide); so, too, perhaps do others, like Harold Ford of Tennesee or Artur Davis of Alabama. The big point here is simply that Democrats cannot expect African-American voters, who represent as much as a third of the electorate and a majority of Democratic voters in many southern states, to perpetually vote for white Democratic candidates unless white voters show some willingness to cross the racial line themselves.
Q–Why, specifically, did Republicans overcome the “Wave II” Democratic response and start winning overwhelmingly in suburbs again?

There are two answers I’d offer here, recognizing that the picture is very complicated and varies state to state. The first is that southern Democrats often failed to offer a suburban-friendly agenda that went beyond better public education (an echo of the national Democratic problem in the suburbs). The second is that the composition of southern suburbs (at least in the high-growth states) really changed a lot in the late 90s and early 00s. Putting aside all the David-Brooks-Style exaggerations about sunbelt exurbs, it’s generally true that new suburbs, especially in the South, tend to be very conservative places loaded with young, middle-income families fresh from rural communities or alienated by urban centers or older suburbs. The good news is that as suburbs age, they tend to move politically away from rabid conservatism, often because the Republicans they vote for tend to let them down. And that brings me to perhaps the most important Armando question:
Q–What are the Republican divisions that Southern Democrats should try to exploit?
A–In Virginia and Tennessee, Republicans split over tax and budget issues, with educational finance being an important background issue. In Alabama, there’s an impending split over cultural issues between the hard right and the crazy right, with the infamous Ten Commandments Judge Roy Moore likely to challenge incumbent Republican Governor Bob Riley in the ’06 primary. At the local level, all over the South, there are deep tensions between suburbanites committed to public education and home-schoolers and private-schoolers committed to their destruction. And if history is any guide, there will soon be deep divisions in rapidly developing sunbelt suburbs between Republicans worried about uncontrolled growth and those addicted to developers’ campaign contributions.
The general point is this: the upside of Republican gains is that they have to actually govern, and (a) they aren’t very good at it, (b) they have to make choices that will alienate voters, and (c) you cannot run a city, county or state on the kind of cultural wedge-issues that Republicans use to win in the first place.
Q–What should Democrats do in the South about abortion? Or about creationism?
A–While there may be exceptions in states like Louisiana and the border-state Missouri where there are extraordinarily high concentrations of both fundamentalists and Catholics, I don’t believe there is a popular majority in any southern state for overturning basic abortion rights. But there are almost certainly big majorities supporting the contrived agenda of anti-abortion incrementalism: bans on “partial-birth” abortion, parental notification, restrictions on sex education in public schools, etc., etc. But in most cases, this stuff has majority support all over the country. So the smart pro-choice, not to mention Democratic, position in the South isn’t that different from what we should be doing nationally: relentlessly, endlessly, redundantly focusing on the basic right to choose, and refusing wherever possible to be drawn into fights that label 70% of voters “pro-life” when they aren’t in any meaningful sense.
As for “scientific creationism,” or “intelligent design,” I could personally care less if a biology teacher has to spend five minutes a year acknowledging that there is a tiny minority of “scientists” who reject evolution, so long as they are required to equally acknowledge that hundreds of millions of religious people don’t have a single problem with Darwin. Fight fire with fire. That’s also how I feel about the Ten Commandments brouhaha: I’ve long advised Southern Democrats to say, “We don’t just want to post the Ten Commandments; we want to practice them, so let’s talk about honorning our fathers and mothers with a decent retirement.”
Okay, I’ve clearly gone beyond answering Armando, and have ascended the pulpit for a tangentially related sermon, but I hope this post continues a debate about the fate of Southern Democrats in a constructive way. Lord knows there’s enough fact-free stereotyping going on with respect to this subject to make me crave a real discussion like I crave grits for breakfast.

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