By Thomas Schaller
If only I were either rich enough or, absent wealth, disarmingly persuasive enough to have been able to enlist Ezra, Paul or Scott (or all three) to serve as ghostwriters for Whistling Past Dixie. Putting aside their areas of (mostly) agreement and their insightful points of disagreement with my original essay on the demographics of the non-southern strategy, what’s apparent is that they often ratify or refute my arguments with far better prose than my own.
Despite those areas of agreement, there’s quite a bit in each of their replies that deserves a response, and I shall proceed as follows: I will take each critic’s central counterpoint, respond to it directly in defense of my main thesis, but then use that critique as an opportunity to make a limited case against my own claims. I’ll take them in order, starting with Ezra and finishing with Scott.
1. The annoyingly-wise-beyond-his-years Ezra Klein is right that economics may prove to be a more precise barometer than non-economic measures of demography, but that observation only affirms southern exceptionalism. For if, as we saw in 2006–a year in which every minimum-wage ballot measure passed and all three of Grover Norquist’s “starve the beast” measures failed–economics is indeed what matters most, surely the poorest region of the country would have produced the most resounding surge for Democrats, right? Yet the reverse is true: The Democrats carried the richest region, the Northeast, by 28 points; the West by 11 points; and the Midwest by five points; and lost the poorest region, the South, by 8 points. And 85 percent of all Democratic gains at every level came outside the South, home to none of the 10 state legislative chambers the Democrats flipped.
Why the, um, “poor” showing for Democrats in the South? It was not for lack of support among poor and working-class African Americans, that’s for damn sure. Rather, the losses were a byproduct of general Democratic disdain among poor whites. The lesson of ’06 is that economics is destiny until the point that non-economic demographics intercede, namely, in the form of cultural and religious values and, unfortunately, the unseemly “value” of racial animosity. The latter is hardly unique to South, and not all southerners harbor such feelings. But as ample studies of National Election Survey data I discuss in detail in the book demonstrate, these sentiments are most prevalent and most powerful in the South.
Schaller contra Schaller: When traveling in South Carolina as I researched this book, a state political observer whose name I must protect stopped me in the middle of a discussion about Republican Governor Mark Sanford’s support for school choice and said: “Well, of course he supports it–it’s basically the last legal form of racial redistribution.” And by redistribution, he meant away from African Americans. That observation, coupled with the pre-civil rights era support for economic populism among white southerners means that the best way to recapture the support of working-class and poorer whites is to frame government programs as helping the region’s whites rather than the poor. If the effect of those programs is (incidentally or intentionally) to also help blacks, so be it. But if sold that way, they will be harder to use as a way to pry blue-collar southern whites away from the Republicans. That conclusion may smack of affirming the assumption that southern whites harbor significant racial antipathies, but again, the empirics make this assumption inarguable.
So, short of a massive campaign to re-socialize the white South with some sort of on-the-couch-with-Oprah regional diversity seminar–sidebar: would the James Carvilles, Steve Jardings and Ed Kilgores endorse such an idea?–the best way to lure back working-class white southerners is to find ways to de-racialize social and economic programs. That’s a tough nut to crack, and one I’ll leave to those very same consultants to solve; after all, they’re the experts who know these voters best, care about them most, and best speak their language. I’m all ears, fellas.
2. I’ll accept Paul Waldman’s media-oriented bouquet of a critique as an invitation to tackle, head-on, the resistance among talking heads to dealing with my thesis. Even before the 2006 election results were known, Paul correctly pronounced me a convenient target. Though Rick Perlstein of The New Republic has done a nice job of defending me, nobody would call me a shrinking violet. So let me push back against the one media critique I find most suspect and most dangerous: The Cherry Pick.
There have been a variety of pieces written since the election–most notably by Kilgore and The Nation’s Bob Moser–in which writers presume the entitlement to self-select results and loosen borders as a way to arrive at what I assume were pre-ordained conclusions. I define the South as the 11 former Confederate states, as most scholars in my field do. I’d certainly engage discussions about whether Kentucky or Oklahoma ought to be added to that list, so long as I’m allowed to exempt Florida–the least southern of the southern states precisely because it has so few native southerners or southern descendents. But critics be warned: Removing Florida from the equation means that the other 10 Confederate states plus KY and OK cast a smaller share of electoral votes today than a century ago. I’ll accept that border redefinition, if they want it.
More disconcerting is the use of exceptional cases (like Heath Shuler’s) to paint a misleading national portrait. Why Kilgore and Moser–both of whom I’ve engaged by email, and respect–are knowingly avoiding the overall trends and results is baffling and rather revealing. Those results include not only the 85 percent non-southern gains and exit poll results I mention above. The “flip rates” in the U.S. House in 2006 were as follows: Democrats defeated or replaced 31% of retiring Republican House incumbents in the Northeast; 15% in the Midwest; 9% in the West; and just 6% in the South. And, for the first time in 52 years, the party holding the minority of House and Senate seats, the Democrats, is nevertheless the majority party nationally–a truly stunning regional development. Waldman might contend that many in the media have chosen to ignore these developments because they are, by reflex, reluctant to point out anything that might discomfort southerners, and I’d agree. So I’ll ask rhetorically: Have we really reached a point in our national discourse where the reporting of basic facts must be made secondary to somehow offending certain groups of voter-citizens, no less national commentators? I hope not.
Schaller quiets Schaller: More than a few Democrats, including some liberal Democrats, have essentially said to me, privately, “OK, Tom, you’re more or less correct, but would you mind shutting up now?” As a social scientist and political analyst, my reflex is to refuse. As a liberal Democrat who very much wants to win and maintain power, my opposing reflex is keep quiet so that the party can claim “the center” and project an inclusive, 50-state approach. (By the way, I’m on record, both in the book and since the election, as a supporter of Howard Dean’s approach.)
So, I’ll offer to Democrats what we might call the “Nike Compromise”: If they agree privately to build a non-southern majority before turning to the South–to just “do it” without announcing it–I’ll agree to muzzle myself about the data and the analytical cherry-picking. I want to sell books and, like anyone else, I want to be proved right. But I’ll trade book sales and self-satisfaction for the broader goal of an enduring Democratic majority.
3. As for the request by Scott Winship–to whom I’m grateful for both organizing this roundtable and participating in it–that I embrace the moderates outside the South and not give up completely on the South, his is an easy request to fulfill.
The entire book is built around the premise that most of the non-southern states are simply easier or closer to being swung to blue because the swing voters there are either more amenable to Democratic messages and messengers, and/or in greater supply. The fourth through seventh chapters of Whistling lay out the where, who, why and how of building the non-southern majority. The essay that started this Roundtable was a distillation of the book’s fifth chapter–the “who” Democrats can assemble in those non-southern states in order to build a majority. Backing up one chapter, the “where” is what I call the 20 pan-western states of the “Democratic Diamond” formed by connecting Cleveland to Helena to Las Vegas to Tucson, and back to Cleveland. The underlying premise, again, is that these 20 midwestern and interior western states are easier to flip right now. It’s clear, especially from recent presidential results, that most of the competitive states are in fact in the Midwest and Southwest.
On this point, Scott might interject–“Yes, Tom, because the moderates in these purple states are less wedded to either party.” I do not have state-by-state data to prove that self-described moderates in these states are more or less firm in their partisan commitments, or are larger or smaller as a share of their respective state electorates. Unlike the founders of this site, I think that focusing too much on self-descriptive labels can be very misleading. If we discovered that 10 percent of voters were self-described “hot fudge sundaes,” and that they went 70% for Bill Clinton in 1996, but only 55% for John Kerry in 2004, would that result have any meaning without first asking who, demographically, these people are, and second, what their ideological dispositions and policy preferences are? Labels are not entirely semantic, but one man’s idea of “moderate” is another’s idea of “liberal” or “conservative.” This is why the Galston-Kamarck analyses are misleading, if not borderline irrelevant–all they prove is that a lot of people who think, act and have preferences similar to “liberals” prefer instead to call themselves “moderates,” as Roundtable participants Waldman and Klein have both shown.
Despite not having looked at self-described “moderates” for the book, my sense of it from having looked at the state registration data in some of these states, especially Interior West states like Arizona and Colorado where the share of registered independents (or “unaffiliateds”) is growing, is that a focus on moderates and independents will bring us back to a non-southern strategy. How do I arrive at this conclusion? Because early in the book’s opening chapter, I show that the region where both Ross Perot and Ralph Nader did worst was the South. And that’s because the South, for a century prior to the civil rights era, was a place where voters made firm commitments (to Democrats) and stuck to them and, since the Dixiecrat-to-Republican turbulence of the past two generations, has now become a place where voters have made firm commitments (to Republicans) and stick to them. Put aside race, gender, socioeconomic status, rural-urban-suburban factors, and unionization for a moment and just look at the regions based on their inclination to vote for third parties as a notional proxy for the existence of “moderates,” or “independents” or “swing voters” generally up for grabs, and what do we find? The South is the last place for Democrats to turn first.
Schaller moderates Schaller: As to Scott’s request about not giving up on the South in the longer term, I already make this point in the book, so that’s easy enough to satisfy. In the book and subsequent to its publication, I very clearly state that the South is not as monolithic as it was 30 years ago and won’t be as regionally distinct 30 years from now–but that I just don’t want to wait until 2040 for a southern-infused Democratic majority. But let me do Scott one better and make a limited case for not giving up on the South right now–realizing that my most harsh and unfair critics will seize upon only the graphs to follow in order to say I’m contradicting myself or diluting my argument.
A don’t-abandon-the-South-now argument centers, in my view, on two things. First, is an understanding of the region’s demographic heterogeneity, something almost every critic points to when countering my book. “The Research Triangle in NC is different,” they’ll say. “And what about Northern Virginia?” And so on. But notice that many of the more competitive areas are populated by high numbers of non-native southerners. If the southern defenders want to argue that the way to win the South is to bring in a bunch of northerners, fine, I’ll surrender right now because they would be conceding that native (white) southerners have gone Republican and aren’t coming back any time soon. But my larger point is that these very criticisms bring us right back to the issue of demography–and once you get there and pull back the lens, you realize that the demographic picture points generally to a non-southern strategy. Sorry, detractors: Demography matters.
The second argument has to do with non-transferable resources. Take, for example, recruitment. Finding a Heath Shuler is always a good idea because recruiting him does not detract from the efforts made to, say, find a Chris Murphy to win in Connecticut. Likewise, if there is somebody in western North Carolina who would be willing to write Shuler and only Shuler a check, that’s found money that is not, say, coming out of the DCCC’s coffers. So the rule here is simple: Any organically-raised resources–the recruitment of candidates; the training of those candidates; the local volunteers who are motivated to work on behalf of those candidates; contributors who are so enamored with those local candidates they are willing to write them checks they otherwise would spend non-politically–that can be harvested, should be because they in no way militate against winning elsewhere. But any non-local or national resources that are funneled to long-shot candidacies for the sake of “moral” victories, or to pacify angry southern Democrats, at the expense of winning in more competitive races must be avoided.
Dr. Thomas F. Schaller is associate professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), and a board member of the Democratic Strategist. A political columnist for the Washington Examiner, Schaller has published commentaries in The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, The Baltimore Sun, Salon.com, and The American Prospect, and is presently writing columns for The New York Times-Select Special “Midnight Madness” feature. Dr. Schaller has also appeared on ABC News, MSNBC, National Public Radio, and C-SPAN.
By Thomas Schaller