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Do Democrats Need the South?
By Sam Parry
December 1, 2003

Political pundits and even some Democrats are taking the national Democratic Party to task for “losing” the South, a trend that’s viewed as a key reason why the Republicans and George W. Bush are today’s odds-on favorites to hold and expand their power in next year’s 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 trails 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 don’t 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.

'Biblical World View'

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 America’s multicultural trends and demanding a “Biblical world view” in a country founded on the separation of church and state could restore the South’s 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 Nixon’s “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 year’s elections, while others might be more long-range possibilities. Still, the political history of the past century can shed light on today’s 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.

Solid South

The solid South, however, didn’t 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 Roosevelt’s success in cracking the Republican dominance in parts of the North and Midwest did the Democrats develop a national strategy for victory. Roosevelt’s 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 "states' rights."

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.

For 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.

'Southern Strategy'

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 liberal repression.

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 liberal.

Even at the distance of only a decade, it is hard to remember how venomous the attacks on Clinton were.

After Clinton’s election in 1992, some of Clinton’s 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 South.

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 state property.

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 agenda.”

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.

Bush's Gambit

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.

Bush’s personal 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 Israel’s right-wing Likud leadership.

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 birthday.

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 non-evangelicals.

"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.

Democrats Blamed

Some political 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.

Sometimes, even 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 Bush’s religious beliefs. “Since Americans are three times as likely to believe in the virgin birth of Jesus as in evolution, liberal derision for President Bush’s religious beliefs risks marginalizing the left,” Kristof wrote.

In making this charge, Kristof offers no example of liberals deriding Bush’s 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 Court’s 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 religious beliefs.

Southern Trends

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 region.

Democratic strategists 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 win.

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 Strategy

Another Democratic 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). Gore’s 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 Dukakis’s 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 Democrats.

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 don’t 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 Southwest.

Economic Need

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.

Though political 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 world view."

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.

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