Democrats need new Southern strategy

By Andrew Hammond

Republicans won two gubernatorial seats in the South this week. Haley Barbour, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee and a Washington insider, beat the incumbent Democrat Ronnie Musgrove in Mississippi, and Kentucky will have a GOP governor, Ernie Flecther, for the first time in more than 30 years. These two defeats for the Democrats are emblematic of their troubles in Dixie.

The South’s political landscape has changed dramatically since the civil rights era. First, the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965 told the South what it should have already known—the modern Democratic Party was to be the party of inclusion and government action. When President Johnson signed the legislation into law, he remarked to an aide that he had just delivered the South to the GOP for years to come.

He could not have been more prophetic. This paradigm shift in voting was a necessary consequence of doing what was good and just at the time, but for every black vote the Democrats gained, two white voters left the party.

Nevertheless, the ramifications of their work for civil rights should not be a primary concern of Democrats. However, two major demographic changes in the South should.

First, in the past 20 years, Northern professionals seeking lower taxes and warmer climates have migrated in droves to the South for retirement. This demographic votes often and usually votes Republican.

Second, the past two decades have seen a marriage of religion and politics in the South. For the vast part of the 20th century, Southern Baptists voted for Democrats but believed in the separation of church and state and, consequently, stayed away from the political arena.

Today, Christian fundamentalists have become a politically dynamic coalition for the conservative forces. Republicans have capitalized on this change by convincing the South that they are the party of honesty, integrity, and the family—in effect, the moral party.

Thus in the South, a new political leviathan has been born with the head of Karl Rove and the soul of Pat Robertson. The Religious Right in the south is now efficient as a political weapon and dogmatic in its ideology. Unfortunately, the Democrats have no comparable ally.

However, the Republicans are vulnerable in the South, especially in 2004. Like many Americans, Southerners cannot understand why Bush is spending $87 billion for building roads and schools in Iraq but refusing to do the same in his own country.

Moreover, Bush’s recession hit the manufacturing sector hard. The working class of America saw its jobs leave the states for cheaper wage markets like Mexico and later, China. As a result, manufacturing jobs in the South, especially in the textile states, have vanished, and their regional markets have collapsed. Many Southerners are out of work, and many of them blame Bush.

Then why are the Democrats still doing so poorly in the South? The answer is simple: the strategy proposed by the New South Democrats doesn’t work. The New South Democrats, inspired by the Democratic Leadership Council and led by pundits like Bob Graham and John Edwards, think that by moving to the right they can steal votes from the GOP while regurgitating tired promises of new jobs, better schools, and fiscal responsibility.

However, becoming more conservative will not help the Democrats in the South. If voters want a Republican, they’ll vote for a Republican, not a Democrat who claims to be conservative. Not only do Democrats lose the “who can be more conservative” game, but by doing so they neglect the electoral base of their party, particularly blacks.

Afraid of offending white voters, Democratic candidates do not make a concerted effort to court the black vote nor do they adopt campaign promises that are geared specifically to blacks. For the incumbent governor in South Carolina, Jim Hodges, a good turnout from blacks would have won him re-election in 2002. Instead, Hodges ran a defensive campaign, portraying himself as a conservative Democrat.

By ignoring blacks and the rest of their partisan support, the Democrats never galvanize their base for the election, and as a result their campaigns suffer from a lack of grassroots enthusiasm that has conversely become the rule for all Republican campaigns.

These trends could be devastating in the upcoming presidential campaign. No Democrat has won the White House without carrying at least one state from the former Confederacy, and this time, the South will have a combined 153 electoral votes. The Democrats must work tirelessly to win economically downtrodden states such as West Virginia and Arkansas, as well as the ever-elusive Florida. If they do not, they will not win the White House.

Sadly, what’s happening to the Democrats in the South is indicative of what’s happening to them nationally: by moving to the right, Democrats think that they will win elections, but in fact they are forgetting who they really are. The Democrats are denying their true nature as the people who believe that government can be an instrument of good and that government has a responsibility to all its citizens, especially the dispossessed. The Democrats are in effect sacrificing what makes them Democrats, and that is a sacrifice that we as a nation cannot bear.