Losing The South

Jonah Goldberg excerpts from an article advocating that the Democrats abandon the South and concentrate their fortunes elsewhere. The article posits:

Schaller builds this conclusion on one of the most impressive papers in recent political science, “Old Times There Are Not Forgotten: Race and Partisan Realignment in the Contemporary South,” by Nicholas Valentino and David Sears. Running regressions on a massive data set of ideological opinions, Sears and Valentino demonstrate with precision that, for example, a white Southern man who calls himself a “conservative,” controlling for racial attitudes, is no less likely to chance a vote for a Democratic presidential candidate than a Northerner who calls himself a conservative. Likewise, a pro-life or hawkish Southern white man is no less likely—again controlling for racial attitudes—than a pro-life or hawkish Northerner to vote for the Democrat. But, on the other hand, when the relevant identifier is anti-black answers to survey questions (such as whether one agrees “If blacks would only try harder, they could be just as well off as whites,” or choosing whether blacks are “lazy” or “hardworking”), an untoward result jumps out: white Southerners are twice as likely than white Northerners to refuse to vote for the Democratic presidential candidate. Schaller’s writes: “Despite the best efforts of Republican spinmeisters … the partisan impact of racial attitudes in the South is stronger today than in the past.”

What’s more, if Republicans have succeeded by openly baiting a region of the country not really American (the latte-swilling Northeast), Schaller says, “The Democrats need their own ‘them,’ and the social conservatives who are the bedrock of Southern politics provide the most obvious and burdensome stone to hang around the Republicans’ neck.” Democrats should cite “Southern obstructionism as a continuing impediment to the investments and progress the country must make in the coming century.”

Not only is it bad political strategy, but it reflect a profound arrogance. I believe that Goldberg’s analysis is right on in explaining why that “screw the South” strategy is a political loser:

One quick reason why I think demonzing the South the way the GOP demonizes the coasts won’t work, particularly for the Democrats, is that the coasts aren’t merely regions of the country, they are bastions of the economic and media elite. An economically populist party would find it hard to attack poorer regions of the country in ways that didn’t sound simply snobbish. And, let’s face it, while anti-racism surely plays a significant part in Northeast and West Coast liberalism’s anti Southernism so does plain snobbery.

Furthermore, if one looks at successful Democratic politicians, many of them are Southerners. Bill Clinton comes to mind as the most successful Democratic politician since Kennedy. Jimmy Carter was a Southerner. So is John Edwards. And James Webb. The list could go on for some time. A party that refuses to be a national party is not a party that can win in a system with an Electoral College. Accusing an entire region of the country of being a bunch of whitebread bigots is not a way to build a successful political movement.

It’s another example of the latent fault lines in the Democratic Party these days. As Goldberg points out, you can’t be an economic populist like John Edwards while calling the poor people you’re trying to save as a bunch of racist boors who are too stupid to know their betters. At the same time, the liberal coastal elites are terminally out of touch with Middle America. (Note how well John Kerry does in popularity polls – you don’t get more Boston Brahmin than Senator Kerry.)

The Democrats are in control of Congress right now because the Repubicans screwed up their leadership, but the Democrats won thanks to managing to eke by candidates in conservative districts. If the Democrats go far left and embrace the regional sectarianism that many would like to see them do, it will ensure that the Democrats lose power as quickly as they took it. The Democrats didn’t win in November, the Republicans lost. This election wasn’t as much an affirmation of the Democrats as it was a plebiscite on six years of poor leadership from the GOP. If the lesson the Democrats wish to draw from that is that they should abandon and insult an entire region of the country, they are welcome to do so, but it remains a spectacularly arrogant and foolish thing to do.

3 thoughts on “Losing The South

  1. I never thought I’d say this, but Jonah Goldberg IS RIGHT! Suggesting that now, when the Democratic Party has finally managed to discover some momentum, is the time that Dems can afford to write off nearly a third of the country is the height of arrogance and idiotic political strategy. Unfortunately, I’ve heard this sentiment expressed by a number of lefties who believe the Mountain West is the Dems’ new frontier that will enable them to forfeit the South without consequence. If anything, now should be the time that the Democrats ramp up their outreach in the South.

    With the Democrats now in charge of Congress, economic issues will rise in prominence on the national stage at the expense of cultural wedge issues, and the Democratic Party line is much closer to the Southern worldview than the Republicans on meat and potatoes issues, particularly Southern women. If Republicans choose to spend the next two years boisterously opposing raising the minimum wage and jubilantly supporting trade agreements that will export Southern manufacturing jobs to the Third World in disproportionate numbers, an increasing number of Southern voters will question their allegiance to the party.

    Furthermore, any of the three GOP frontrunners for the 2008 Presidential nomination will be met with revolting disgust by large swaths of Southern conservatives. You have the abortion flip-flopping Massachusetts Mormon, the illegal immigration-enabling Senator from Arizona who compares Jerry Falwell to Louis Farrakhan, and of course, the former New York City Mayor who supports gay marriage, strict gun control, and the legalization of a procedure where babies’ brains are vacuumed out seconds before delivery. Every a marginally credible Democratic nominee could walk all over these three stooges in the South.

    And while the South was the least productive region for Democrats in this year’s Congressional elections, significant inroads were nonetheless made since 2004. CAFTA-supporting Republican Robin Hayes eked out a win of less than 400 votes against a virtually invisible Democratic opponent in North Carolina textile country (or formerly, textile country anyway….now fenced-off abandoned factory country); Democrat Jim Webb upset a Republican Senator in Virginia who many considered a frontrunner for the 2008 Presidential nomination; and were it not for his shady familial ties, Tennessee would most likely have elected an African-American Democrat to the U.S. Senate. Anecdotal evidence like that should have the Dems poised to play offense, not to cut and run. I expect the majority of Dems recognize this, but they definitely need to block out the noise coming from the Schaller guy.

  2. I think what’s missing from this “analysis” is any evidence that Democrats have a strategy that includes “abandoning” the South.

    Howard Dean and the DNC made significant investments in party building in the South, and the strategy includes being active in all 50 states.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.