Why Democrats lost the South—and how they're winning it back.
“There is a party for Caesar, a party for Pompey, but no party for Rome.” -TOM WATSON, Georgia populist & Democratic senator
The tale of how Republicans “won” the South, and why Democrats gave it up, has been ironed out into a quintessentially American fable of good and evil and reduced to its satisfying essence for retelling every four years, when Democratic strategists and media pundits begin their ritual debate about whether, and how, Democrats should try to reclaim a slice of Dixie with a Southern strategy of their own.
The legend goes like this: The Democratic Party became the unity party of white Southerners-a political extension of the Confederate States of America-after the Civil War. (True enough.) From Appomattox through the civil rights movement, the national Democratic Party was really two parties, with an enlightened Northern wing and a Southern wing wallowing in the muck of benighted traditionalism. (The exaggerations begin.) The “good Democrats” of the North swallowed hard and accommodated their Dixie cousins for the very practical reason that without their “solid South” vote in nearly every presidential contest, they would not have been contests. (Right.) Even Franklin D. Roosevelt put up with the racist demagogues of the Southern leadership, the Bilbos and Vardamans and Talmadges, because of political expediency. (Right again.) And even though white Southerners didn’t have a liberal bone in their bodies, they kept making an X in the boxes next to Democratic presidential candidates’ names. (Well …)
But “with a stroke of the pen,” as the saying always goes, the first Southern president since Andrew Johnson, Texan Lyndon B. Johnson, intrepidly signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and brought a sudden and irrevocable end to the Democrats’ solid South. Why, even LBJ himself said so; in a quote that has become an inextricable part of the fable, the president worried out loud to one of his aides, the future journalist Bill Moyers, that he had “delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come.”
Blue Dixie: Awakening the South’s Democratic Majority
By doing the right thing, we are told, the Democratic Party sacrificed Dixie and purified its sullied soul at last. And as soon as Johnson’s pen did its work, the legend continues, Republicans were ready to pounce. With the brilliant Southern strategy brewed to wicked perfection by Richard Nixon and his henchmen, the die was cast. After a quick post-Watergate blip, with Jimmy Carter’s election in 1976, the popular presidency of Ronald Reagan and the ascendance of religious right politics cemented the Republicans’ new solid South. While the region continued to grow in prosperity-thanks, of course, to its supposedly militant anti-unionism and the resulting abundance of cheap labor that big business loves-the South remained what it had always been: backward, xenophobic, racist, and ignorantly susceptible to the rankest emotional appeals to Jesus, miscegenation, and militarism. The only difference was that the parties had switched places, with the Democrats laid as low as the sad old Southern Republicans once were. If anybody needed fresh proof of that, it came along in the 2000 election, when even a Tennessee Democrat, Al Gore, could not break through the brick wall of Caucasian conservatism to win a single state in Dixie. “The South is no longer the swing region,” proclaimed political science professor and pundit Thomas Schaller, author of a “non-Southern” manifesto published in 2006 called Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South. “It has swung.”
That’s the story, and a sweet one it is for both Republicans and-in a perverse way-blue state Democrats. For Republicans, this neat little fiction confirms their superior command of political strategy-the canny ruthlessness with which they appropriated white backlash against ’60s liberalism, then rode the angry tide of evangelical politics in the ’80s. It also offers them the charming promise of starting every presidential election with one-third (and climbing) of the country’s electoral votes already sewn up. Meanwhile, Democrats outside the South-those who actually believe this Disneyesque version of political history-can recount the legend and view themselves, and their party, as martyrs for racial justice. The party’s sad record in national politics, post-LBJ, has indeed been a cross to bear. But such is the price of righteousness.
But nobody told Southerners they weren’t supposed to be Democrats anymore. During the 2006 midterm elections, Gallup pollsters discovered that more folks still said they were Democrats than Republicans in all but three Southern states-Texas, South Carolina, and Mississippi. In half of the South, it wasn’t even close: Democrats led by more than 10 percentage points in six Southern states. It’s not just the partisan leanings of Southerners that confound the solid South myths. Southerners are more conservative only if you winnow down American politics to cultural or “moral” issues alone. Southerners still tack the furthest right on gay marriage and abortion and still lead the nation in churchgoing. They also back withdrawal from Iraq and strongly favor progressive populist economic policies-more spending on social welfare, stronger environmental and business regulations, universal health care-that are anathema to the GOP and, in many cases, markedly to the left of the national Democratic leadership.
But you’d never know that by listening to the conventional wisdom. The South has, in the popular mind, always been “solid”-solidly white, solidly conservative, solidly fundamentalist, and of course, solidly racist. But never solidly populist-and that is where the Democrats made their mistake.
The Republicans’ Southern surge has been picked apart and celebrated by scores of political scientists and pundits. But just as much as the GOP won the region with its appeals to suburbanites and cultural traditionalists, the Democratic Party lost it by failing to build on its new black base. The story of how, and why, the Democrats surrendered Dixie is well worth chewing over. Segregationist whites did, unquestionably, begin defecting in large numbers to the formerly hated “cocktail party” in the wake of the civil rights movement. But they were outnumbered by the massive infusion of Southern blacks into the Democratic Party. Between the midterm elections of 1966 and 1970, more than 1.7 million African Americans registered to vote, spiking the region-wide percentage of registered blacks to nearly 60 percent. At the same time, white Southerners’ racial attitudes were, in historian Matthew Lassiter’s terms, undergoing one of the “most pronounced shifts in the history of opinion polling.” In a May 1970 Gallup Poll, for example, only 16 percent of white parents in the South opposed sending their children to schools with a small number of black students-compared to 61 percent in 1963. In the North, meanwhile, white support for a federal role in school integration dropped from 47 percent in 1966 to 21 percent in 1976.
Liberals had long nourished the hope that integration would spawn a new Democratic coalition of blacks, Latinos, and moderate and progressive whites. Even as Nixon swept Dixie in 1972, there were encouraging signs. While Harry Dent, the archsegregationist and Strom Thurmond crony who helped mastermind Nixon’s Southern strategy, was roostering about the new “Solid Republican South,” the eleven former Confederate states had already elected 665 blacks to local and state offices. (Nowadays, more than two-thirds of the nation’s black elected officials are Southern.) Even more strikingly, every Southern state but Texas (“conservative Democrat” Preston Smith) and Alabama (stuck with George Wallace) had elected a moderate-to-progressive governor calling for racial reconciliation and “lift-all-boats” economic reforms.
In Florida, young governor Reubin Askew was hailing the emergence of a “humanistic South, which has always been there, just below the surface of racism and despair, struggling for a chance to emerge.” In Arkansas, Democratic governor Dale Bumpers was promoting a “future … shaped and shared by all Arkansans-old and young, black and white, rich and poor.” South Carolina’s new-breed Democratic governor, John C. West, pledged a “color-blind” administration and followed through by immediately appointing a black adviser to a top staff position, a first in that state.
“The era of defiance is behind us,” announced Virginia’s new governor, Linwood Holton-a moderate Republican, no less. Even Wallace, re-elected in 1970, was whistling a new tune-postelection, of course-that was most certainly not “Dixie.” Eight years after his “segregation forever” address, Wallace delivered a startlingly different inaugural message: “Our state government is for all, so let us join together, for Alabama belongs to all of us-black and white, young and old, rich and poor alike.”
“We in the South have an exciting opportunity,” wrote Atlanta’s first black mayor, Maynard Jackson, in 1972, “to prove that, ultimately, black and white have only one enemy: not each other, but those economic, social, educational, and political conditions which cause and maintain hunger, neglect, bigotry, and disease.” One of the giddiest signs of progress had come in Georgia two years earlier, when voters had replaced Democratic governor Lester Maddox, a clownish Wallace wannabe who had gained statewide fame by chasing blacks away from his fried-chicken restaurant with an axe, with the relatively liberal Jimmy Carter.
Carter had run a classic populist campaign, trying his damnedest to shake every hand in the state. In a precursor to his 1976 grassroots presidential campaign, he tallied some 1,800 speeches to small-town civic groups, schools, and agriculture associations, inveighing against Georgia’s entrenched power brokers and big-money interests. Carter made one campaign gesture to the old-line white Democrats, coming out against “forced busing” to integrate schools. But he steered clear of demagoguing on race. And on his inaugural day in 1971, surrounded by monuments to both Confederate soldiers and legendary bigots like Eugene Talmadge (“The Negro belongs to an inferior race”), Carter sounded a matter-of-fact clarion call that echoed across Dixie: “I say to you quite frankly that the time for racial discrimination is over.”
When a near-solid South-all but Virginia-propelled Carter to the presidency in 1976, it looked as though the Democratic dream could, just maybe, become a reality. After Carter accepted the nomination, the strains of “We Shall Overcome” echoed around New York’s Madison Square Garden as an unlikely smorgasbord of Democratic luminaries crowded the stage, singing and swaying. Up there with Carter were Coretta Scott King, Ted Kennedy, congresswoman Barbara Jordan of Texas, and-could it be? Yep, singing right along-a wheelchair-bound George Wallace. Old wounds were binding. Tears were flowing, especially among the Southern delegations. As Time magazine had declared earlier in that first post-Jim Crow decade, “the region is abandoning the fateful uniqueness that has retarded its development and estranged its people.” A progressive, post-Jim Crow South, at long last, was announcing its arrival.
But Carter’s star-crossed presidency, hampered by stagflation and doomed by Iranian hostage taking, failed to live up to its promise on nearly every count. Carter’s economic policies strayed far from the progressive populism he had championed back home. Rather than reinvigorating-or reinventing-the New Deal spirit that had brought together blacks and whites in the South (however partially and tenuously), Carter’s term in office signaled the start of the Democratic Party’s slide toward a feckless, defensive posture of “moderation.”
Meanwhile, a right-wing political revival among evangelical Christians was delivering another chunk of traditional Southern Democrats into the Republican camp. There was more than a touch of irony in this, of course, since Carter had been America’s first “born-again” president, a Sunday school teacher throughout his adult life. But the Deep South Baptist lost evangelical votes in droves in 1980 to the Moral Majority’s new hero: Hollywood actor, divorcÃ©, former union president, and faithful non-churchgoer Ronald Reagan.
The Republicans’ Southern populism-with its exclusive focus on cultural wedges and distractions-had left the Democrats an opening: Translate the South’s economic populist tradition into a forward-looking, class-based politics with broad appeal across the races. And run, as Southern Democrats have continued to do on the state and local levels, on progressive “good-government” issues-better schools, better roads, better jobs. While Republicans had latched on to the fearmongering, “watch-out-for-Washington” style of traditional Southern populism, the Democrats had a chance to adapt the equally appealing, vote-getting substance of economic populism. Instead, they ran from it.
“The party abandoned its New Deal legacy as a positive force for change and hunkered down behind a defensive shield,” lamented journalist John Egerton, author of The Americanization of Dixie: The Southernization of America. “The leaders failed to comprehend that Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson died for their sins, and in so doing freed the Democrats to reclaim their heritage as the fountainhead of egalitarian opportunity.”
In 2008 and beyond, Democrats have a historic opportunity to snatch back some of their old Southern turf. Howard Dean and Barack Obama’s 50-state strategies have reanimated moribund party organizations across the South and caught up with Republicans’ long-superior voter registration and turnout efforts. The electoral sway of white southerners-70 percent of whom voted for George W. Bush in 2004-is diminishing rapidly, particularly in Texas, Georgia, Virginia, Florida, and North Carolina. Younger Southerners-white, black, and Hispanic-hold more progressive views on both social and economic issues, and are more likely than recent generations to register Democratic or Independent.
While Southern Democrats have gotten organized and energized, the religious right, such a mighty force in 2004, quickly became fractured and demoralized by the corruption and sex scandals of its political champions. At the same time, evangelicals began to grope their way toward a “purpose-driven” social gospel that looks beyond the moral wedge issues of abortion and gay rights to poverty and the environment. Many of the evangelical right’s most prominent politicians-including Ralph Reed in Georgia, Senator Jim Talent in Missouri, Roy Moore in Alabama, Representatives Anne Northup in Kentucky and Katherine Harris in Florida-lost convincingly in 2006. Moderate “business” Republicans, many of whom are Yankee transplants, have increasingly split with their right-wing compatriots. And it hasn’t helped the GOP’s standing with independent-minded Southern voters-a fast-growing group- that Republicans have had a hard time governing in Southern states once they take control. “The Republicans have failed the most important test of any political movement,” opined the Economist in 2007, “wielding power successfully.”
Southern Republicans have also been deflated by the national and international power-wielding failures of George W. Bush. In many ways, Bush was the ultimate product of the Republicans’ faux populism. Though many tried, no politician ever embodied the “one of us” style more devotedly than ol’ 43, with his swagger, his snigger, his “dead or alive” bravado, his brush clearing on the Crawford ranch (home to perhaps five cows)-and with his singular devotion, when not in public, to multiplying the profits of Halliburton and Chevron. Like the greatest of actors, Bush seemed to not just be playing a role but actually inhabiting his character’s skin. Unlike Al Gore, Bush walked, talked, and even laughed
like a good ol’ bo
. And Southern populists, along with most other middle Americans, cheered him on. But soon after the 2004 elections, they turned on him-hard-over the Iraq war and his dismaying attempt to privatize Social Security. When Bush became discredited in the South, so too did his political style and message-the one that had been so indispensable to the Republicans’ Southern appeal.
The pundits have always had the one thing right about the South: The overwhelming obstacle to progressive politics has been white people-particularly those steeped in the post-’60s cultural backlash that Nixon, Reagan, and Karl Rove played like a fiddle. But the glue holding white Southerners together in today’s Republican Party is nowhere near as strongly adhesive as the old segregationist politics that kept whites in Dixie voting for Democrats for so long. The Southern GOP remains a queasy coalition of mutually suspicious parties-evangelical Christians and chamber of commerce types-who banded together in a shotgun marriage of political convenience. And the wedge issues used to stir up social traditionalists at election time-those quadrennial proddings of white people’s phobias-appear to be drying up. Bans on stem-cell research won’t work; the grounds for opposition are too cloudy and abstract compared to the happy promise of breakthroughs in curing major diseases. (A 2006 Pew poll found that more evangelicals favored stem-cell research than opposed it.) Immigrant bashing won’t work; the business end of the GOP won’t let that go too far. There are only so many times you can vote down on gay marriage-and in 2006, the first of these ballot issues actually failed (in Arizona) and another made no appreciable difference to the Senate race in Virginia, though the Democratic candidate, Jim Webb, opposed the antigay amendment and Republicans worked hard to hold it against him. If the Republicans’ strategic wizards are running out of wedges that can awaken white identity en masse, the keys to the weird kingdom of Southern politics will increasingly slip from their greedy grasp.
But will Democrats be ready to take the reins? Making a genuine effort to win the South will require nothing less than the reanimation of the Democratic Party’s populist soul. Democrats, or at least their presidential nominees, can only regain Southern territory by articulating a fresh progressive vision for the country, with a focus on the kitchen-table issues that hit home with Middle Americans: health care, schools, subprime mortgages, Social Security, rural jobs and infrastructure, college tuition, suburban sprawl, and the soaring cost of living. The party of centrist, Bill Clinton-style triangulation will have to find its populist voice again, taking meaningful aim at such fat targets as skyrocketing corporate profits and the organized thievery practiced by deregulated insurance, energy, investment, communications, and lending companies. To forge a new Southern Democracy, the party’s leaders will have to wrench their eyes away from the latest polling data and devise bold proposals on a contemporary set of “moral populist” issues including climate change, economic fairness, and poverty-the surest way to counter the GOP’s edge on “values.”
Rather than running from their core principles, Democrats’ long-term prospects in the South hinge on whether the party can frame and articulate those principles with a brand-new vigor. To win in Dixie, Democrats must learn to be Democrats again. It sounds straightforward. But given the twisted history of Democrats’ approaches to the South since 1965, it could be a rough row to hoe.
This article is excerpted from the first chapter of incoming Texas Observer editor Bob Moser’s Blue Dixie: Awakening the South’s Democratic Majority (Times Books, 2008). Moser, a native of North Carolina, has written about politics for The Nation, Rolling Stone, and the Independent Weekly of North Carolina. He joins the Observer in November.
Bob Moser will participate in the “Memo to the President-Elect” panel at the Texas Book Festival, 3-4 pm, Saturday, November 1,2008, in the Texas House Chamber.