Blue Dixie: Awakening the South's Democratic Majority

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Macmillan, Aug 19, 2008 - Political Science - 274 pages

A powerful case for a new Southern strategy for the Democrats, from an award-winning reporter and native Southerner

In 2000 and 2004, the Democratic Party decided not to challenge George W. Bush in the South, a disastrous strategy that effectively handed Bush more than half of the electoral votes he needed to win the White House. As the 2008 election draws near, the Democrats have a historic opportunity to build a new progressive majority, but they cannot do so without the South.

In Blue Dixie, Bob Moser argues that the Democratic Party has been blinded by outmoded prejudices about the region. Moser, the chief political reporter for The Nation, shows that a volatile mix of unprecedented economic prosperity and abject poverty are reshaping the Southern vote. With evangelical churches preaching a more expansive social gospel and a massive left-leaning demographic shift to African Americans, Latinos, and the young, the South is poised for a Democratic revival. By returning to a bold, unflinching message of economic fairness, the Democrats can win in the nation’s largest, most diverse region and redeem themselves as a true party of the people.

Keenly observed and deeply grounded in contemporary Southern politics, Blue Dixie reveals the changing face of American politics to the South itself and to the rest of the nation.


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Chapter One THE SOLID SOUTHERN STRATEGY 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." 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 antiunionism 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 church going. 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. It’s true that Democrats were bound to take a hit in the South after LBJ signed the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts of 1964 and 1965, which ended all forms of legal segregation and doomed the various schemes—literacy tests, violent intimidation—that had long suppressed black registration and turnout. But as Johnson knew, the cracks in the "solid" Southern Democracy had been widening since 1948, when Harry S. Truman’s modest civil rights plank sent Deep South Democrats stalking out of the national convention in protest. After the Dixiecrats’ attempt to block Truman’s reelection failed miserably, most returned—mad and determined, rather than chastened—to their ancestral party. The strains showed throughout the 1950s, especially after the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawing "separate but equal" schools. But it wasn’t until 1964 that the awkward Democratic coalition of such long standing—working-class whites, ruling-class whites, working-class blacks, middle-class Jews, liberals, moderates, evangelical Baptists, and neo-Confederate reactionaries, to name a few—started to unravel in the South. The day before the 1964 election, Republican insurgent Barry Goldwater chose to make his final campaign stop in Columbia, South Carolina. Matched against a popular president leading the ticket of America’s dominant party, Goldwater had made the fatal mistake of being honest in his acceptance speech at the GOP convention, proclaiming his view that "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice" and instantly snuffing out the remote hopes he had entertained of occupying the White House. But Goldwater did not give up on what became the mission—the sole possible rationale, really—for his foundering campaign: building a new Republican base by breathing reactionary life into its moribund Southern wing. He stumped hard in Dixie, often accompanied by Strom Thurmond, the South Carolina senator who had topped the "Dixiecrat" (States Rights Party) ticket in 1948 and was now leading the segregationist exodus into the GOP. While Goldwater avoided overt race-baiting, his anti–civil rights voting record and Thurmond’s enthusiastic backing were more than enough to signal to Southerners—both whites, who voted in unprecedented numbers for a Republican, and blacks, who voted in unprecedented numbers for a Democrat—just where the new GOP stood on the "race issue." More directly, with his "states’ rights" rhetoric, Goldwater fully embraced the fierce distrust of the federal government that Southern traditionalists had felt in their collective gut since long before the Civil War. "Forced integration," Goldwater liked to tell his fans in Dixie, "is just as wrong as forced segregation." Richard Nixon would later pick up that refrain, sometimes verbatim. The day after Goldwater’s Columbia rally, the national results were disastrous; Johnson racked up what was, at the time, the largest percentage of the popular vote in U.S. history. But Goldwater had broken through in what Southern journalist John Egerton calls "the five-chambered, race-obsessed heart of Dixie." These were the same old cotton states—Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, and South Carolina—that had revolted in 1948. But even in President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s cakewalk reelection of 1956, four of the five had still stuck with Democrat Adlai Stevenson (along with only three other states in the country). Goldwater had staked a claim in the South’s—and the nation’s—most "solid" Democratic territory. At the same time, Republicans had lost the majority of Southern states, including the economically booming, fast-growing cities and suburbs that had been friendly to Ike in the ’50s. Republican progress was hardly as smooth or deadly as Sherman’s March. Richard Nixon’s 1968 election was nearly derailed by the Deep South, which voted in big numbers for George Wallace’s third-party effort and nearly swung the election to Democrat Hubert Humphrey. But that year, and

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