Mike Berlon believes that he can rebuild the Democratic Party of Georgia. Elected state party chair in January, after serving eight years as party chair for the second-largest county in the state, Berlon has the unenviable task of recovering from last year's electoral disaster. He is more than upfront about the party's failure: "We lost all of our statewide races, we lost every race for constitutional officer, and all of our candidates lost by more than 10 percent."
Yet Berlon sounds supremely confident when talking about the future of the Georgia Democratic Party. "Over the South, I really think that the number one job is to rebuild the parties from the ground up and put the structure in place that will make us successful in the next six to eight years," he says. "It took Republicans literally almost 20 years to gain control across the state. I think we're almost there."
As party chair, Berlon's optimism is probably just a function of his job. Still, a casual observer of politics might find this strange. After all, in all but two of the last eight presidential elections, Georgia has voted for the Republican candidate. Eight of its 13 congressional districts are controlled by Republicans (they control all but one of the state's majority-white districts), and both of its Republican senators were elected by margins of 15 points or more.
These numbers are mirrored across the Deep South. Indeed, historians may view the 2010 midterm elections as a landmark in the half-century-long political transformation of the region. For the first time since the end of Reconstruction, Republicans control a majority of legislatures in the states of the former confederacy. In North Carolina, which last saw a GOP-led General Assembly during the McKinley administration, Republicans gained a 16-seat majority in the House and a 10-seat majority in the Senate. Likewise, in Alabama, Republicans won near supermajorities in both chambers of the Legislature, ending 136 consecutive years of Democratic control.
To the extent that this is a realignment of state and local Southern politics, it is thoroughly racial. White Southerners have finally lost their tolerance for white Democrats. Before last year's elections, there were seven white representatives from the Deep South (Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina) in the congressional Democratic caucus. Today, there's one (from Georgia).
The Democratic Party that remains after this white exodus is smaller, weaker, and blacker than it has ever been. Indeed, based on state exit polls from the 2000 election, African Americans account for a large majority of Democrats in the Deep South, a historically unprecedented phenomenon. As local parties become darker, whites are less likely to remain.
What's more, those whites have become far more conservative than in years past, to the point where Southern Republicans are especially conservative and Southern Democrats are especially liberal (and mostly African American). In the 110th Congress, for example, the American Conservative Union gave Georgia's Republican delegation an average rating of 96.07. On the opposite end, the liberal Americans for Democratic Action gave Georgia's Democratic delegation an average rating of 75, not as intensely liberal as the conservatives were conservative but different enough from the Republicans to suggest they come from different planets.
So if, as Berlon contends, the Democratic Party in the South has a bright future, it won't resemble any Southern Democratic Party we've seen before. By and large, it will be mostly black and brown.
Press Berlon about his optimism, and he immediately turns the conversation to demographics. "Georgia had a pretty significant increase in the population, over 18 percent," he explains, pointing specifically to the decline in the number of whites and the increase in the number of Hispanics. Since 2000, Georgia's Latino population has grown by 96 percent to 854,000 people. At present, Latinos are more than 10 percent of the state's population. What's more, Georgia's African American population has grown by double digits, as millions of blacks have migrated from the North and back to the South; together, the two groups are responsible for the majority of Georgia's population growth over the last decade. The state's white population, by contrast, grew by just 8.6 percent.
What's happened in Georgia has happened all across the South. Every state in the region saw double-digit growth in its Hispanic population, and three states -- Mississippi, South Carolina, and Alabama -- saw their Latino populations grow by more than 100 percent. As Georgia Democratic consultant Tharon Johnson succinctly puts it, "In the next 10 to 12 years, maybe even 14 years, the Latino community will grow so significantly that it could actually surpass the white community. The smart thing for Democrats to do right now is to continue to reach out to the Latino and Hispanic community." But before we chart the possibilities for resurgence in the Deep South, it's worth retracing the steps that brought Democrats to their current predicament.
Ellis Black waited until relatively late in life -- age 50 -- to run for office. A farmer and businessman from Clyattville, on the Georgia side of the state's border with Florida, he decided to run for an open seat on his local school board. "I had been interested in politics since my college days and passed up an opportunity in the '70s," he says. "But a situation arose where I felt like I needed to get involved with the school board, and so I ran." After two years on the Lowndes County Board of Education, he became its chair, and after two more years, he says, "I got off before I could shoot myself in the foot and do something stupid."
Black's ambitions extended beyond the school board, all the way, in fact, to the state Legislature. For that, he had to wait. "We had a state representative who had served 38 years and was sort of a legend," Black says. "I told my friends, if he decided to get out, I might decide to run." Two years later, in 2000, the legislator in question -- Rep. Stephen Scarlett, a Republican -- retired and endorsed Black as his successor.
By his own admission, Black is conservative. "I had been recognized as a Republican my whole life," he says. But in his bid for the Statehouse, he registered and ran as a Democrat. "In my part of Georgia, in this particular district, there were no Republicans, and if you wanted to serve, you served as a Democrat," he explains.
This was true statewide as well. In 2000, when George W. Bush carried the state with 55 percent of the vote, Georgia's governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, and attorney general were Democrats. Democratic senators represented the state in Washington, and Democrats controlled both chambers of the General Assembly.
By 2002, however, the landscape had shifted considerably. Georgians elected a Republican to the governorship -- Sunny Purdue, the state's first Republican governor since Reconstruction -- and swept Democrats from most statewide offices.
Despite Republicans' growing strength and his own conservatism, Black stayed with the Democrats until 2010, when they lost control of the Legislature. With so many of his fellow white Democrats defeated, Black suddenly found himself a minority within the now majority-black party caucus. "Last year, there were several white Democrats that got beat in the primary elections against black opponents, or they moved to the left and got beat in the general election," Black says. "After that, it was pretty obvious that there wasn't going to be any conservative white Democrats left anymore in Georgia."
As such, at the end of last year -- after he had "developed some confidence" in the new Republican leadership -- Black switched parties. He was just one of a dozen Southern legislators to switch allegiances following the 2010 midterm elections. The great Southern realignment had trickled all the way down.
"The realignment came first in presidential elections, and then in the Congress and the states, and now it has finally moved to local politics," says Merle Black, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta. Black, along with his brother Earl -- a political scientist at Rice University in Houston, Texas -- has studied the politics of the modern South for more than three decades.
The Black brothers -- themselves native Southerners -- bring a distinct perspective to the nearly 40-year-long realignment of white Southern voters from the Democratic Party to the GOP. For the most part, examinations of Southern politics tend to have a singular focus on the white backlash to the civil-rights movement and the Democratic Party's embrace of African American voters. The Black brothers take a slightly different approach; rather than focus entirely on the influence of race in Southern politics, they try to highlight and explain the economic dimensions of change. "Never underestimate the importance of tax issues in this realignment," Merle Black says. "[The Democratic Party] became perceived as the party of high taxes."
During the New Deal, Black explains, "the South was the most Democratic part of the United States; Democrats were putting money into the South, and there was almost nothing in the way of taxes leaving the region." It's not uncommon to hear liberals frequently complain about federal subsidies to rural states -- as a whole, the Deep South receives $1.56 for every dollar it pays in federal taxes -- but the current imbalance is nothing compared to where it was 80 years ago. "In the first congressional district of Texas in the 1930s, the estimate was that less than two-thirds of 1 percent of people paid income taxes," Black says.
By the 1960s, notes Black, "you have the rise of a substantial middle class that has to pay taxes." Moreover, it's not just middle-class Southerners who are contributing; to pay for the federal government's growing social programs, the tax burden falls to working-class Southerners as well.
On its own, however, economic conservatism isn't enough to create a starkly right-wing electorate like that in the white South. As Black repeatedly notes, race is critical in explaining the rise of the solid Republican South. The oft-mentioned "Southern Strategy" -- devised by Barry Goldwater, tested by Richard Nixon, and perfected by Ronald Reagan -- relied on the racial resentments and anxieties of Southern whites to push them away from the Democratic Party, which, on a national level, was increasingly identified with the interests of African Americans. Indeed, the largest departure of white Southerners from the national Democratic Party took place during Reagan's presidency.
In 1980, Black points out, only 40 percent of white Southern conservatives identified as Republican. By the end of Ronald Reagan's presidency in 1988, that had jumped to 60 percent.
These changes manifested themselves very quickly on the presidential level. From 1972 to 2004, the Republican Party won nearly 83 percent of the 1,260 electoral votes cast by the South and carried the region by an average vote margin of 11 percent. The process moved more slowly on the congressional level, where politics were conducted with a more local focus, and white moderates held greater sway. But eventually, this changed too.
"Between 1974 and 2004," write Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson in their 2005 book, Off Center, "the party breakdown of House members from the eleven former states of the confederacy reversed -- from two-thirds Democrat to almost two-thirds Republican." In 1994 -- the year of the "Republican Revolution" -- Democratic congressional candidates in the South secured a little less than 37 percent of the vote, and identification with the Democratic Party among white Southerners had fallen to 29 percent. Ten years later, Republicans would capture 72 percent of the white Southern vote in a presidential election. "The era of the white Southern Democrat has really come to an end now," says Thomas Schaller, author of Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South. "There will always be a few dinosaurs roaming the piedmont of North Carolina, but if you see one, take a picture like the Loch Ness Monster, because your friends won't believe you."
Why, then, did it take so long for Rep. Ellis Black and others in his position to join the GOP, which by that point had long been the party of conservative white Southerners? Why were white Southerners so eager to hold on to Democratic identification on the state and local levels, and why has that only recently changed?
It's hard to overemphasize the importance of culture and history in this story. The GOP was the party of Abraham Lincoln, of Ulysses S. Grant, of the Freedmen's Bureau, and of Reconstruction. For the first 50 post-Civil War years, long-standing resentments and lingering sectionalism were enough to guarantee Democratic dominance in every sphere of Southern politics. Indeed, a willingness to identify as otherwise was understood as a sign of deviation and could doom a potential political career. Eventually, these impulses were supplanted by the sheer force of culture and tradition. Generations of white Southerners voted for and were represented by Democratic politicians.
This remained true even after white Southerners migrated to the national Republican Party and abandoned their Democratic identification in national and congressional elections. In 1988, for example, Alabamans supported George H.W. Bush with nearly 60 percent of their votes. Two years later, they elected Democrats as lieutenant governor, secretary of state, attorney general, and state auditor with similar margins. What's more, there's the simple fact of political differences between the Southern wing of the Democratic Party and its Northern cousin. In the pre-civil-rights era, Southern Democrats were known for their commitment to a states' rights ideology that permitted segregation, low educational investment, and extremely lax labor laws. While Southern Democrats moderated on the national level and in the states and localities, they were often as conservative as any Republican alternative. Ellis Black surely was.
Today, however, the increasingly African American Democratic Party of Georgia is no longer ideologically distinct from the Democratic National Committee. As state-level Democrats in the South moved closer to the national party, white voters began to embrace the Republican Party. Demographics count, too. Southern Democrats on the local level had come to rely on African American voters, who, as a group, are far more liberal than their white counterparts. In primary battles against black Democratic candidates, white Southerners were stuck between a rock and a hard place, as Ellis Black described. If they ran to the left, they alienated their white supporters in the general election. If they didn't, they lost the primary.
By last November, the Democratic label itself proved poisonous to even the most conservative Democrats from majority-white districts. In 2002, Lincoln Davis -- a Democrat -- was elected to represent the overwhelmingly white 4th District of Tennessee. The district is so right-wing that, in his 2010 re-election campaign, Davis presented himself as an "independent conservative" with few -- if any -- ties to the White House or national Democratic Party. He proudly touted his endorsement from the National Rifle Association as well as his votes against the stimulus and health-care reform. He lost by a landslide.
The South's racial partisan realignment has compelled Democratic Party leaders like Georgia's Berlon to embrace a new strategy: Democrats, they believe, shouldn't abandon white Southerners but neither should they invest their full energy in them, given the low rates of return. They should turn instead to the Deep South's growing population of Latinos. This means funding voter-registration drives for the South's new residents. It also means fostering alliances and cooperation between African American and Latino groups on legislation and civic engagement.
In Georgia, Democrats are doing just that. In an e-mail, Jerry Gonzalez, executive director for the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, extolled the links between the two communities. "Since our organization began eight years [ago], we have had strong ties with the Coalition for the People's Agenda [an Atlanta-based justice-advocacy organization]," he wrote. "We started our civic engagement efforts with training and collaboration with them, and they have been constant allies against many of the anti-immigrant efforts in our state."
Indeed, most recently, African Americans and Latinos have teamed up in the fight against an Arizona-style immigration law in the state. In March, Rep. John Lewis joined thousands of Hispanic activists in protesting the bill, H.B. 87, at a rally outside of the state Capitol. "We are all brothers and sisters. It doesn't matter whether we are black, white, Latino, Asian American, Native American. We are one people. We are one family," Lewis said. "We all live in the same house. If any one of us is illegal, then we all are illegal. There are no illegal human beings."
The Georgia State Conference of the NAACP also announced its opposition to the bill. "You are not going to solve the problem [of immigration] by taking people and throwing them out of the country," said Edward DuBose, president of the chapter. When H.B. 87 made its way through the House, the heavily African American Democratic caucus voted against it.
As the state's demographics change, they may in time offer strong minority candidates a previously unavailable opportunity to win statewide office. After all, if white votes are mostly unnecessary for electoral success, then there's no need to run a white candidate in every election.
Stacey Abrams is one of those promising candidates. A state representative for Georgia's 84th District -- located in the Atlanta metro area -- she was elected in 2006 as a newcomer to politics. "I did not come from the traditional groups of people who ran for the seat," Abrams says. "I didn't ask anyone before I ran, I didn't ask for permission, I didn't go through the normal Democratic Party vetting process." By the end of her first term, she had been appointed to the Judiciary and Ways and Means committees, and at the beginning of her second term -- in 2009 -- she was asked to become chief fundraiser for the party caucus. With the beginning of this year's legislative session, she was elected minority leader, making her the first African American woman to hold the position in the history of Georgia politics.
As the composition of the state's electorate becomes more racially diverse, some of the limits that impeded the rise of earlier generations of talented minority politicians in the South may fall away. "I certainly have no interest in staying in the Georgia House for a lifetime," Abrams says.
But how diverse will that electorate really be? In Georgia, for instance, Latinos might be 8.8 percent of the state's population, but as of 2008, they were only 3 percent of the electorate, and the numbers are similar across the South. Many of those Latinos are undocumented immigrants -- the Pew Hispanic Center puts the undocumented share of Georgia's Latinos at roughly half.
The state's inequities -- economic and otherwise -- could hinder liberal attempts to build a viable coalition. Nonetheless, organizations such as Gonzalez's are working overtime to register Latino voters. Eventually, Latinos clearly have the potential to make a significant impact on local and statewide elections -- one reason, perhaps, why Georgia Republicans chose to enact a law similar to Arizona's. Mike Berlon's dream is their nightmare, and draconian anti-Latino legislation, they hope, may be one way to forestall it.
Government by extreme right-wingers has long since condemned the South to the lowest levels of educational attainment and the highest levels of crime, poverty, and infant mortality in the nation. To have any hope of changing the situation for millions of poor and working-class Southerners, Democrats -- and particularly liberals -- need to be competitive on a state and local level. These demographic shifts are slow-moving, but with hard work and time, they could provide the basis for unprecedented progressive change in the region.