Southern Discomfort

In his 2006 book, Whistling Past Dixie, political scientist Tom Schaller argued that the Democratic Party should learn to ignore the South. Presidential elections and congressional majorities could be won without the region, and the Mountain West was the land of political opportunity. Ignoring the South, and the reactionary politics of its white voters, would have the additional benefit of freeing the party to pursue a "non-Southern platform" of public investment and liberal social policies.

At the time, the book annoyed people. Many Democrats couldn't imagine giving up the party's base in the South. After all, the last Democrat elected president (Bill Clinton) captured five Southern states, and the previous Democrat (Jimmy Carter) won all of them. When Democrats controlled the House before 1994, they relied on Southern Democrats for their majority. Entire institutions, such as the once-influential Democratic Leadership Council, were built around the assumption that the party needed to recapture the affection of white Southerners.

Three elections later, Schaller's is the only plausible strategy for Democrats. By the time of the 2008 presidential election, Democrats had completely given up the border states that had been Clinton's stronghold, losing Tennessee, Kentucky, and Arkansas by huge margins. Barack Obama won just 10 percent of the white vote in Alabama and 14 percent in Louisiana. Yet he made up for those losses with victories in Virginia and North Carolina, states hostile to Democratic presidential candidates for decades. Those two states -- the most prosperous in the region, with growing clusters of educated professionals -- also sent three Democrats to the Senate in 2006 and 2008, and Democrats like Tom Perriello won astonishing victories in rural congressional races. For a moment, the South still mattered to Democrats, but the party's base within the region had shifted to the east and to more affluent turf.

The 2010 election changed all that. Democrats lost 13 House seats in the South, including three from Virginia. Republicans took control of both houses of the North Carolina Legislature, leaving just two Southern states where Democrats control the statehouse. After the election, according to Politico, at least 10 Democratic state legislators switched parties.

In 2012, the president's strategists can choose between trying to reproduce Obama's narrow wins in the affluent corners of the South (not including Florida) or attempting to hold on to swing states like Nevada and Colorado, where Democratic senators in 2010 won on support from well-organized Hispanic voters and the labor movement. It's not a tough call. It would be almost impossible to make the case for investing political resources in the South. The divorce is final. And largely for the good, as congressional Democrats will no longer have to twist their policies beyond recognition to accommodate Southern Democrats who are doomed anyway.

Yet, while the Democratic Party can happily ignore the South in its political strategy, to write off the region altogether would be a moral betrayal of the people whose well-being Democrats claim to care about. It would mean ignoring the states with the highest rates of child poverty, incarceration, infant mortality, and the lowest rates of health-insurance coverage, student achievement, and union representation. Look at just about any map of a social problem (for example, the KidsCount.org website showing the condition of children), and you'll see a dark swath from Virginia to Texas.

And conditions are likely to get worse. As the Prospect's Monica Potts reported in December, the new Republican legislatures in the South are already looking for ways to dramatically reduce spending on social programs and welfare. A majority of the region's attorneys general have joined Florida's lawsuit to overturn the Affordable Care Act, and it's unlikely that any of them will implement its provisions, such as the requirement to create state-level insurance exchanges, with enthusiasm, potentially leaving many families worse off than before.

There's not much point in trying to persuade Democratic political strategists to care about the South. At the national level, the opportunity to pursue Schaller's "non-Southern platform" is welcome. But for those of us who don't do electoral politics -- for nonprofits, foundations, and community-organizing groups -- it would be a mistake to track the electoral map and concentrate resources in swing states. Instead, we should double down on the South, investing for the long term in the distant dream -- Martin Luther King's dream -- of a multiracial coalition of the poor and disenfranchised. The strategy might never again pay off on the map of the Electoral College, but in a decade or two, it might just result in a little more power and a better life for those who need it most.

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