There are no permanent majorities in politics. An unpopular Republican president would move the needle. A Democratic fundraising base that chose not to go nuclear on a Democratic candidate who opposed Obamacare or the stimulus would have done it. A more culturally “red” Democratic nominee would help.
The voters who elected Phil Bredesen governor of Tennessee by 40 points are largely still around, as are the people who elected Mike Beebe governor of Arkansas by 30 points in 2010 and 14 points in 2006. The same goes for the folks who sent Landrieu and Hagan back to the Senate in 2008, or Blanche Lincoln in 2004. The people who elected a swath of moderate-to-conservative Democrats in 2006 and 2008 are still there.
The party just has to try to appeal to them, or at least give more latitude to its candidates to appeal to them, as Rahm Emanuel did in 2006.
The bad news for Southern Democrats is that Democrats aren’t likely to do this anytime soon, and if they did, they’d pay a price. Politics, again, is about tradeoffs, and by appealing to a more downscale coalition, Democrats would sacrifice enthusiasm gains among their new coalition. As I’ve said before, if Hillary Clinton had been the nominee in 2008, Mitch McConnell might not have been a senator in 2009, but Gordon Smith might have survived in Oregon. National Democrats don’t seem inclined to make this tradeoff anytime soon (plus, the wipeouts have left Democrats without much of a bench in these states), and the zeitgeist seems to be against it.
The South isn’t a lost cause for Democrats if they don’t want it to be one. Their problem is that the national party doesn’t seem to care right now if it is one, and there are clear electoral benefits from focusing elsewhere.
But Tomasky continues to argue that the South is a lost cause:
[T]he way the Democratic Party can best help the poor people of Mississippi is to control Congress and the White House. So the point is to win those. With respect to the White House, no one can guarantee anything of course, but at least the Democrats do have these days a built-in Electoral College advantage.
As for congressional majorities, I say it’s far more likely they’ll win them in the North and on the West coast, and to some extent in the Midwest and Rocky Mountain states, than via the South. And if they ever get that majority, they will (one hopes) pass progressive laws, and those laws will benefit the people who live in the South.
So I’m not for abandoning the people of the South. I’m just saying the best way to help them is by building a congressional majority in the quickest and easiest way possible, and that, alas, is not through the South.
Neal Dewing disagrees with Tomasky:
Naturally, in light of what I know to be true about Southern people, Tomasky’s article struck me as peevish and small-minded. Yet beyond the offense to honor he intended with his unfair description of Dixie, Tomasky seemed to be advising Democrats to abandon all strategic electoral sense along with the South. Far be it from me to offer aid and succor to my ideological opposites, but this idea just seems too ill-conceived to be allowed to live. The following may be a reductive assertion, and I invite any professional political operatives to correct my ignorance, but:
1. If you allow your opponent to march unopposed to victory in one area,
2. Then he is free to commit the resources he might have spent there to other areas, where he has a real fight on his hands,
3. Therefore, it is unwise to simply abandon the field.
Yes, the realignment of southern rural and small-town whites is now virtually complete. The possibility of a “replacement” Democratic coalition depends on how many retirees, secular suburbanites, transplants, knowledge workers, and of course minority voters are in any one place, and sometimes it also depends on real-life events such as GOP misgovernment. That’s another reason I see no need for Democrats to “Dump Dixie,” though they’d be foolish to consider most of it anything other than missionary territory at the moment.
Update from a reader:
Tomasky is right. The South is a lost cause for Democrats for the foreseeable future. Whether or not Johnson actually made his famous quote after signing the Civil Rights Act in 1964, the prediction of a mass migration in the South from D to R was uncannily accurate. In fact, it was probably an understatement.
Having lived in the South for much of my life, I’ve witnessed the transformation, which I attribute to the entire civil rights movement from Brown v Board of Education to Engel and Abington to the Civil Rights Act to school busing to Roe v Wade (yes, I think that fits within civil rights) to more recent developments like gay marriage. Sure, it took a couple of generations, but that has more to do with the habits of the American voter than anything else. All those older voters who voted down party lines for Democrats and would never dream of voting Republican (like my grandmother) had to die off while the generations that followed began Republican and will probably be so for life. It took 100 years or so after the Civil War for the South to start moving towards the Republicans, and I expect the current party affiliation of the South will outlive all of us. Bill Clinton blurred the lines a little bit in the ’90s, but Obama has successfully righted the narrative just by his existence.
So, why did civil rights prompt such a transformation? Well, racism. But that’s a little too easy. More broadly, fear. Economic insecurity. Fear of “The Other.” Fear of change. Fear of losing what they see as their God given prominence. That’s why the typical Southern voter, now a Republican, embraces the following sentiments:
1. Public education is bad. It’s poor quality, it’s dangerous for my children to attend, and it is a front for Godless liberal indoctrination. How dare they call the extermination of Native Americans genocide. Why are they talking about slavery so much, it was like 200 years ago? Why are they talking about natural selection and not creation? I want charter schools and school choice.
2. Christianity is the foundation of America and should be more heavily codified in schools and government, but liberals and activist judges have undermined Christianity’s rightful place as the national religion.
3. Science is its own religion. Evolution and global warming are hoaxes.
4. Gay marriage threatens civil society and is only talked about because the gay agenda is so good at propaganda and is supported by the liberals who control the federal government.
5. The Feds want to take away guns in order to exert further control over the population.
6. Obama hates America and white people, so it’s okay to hate him without being able to name a single thing Obama has done to justify that hatred.
7. I’m not racist. I have a black friend or two. I just think black people are lazy and entitled, and they’re just not generally as smart as other races, but the government gives them advantages over me out of guilt and to buy their votes. Black people and self loathing white guilt liberals are the real racists.
8. I’m fine with disparities in capital punishment, race based disenfranchisement, and police shootings of unarmed civilians. Those only happen to “The Other” anyway, and they probably deserve it. People should stop whining about the little things.
9. Obamacare is a government takeover of healthcare and a giveaway to minorities.
10. The Democrats are responsible for all of the above.
Sounds silly, right? Overstated? It isn’t. They’re deadly serious. I know many otherwise reasonable people who believe the above. Fear does that to people, even if that fear is unfounded. That’s why Tomasky is right, at least until demographics overwhelm the South later this century.