Are national Democrats ready to abandon the South?

NOTE: This column, which draws heavily on a piece posted last week, is published here to serve as the electronic version of today’s AJC column and to allow newspaper readers to comment if the wish.

The 2010 midterms were a disaster for Democrats almost everywhere, but the carnage was particularly high here in the South.

Take Georgia. Every Democrat running statewide lost by double digits, and Republicans won historic margins in both the state House and Senate. The humiliation got even worse after the election, when nine legislators elected as Democrats — including the Democratic House caucus chair — switched parties.

The performance was so dismal that Mark Schmitt, executive editor of the liberal American Prospect magazine in Washington, believes the Democrats should write off the South as a lost cause.

“It’s not a tough call,” Schmitt wrote last week. “… 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.”

But in politics, nothing is final. In fact, if you build a political strategy on the idea that tomorrow will be like yesterday, you guarantee failure.

As Schmitt notes, Barack Obama carried both Virginia and North Carolina in 2008. He lost here in Georgia by just five points. When you’re trying to cobble together an electoral majority every four years, it would be foolhardy to write off such states as ungettable. The Republicans, you might recall, were considered finished in the Northeast until — surprise!! — Massachusetts elected a Republican to replace Ted Kennedy in the Senate.

Purely as a matter of strategy, if the South is considered Republican territory, Democrats should make them defend it. It’s better to take the offense on the other guy’s soil than to fight defensively on your own. And in terms of electoral college math, if you lose an Ohio, you’ll want a shot at Virginia.

Schmitt argues that instead, Democrats ought to focus on western states such as Nevada and Colorado. Certainly, parts of the Mountain West offer fertile territory. In ‘08, Obama carried Colorado by eight points, New Mexico by 16 and Nevada by 13. Yet that performance demonstrates again just how quickly things can change in politics.

In 2004, John Kerry took none of those three states. Prior to 2008, Republicans had carried Colorado in nine of the previous 10 presidential elections, and the state was assumed to be trending red. And as to fertile ground, look elsewhere around the Mountain West: In ‘08, John McCain carried Idaho by 25 points, Wyoming by 33, Utah by 27, Arizona by nine — margins equal to or considerably better than he produced here in the South.

But there’s a more important issue: When Schmitt advocates abandoning the South, he’s really making an elitist argument in favor of giving up on the white working class. And that has serious implications for both the country and the party.

A Democratic Party that no longer tries to compete in the South also handicaps itself in non-Southern states where the white working class remains numerous. In attitude, needs and cultural identity, the white working class of Indiana, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and the mountain states of Nevada, New Mexico and Colorado aren’t much different from their Southern peers.

Abandon the South, and you abandon them as well.

On a range of issues from health care to Social Security to taxation, Democratic policies favor the working class and — if explained well — ought to make the party competitive. But a Democratic Party that gives up the argument — and in effect also casts the Southern black voter adrift to fend for himself — abandons its legacy and limits its future.

– Jay Bookman

16 comments Add your comment

josef nix

February 15th, 2011
6:54 am

Oh, my. This one again…I’ve got a question, and I’m serious and am not out for trailer park trash comments from the ignorant bigots hereabouts. but what should the Democrats do to win back the white, Southern, rural-roots male? Face it, they won’t get there without him.

USinUK

February 15th, 2011
7:05 am

50 state strategy! Dean was right – and if the Dems listen to Schmitt, they’re signing their own death warrant.

“what should the Democrats do to win back the white, Southern, rural-roots male?”

stop letting the GOP define what a Democrat is and what a Democrat believes, for a start …

USinUK

February 15th, 2011
7:05 am

oh, and g’morning JoNix!

Doggone/GA

February 15th, 2011
7:08 am

“what should the Democrats do to win back the white, Southern, rural-roots male?”

Target their white, Southern, rural-roots wives, mothers, and sisters?

USinUK

February 15th, 2011
7:11 am

“Target their white, Southern, rural-roots wives, mothers, and sisters?”

aren’t they the same person?

(sorry, the joke was just THERE … I couldn’t resist …)

Educated Bigots

February 15th, 2011
7:13 am

What about us.

What the Democrats need is their own version of FOX with their own show hosts to go on the air day in and day out and complain about anything that gets attention and them blame it on Republicans and do it over and over while using lots of hyperbole and lies and whatever else gets the masses stirred up based on call ins. Then, they need people to run for office that know how to do the same and that can actually reverberate the same talk show messages so the voters will have that positive feedback. That should get you started although you might need to wait thirty or forty years to see results. That’s just how those political party cycles tend to run in the south — slow.

Doggone/GA

February 15th, 2011
7:14 am

“What the Democrats need is their own version of FOX ”

No, we don’t – it isn’t “winning” to become as bad as your adversaries

jt

February 15th, 2011
7:16 am

Maybe We DID win.

Educated Bigots

February 15th, 2011
7:27 am

No, we don’t – it isn’t “winning” to become as bad as your adversaries

I don’t disagree with that. However, I don’t think you’ll win over those votes in the near term by being any less dishonest and deceitful and disgusting than the particular adversaries you are dealing with here. They’ve shown themselves to be willing to stoop to lower and lower lows in order to win. So, perhaps the strategy of abandonment is the appropriate one after all. Give them thirty or forty years to see if they come around.

Doggone/GA

February 15th, 2011
7:29 am

“I don’t think you’ll win over those votes in the near term by being any less dishonest and deceitful and disgusting than the particular adversaries you are dealing with here”

You can be prepared to counter that dishonesty and deceitfulness with the TRUTH, something Democrats have NOT been good at doing in public forums.

Jay

February 15th, 2011
7:31 am

Fresher sheets upstairs…

Educated Bigots

February 15th, 2011
7:34 am

You can be prepared to counter that dishonesty and deceitfulness with the TRUTH, something Democrats have NOT been good at doing in public forums

I do wish that strategy worked but I have yet to see any evidence to support it.

jt

February 15th, 2011
7:43 am

To answer Joseph’s question.

Freedom works.
Even though FDR’s policies proved disasterous for our country, people fondly remember him.Why?……..
Contrary to what state-sponsered propaganda would have you believe, it wasn’t for “the New Deal” programs. It was because of the Repeal of the 18th admendment.
He gave back a little freedom that the Feds had previously unjustly seized.
Freedom.
This would work today. Freedom is always a winning strategy.
I am sure the viagara/geritol nation would moan, but the Democrats have a “made to order issue” with the insanely expensive, totally evil war on drugs. Heck, Obama campaigned on it. The issue dominated His recent You-tube interveiw. The winning demographics are there.

The demos have blown the “anti-war” party perception. Try something else.
And like Jay said, it isn’t ONLY the south that the demos are losing .
.America is rejecting a large dysfunctional Federal government. Families grow weary of being imprisoned.

Restore to us a teaspoon of freedom that has been unjustly seized, watch the poll numbers skyrocket. The youth would be on your side.
But of course, this takes courage and a commitment to principles. Not gonna happen with Waffle Obama, but it could work for the Democrat party.

Adam

February 15th, 2011
9:48 am

Educated Bigots: I think it is good that you have recognized that no such organization equivalent to FOX and the constant lies and paid potential candidates actually exists on the left. Some people think CNN is such a network, just because it’s not Fox.

Obama 2012

February 15th, 2011
10:26 am

As the election of Rep. Scott shows, (the illegal drug user and porno watcher), who is part of the GOP and the family values crowd, it does not matter here in GA or in the South, as long as you have a (R) behind your name. I was thinking of running for a city/county seat and just run as on GOP ticket without doing any campaigning other than red, white, and blue signs and an anti-Obama footnote in all my flyers. I told my family I bet I could win but decided that our money could be better spent elsewhere.

[...] In a post last week about the future of the Democratic Party in the South, I warned that those Democrats who advocate giving up on the South in effect advocate giving up on white working-class voters, which has implications well beyond Dixie. [...]