Whistling Past Dixie

WHISTLING PAST DIXIE…. As the major parties begin shaping their 2012 strategies, Democrats are confronted with a question that’s come up before: do they even try to compete in the South?

Mark Schmitt had a good piece this week, suggesting the answer is pretty obvious.

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.

While the region looked slightly more favorable for Dems during the Democratic waves of 2006 and 2008, the 2010 cycle was brutal for Democrats in the South, and the party’s strength has arguably reached its lowest point in American history. It’s not a coincidence that more than a dozen Democratic officials in the South switched parties since November.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution‘s Jay Bookman offered a competing take this week, responding to Schmitt and concluding that his argument is “flat wrong.”

Purely as a matter of strategy, if the South is considered Republican territory, Democrats ought to 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 chance to take Virginia. […]

But there’s a more important issue: When Schmitt advocates abandoning the South and pursuing “a ‘non-Southern platform’ of public investment and liberal social policies,” when he celebrates the hope that Democrats will no longer have to “twist their policies beyond recognition to accommodate Southern Democrats who are doomed anyway,” he’s really talking about washing his hands of the white working class. (Schmitt sounds the same note with his repeated stress on pursuing the affluent.)

The real danger, then, is ideological. A national Democratic Party that no longer tries to compete in the South, that pursues “”a ‘non-Southern platform’ of public investment and liberal social policies,” 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 intermountain states of Nevada, New Mexico and Colorado aren’t much different from their Southern peers. That white blue-collar vote also plays a larger role in Florida politics than outsiders probably understand.

I’ve read both pieces a couple of times — by all means, follow the links and read their full arguments — but I find myself torn.

So, I thought I’d open it up for some weekend discussion. Do Democrats give up on the region that’s moved sharply to the right, or do they fight to keep in competitive* Southern states?

* I make a distinction between states in the South. Florida, Virginia, and North Carolina are competitive in ways Alabama, Arkansas, and Mississippi are not.