Waning Power for Blacks and Democrats

Jason Zengerle ruminates in the The New Republic about a very disturbing consequence of the 2014 midterms. With the defeat of Rep. John Barrow of Georgia, there are no longer any white Democrats from the Deep South in the U.S. House of Representatives. We’re excluding Florida here, which I think is justified in this day and age, and if Mary Landrieu loses her runoff election next month, there will no longer be any white Democrats from the Deep South in the U.S. Senate, either.

This is troubling enough, but the problem looks even direr at the state legislative level. To make his point, Zengerle focuses on the fate of a legendary white pro-gun anti-abortion Democratic legislator from Alabama named Roger Bedford:

Bedford, the Birmingham News’s Kyle Whitmire writes, had “the reputation of being bulletproof,” which made him “the Democrat that Republicans throughout the state loved to hate.”

On Tuesday, the Republicans finally got him. Bedford lost by 60 votes—out of more than 35,000 cast—to his GOP opponent. (The race is headed toward an automatic recount, but Bedford doesn’t sound like a guy who thinks he’s going to win.) As recently as four years ago, Bedford was one of 13 white Democrats in the Alabama Senate. After the Republican route in the 2010 elections, that number was slashed to four. Aggressive redistricting by the new Republican supermajority—which made white districts whiter and black districts blacker; and which led to a civil rights lawsuit that will be argued in the U.S. Supreme Court next week—caused two of those four white Democrats not to seek reelection this year. That meant that this past Tuesday, the only two white Democratic Senators on the ballot in Alabama were Bedford and Billy Beasley, the latter of whom represents a majority-black district. Assuming the results hold, Bedford’s defeat means the Alabama Senate has now lost its last white Democrat from a non-majority-minority district.

Or, to put it another way, all eight Democrats in the Alabama Senate now represent majority-black districts, while all 26 Republican Senators represent majority-white districts—and all 26 are themselves white. “The Republicans set out to create districts where no whites would be able to be elected except as Republicans, so it’s so important that you have at least one white Democrat,” Hank Sanders, an African-American Alabama State Senator, told me this week. Bedford’s apparent defeat, Sanders said, “has serious long term and profound racial implications for the state of Alabama.”

There’s no point in sugar-coating this. In the Deep South, the Democratic Party is now the non-white party, and minority politicians don’t have the white partners they need to exercise any but the most local political power. While the problem is less severe in the border states, it has clearly made advances there. You can look at pretty much the whole Scots-Irish migration from the Virginias to Oklahoma and see that the Democrats were trounced last Tuesday. They badly lost Senate elections in West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, Mississippi, and Arkansas, and they actually lost two Senate elections each in South Carolina and Oklahoma. Their seat in Virginia was only (just barely) saved by the DC suburbs in the northeastern part of the state.

This isn’t just a problem for the Democratic Party. It’s a big problem for blacks, too.

This situation is so deleterious for African-Americans in the Deep South because, unlike in Congress, where black Democrats have many white Democratic colleagues—not to mention a Democrat in the White House—in these Southern states, black Democratic state legislators (and, by extension, their black constituents) are completely at the mercy of Republican legislative majorities and Republican governors. What’s more, unlike in Washington, where control of the White House—and at least the Senate —swings back and forth between both parties, the Republican control of Southern state houses seems here to stay for a long, long time.

This loss of power is not what progressives or the black community envisioned when the first black president was elected, but the fury of the blowback is now undeniable. Both the party and its African-American base share a self-interest in doing something to combat the impression and (in these parts of the country) the increasing reality that the Democrats are not a party for white people.

This can’t be done by any simple tweaks to the party platform, and there’s a broader cultural element at play here that implicates more than race. Attitudes about religion and human sexuality are also major factors in what has happened, as the country has galloped ahead at breakneck speed to destigmatize homosexuality, for example, while Republican legislatures have furiously sought to restrict women’s rights.

Asking how the party can get white Democrats elected in these regions again isn’t something that blacks or progressive whites are eager to discuss, particularly when the answers may not be to their liking. But their power is at stake, as well as many of the values that they’ve fought for and thought, perhaps erroneously, that they had secured. At stake are basic civil rights (including voting rights), women’s reproductive health, and even the president’s landmark health care law. The black community’s political power is at stake, too, in a major and urgent way.

These problems will require fresh thinking, by which I mean that reconstructing the Blue Dog Coalition is probably not the answer. It’s not the local Chambers of Commerce we need to court, but the economically pressed white voter who must be cleaved from the plutocratic coalition that has enchanted him.

The Third Way led us here. It does not provide the route out of this maze.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.