Do Democrats Need to Hate on the South?

An unsurprising corollary to all the “death of the Southern Democrats” talk is a fairly one-sided debate between people (e.g., John Breaux) who think the national Democratic Party needs to make ideological adjustments in order to win back enough white folks in the region to make these states competitive again, and those who are so fearful that Democrats will follow such advice that they want to exorcise the ghost of the once-solid South with oaths and curses. Speaking from the latter camp today is my friend Mike Tomasky, who has changed his mind to agree with another of my friends, Tom Schaller, famously the author of a 2006 book entitled Whistling Past Dixie, making the case for an actively anti-southern strategy and message for the Democratic Party.

As it happens, I jousted with Schaller a bit over Whistling Past Dixie, agreeing with much of the book’s analysis but strongly disagreeing with the idea of writing off any region, and particularly disagreeing that an aggressive attack on southern culture was a good idea, given its pervasive (and in many respects, benign) influence among African-Americans, and in other parts of the country. Re-reading my rap today, it’s clear I overestimated the staying power of the Democratic Party in the South in downballot midterm contests (the 2006 landslide had just happened), but underestimated the possibility of presidential victories in the former Confederacy (the Donkey Party was skunked in the region in both 2000 and 2004, with the usual asterisk about Florida 2000).

Like Schaller before him, Tomasky seems to be worried about concessions made by Democrats to appeal to southern white voters:

Trying to win Southern seats is not worth the ideological cost for Democrats. As Memphis Rep. Steve Cohen recently told my colleague Ben Jacobs, the Democratic Party cannot (and I’d say should not) try to calibrate its positions to placate Southern mores: “It’s come to pass, and really a lot of white Southerners vote on gays and guns and God, and we’re not going to ever be too good on gays and guns and God.”

Are national Democrats actually doing that now? Not really. Yes, some southern Democrats–particularly but no exclusively white pols–dance around these issues. But the idea that the national party is being held hostage to conservative southerners is becoming as anachronistic as Deep South Democratic Senators. Yes, Obama decided to postpone his executive action on immigration until after November 4, but it’s not clear to me that was strictly because of southern demands; a lot of midwestern and western and even northeastern House candidates seem to have been pretty worried about it as well. And besides, if the problem is national party concessions to “the South,” the solution is to stop making them, not to lash oneself to the mast like Odysseus in the land of the sirens and scream curses at those charming southerners so as not to succumb to their seductive songs.

I know there are readers here who like to talk about encouraging the South to secede and who may even erroneously think political and cultural conservatism would die if not for the influence of their southern stomping grounds (Jesus does still have a reasonably sizable following north and west of the Mason-Dixon line). But the actual choices for progressives are a bit more nuanced than surrendering to or hating on the Deep South.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.