A raging debate in Democratic circles over the last few years has centered on the party’s Southern – or non-Southern – strategy to victory. With the 2000 electoral map looking eerily like the 1860 map, many Democrats concluded that victory could come by simply ignoring the South. Yes, there were many African American voters to be earned in the South, but nowhere near enough to flip any Southern state away from the Republicans. Indeed, the “Southern strategy” of 1972 had effectively “Southernized” national politics by placing racial and religious conservatism at the center of the GOP’s nationwide dominance.
While some Democrats like noted Virginia strategist Dave “Mudcat” Saunders argued that a non-Southern strategy was suicidal – Appalachia, at least, was historically Democratic and would go for the “right Democrat” with the “right message” – the most salient retort is the New South thesis. Sure, Alabama is off-limits. But in states with new and changing demographics, like Virginia and North Carolina, Democrats COULD win the South. And this white-collar based strategy based on the “ideopolis” of northern Virginia, Raleigh-Durham, central Florida, Atlanta, and potentially Dallas-Ft. Worth, Democrats could pick off Southern states after all.
It turns out this hybrid strategy worked. Barack Obama won Virginia, Florida and North Carolina, even while moving backwards in Tennessee, Alabama, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Louisiana. The result is that the traditional white South – socially and economically conservative – is no longer relevant in national politics. There are enough non-traditional white Southerners in Virginia, North Carolina and Florida to hold those states in the blue column going forward. And as Texas and Georgia become more ethnically diverse and more educated, the South may fall back into the Democratic fold after all.
But the “old” South is gone. Not only is it gone to the Democrats. It will likely no longer dominate national politics.
This article from the New York Times shows just how far the South has fallen. Hard-core conservative Christians who cannot fathom a black man named Barack Hussein Obama in the White House, many of these folks will fall further and further outside the political mainstream.
I live in one of those non-New South places – East Tennessee. We’re a bit different here in that this area has voted Republican since the Civil War. But in this election Republicans actually won a majority in the Tennessee state legislature for the first time since 1869, and the government in Nashville will be decidedly reactionary. In Alabama, Barack Obama won only 10% of the white vote; in Mississippi just 11% of whites supported Obama as did a mere 14% of white Louisianans. For all the talk about racists in West Virginia, at least 41% of whites in the Mountain State voted for Obama. No, the retrograde racism is strongest in the Deep South.
And here is why this matters. The “old” South is, far and away, the most conservative region of the country. The South has been politically marginalized before – from 1872 to 1960 the South voted Democratic while much of the rest of the country backed the GOP (except during FDR). But this kind of marginalization is ideological, not partisan. In the past, Dixiecrats aligned with conservative northern Republicans to form a dominant bloc in American government. Recent Democratic Presidents have made enough inroads into Southern life to win nationwide, but only by walking a tightrope between liberal Northerners and conservative Southerners. The price for Southern Democrats straying too far from the conservative Southern line was defeat; Al Gore’s loss in Tennessee exemplified the old power of the South on national politics.
But that world is no longer. The demographic shifts – particularly Northerners moving southward – have finally pushed Atlantic Southern states into the blue column, and those states will likely get bluer with each year.
That’s not to say that Democrats can ignore conservatives or lurch far to the left. It’s just to say that Democrats no longer need to kowtow to SOUTHERN conservatives. They’ll need to avoid angering suburban voters in the West and Midwest, for example. But the distinctively reactionary politics of the old South, long defined by Jesse Helms, Strom Thurmond and a near-majority of the current GOP caucus is now effectively out of national power. The Republican Party, as an institution, will figure out a way to expand again – most likely among white working class voters in the Midwest or, if Obama proves an economic failure, among those centrist suburbanites in the West that Obama just pulled in. But no longer will politicians in either party feel obligated to kiss the ring of the Old South.