Solving the Democrats' Southern Problem, part II
by tgeraghty, Mon Jun 20, 2005 at 12:13:42 PM EDT
After reading some of the thoughtful comments in my previous diary, "Solving the Democrats' Southern Problem," I'm becoming increasingly convinced that writing off the South is a bad idea for the Democrats. I think there are real steps that we can take to woo Southern (and Western, and Midwestern) moderates without abandoning traditional liberal commitments of equality for women, gays, and other minority groups. Plus, forcing the Republicans to fight in some of these Southern states is just good political strategy.
Attacking the Republicans in a center of their strength is a page straight out of Karl Rove's playbook, and would force the Republicans to divert at least some resources to defending their position there; resources that would not be available for attacking us elsewhere. We obviously can't win all or even a majority of Southern states anytime soon. But we must be contenders in places like Virginia, North Carolina, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Florida, and we will make winning national elections much easier if we can pick off a couple of these states.
In addition, as Browder emphasizes, fabricating a successful progressive "Southern strategy" will help us in other areas of the country that share cultural affinities with the South - Midwestern states like (southern) Ohio or Missouri where we desperately need to become more competitive. It might even help us in the West; note that Browder obviously admires the approach that Brian Schweitzer is taking in Montana.
To me, the key is to develop an approach that appeals to moderate Southerners (what Browder wants) without abandoning fundamental commitments to good Democratic voters who value social equality for groups like women, African-Americans, and gays.
Undoubtedly, this will be something of a high-wire act, but maybe it can be done. How?
(1) Economic Populism
I think a reinvigorated class appeal to Southerners, Westerners, and Americans in general must be foremost in such a strategy. This would essentially be the mirror image of what Republicans have done over the last 30 years -- form a coalition of business, wealthy elites, and the white working class based on cultural and values issues, religious faith and patriotism (basically what successful conservative parties have been doing for a century or more -- see Disraeli in England, Bismarck in Germany, or McKinley in the US).
The only possible winning coalition that I see for the center-left in the near future is one that combines the "emerging Democratic majority" - the McGovern coalition of educated upper middle class liberals, women, minorities, etc (which is not yet large enough to assume power on its own) and a significant portion of the white working class (still the largest portion of the electorate).
The traditional way we do this is by appealing to the thing we all have in common: we are not rich, in an economy and political system that is increasingly run by and for wealthy elites and corporations. This will be especially relevant to the South (and West) if we begin to study and develop a policy agenda to alleviate some of the economic and social problems that plague America's rural areas and small towns.
I know this won't please Wall Street and the DLC, but it must be done, in my view.
(2) Social Issues
This is the tricky part; how do we acknowledge the real issues that many white working class voters have with American culture, without breaching fundamental progressive commitments?
One thing is to offer compromises on some of these issues:
- On abortion, maybe the Bill & Hillary approach: emphasize "safe, legal, and rare," and offer policies to explicitly reduce the number of abortions in this country.
- On gay rights, perhaps what Paul Rosenberg suggested in a recent diary: insist on equal rights through civil union or domestic partnership legislation, do not fear to state our approval for gay marriage, but do not foist gay marriage laws on a (at the moment) substantially unwilling population. We keep a fundamental commitment, while acknowledging concerns of many of the white working class voters we want to reach.
- On guns, recognize the right of law-abiding citizens to own guns for self-protection or for sport, and recognize that different parts of the country have different preferences for gun regulation, so keep the issue at state level as much as possible (the Howard Dean/Brian Schweitzer approach).
- On popular culture, Mark Schmitt has an interesting take on the issue:
So perhaps we can integrate the class appeal and critique of modern American capitalism that I suggested above with parental concerns about pop culture in a way that doesn't subvert our commitment to freedom of conscience and the First Amendment. Wouldn't that be a neat trick!
I think the real challenge here is to make people see that liberal Democrats are willing to acknowledge the validity of the concerns of traditional values voters (yes, we feel their pain) through publicly, loudly, and clearly offering some compromises on these issues, rather than the actual content of the compromises themselves (which will prevent us from having to breach those fundamental commitments that I spoke of). The perception may be more important than the reality here.
The objective would be to take the yoke of cultural extremism off of our necks and to place it squarely where it belongs, on the Republicans' necks. We Democrats are not the extremists on abortion, gun control, and gay rights, the conservatives are. Do most people realize, for example, that the 2004 Republican platform essentially calls for doctors who perform abortions to be prosecuted for murder? Since most Americans believe that abortion should be legal at least part of the time, even Southern moderates might not be down with the religious right's approach to this particular issue.
This is what Armando over at Daily Kos refers to as the "Lincoln 1860" strategy:
That is what we need to do to the Republicans on these cultural issues.
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