Tuesday, August 19, 2008

A Blue Dixie ... or is Populism gone with the wind?

The release of Bob Moser's Blue Dixie: Awakening the South's Democratic Majority is accompanied by his Salon's How Democrats can take back the South: The author of "Blue Dixie" says don't give up on the region -- but don't pander to it with Clintonian centrism. Thomas Schaller, author of Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South, counters with his own Salon piece titled Dixie is gone with the wind: No economic-populism-inspired revivals are going to turn the region blue. Virginia's Jim Webb is a lonely exception. I appreciated Mr. Moser's description of the Democratic Leadership Council as having
"helped reshape the party into a Wall Street-friendly, free-trading, Bible-quoting, culturally moderate shell of the New Deal coalition --every last compromise justified by the pressing need to woo those crucial Southern whites."
I appreciate his calls to campaign and also craft the right message yet also agree with Mr. Schaller when he reminds us

" ... the prescriptions Moser offers in "Blue Dixie" are closer to overstated hopes, often based on anecdotal evidence contradicted by broader patterns or wholesale data. If economic populism were an untapped electoral reservoir in the South, Southern state budgets would not be among the lowest per capita in the country, unions would not be weaker than in any other region, and working-class white Southerners would already be joined at the hip with working-class black Southerners as the backbone of the most Democratic region in America. But these are not Southern political realities, and wishing them so will not make them so. ...

... the book is his prescription for a heavy dose of economic populism. That worked well in the South before LBJ's Great Society precisely because the New Deal's redistributive policies benefited whites almost exclusively. After the civil rights movement and Great Society, however, redistribution had to be racially inclusive, and economic populism just doesn't sell as well now that "populism" means all of the people. Were the South not the most racially polarized region in America, that wouldn't matter. But as the 2004 National Election Study shows, it remains so. The golden era of the pre-Great Society, solid Democratic South can never be reconstituted.

Moser knows that, but insists that Dixie can at least get back some of its blue hue. He may be right about that in the long term, but doing so in the near future will take more than strong populist messaging or authentic, Webb-like candidates. (This November, if Barack Obama wins any Southern state except Virginia it will be because he was swept into office in an electoral landslide.) At minimum, at least two preconditions must be in place: a fundamental shift in the social attitudes of Southerners and a racial d├ętente between working-class whites and blacks. Barring that, calls for economic-populism-inspired revivals will only leave Southern Democrats blue in the face."

The above is a tough one to swallow and yet I fear there are some truths here. I have little if any confidence in the current "leadership" (like Lowell Barron, Joe Turnham, Ken Guin, Nancy Worley, etc.) in Alabama's Democratic Party creating change so perhaps this is all academic. I also think trying to change the party from within would take some truly heroic efforts given the hurdles facing true Progressives in Alabama. John Gunn

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