Published on Monday, December, 29, 2003 by the Guardian/UK
Why Democrats Must not Abandon the Old Stronghold
The Party needs to Reach out to Poor Southern Voters - Black and White
by Gary Younge
In his hypocrisy, the late senator Strom Thurmond was a typical old-school southern gentleman. In public, he espoused the separation of the races. Standing as a segregationist for the presidency in 1948, he insisted: "On the question of social intermingling of the races, our people draw the line." In private, he practiced the sexual intermingling of the races. "His people" did indeed draw a line. But it was neither straight nor true. Thurmond slept with his family's black maid. Earlier this month Essie Mae Washington-Williams, a 78-year-old black woman from Los Angeles, came forward to say that she was Thurmond's daughter.
"It makes perfect sense," said Edmund Ball, author of Slaves in the Family. "The typical case is that the son of a master's family tested out his sexuality on a vulnerable young woman in the master's house. That is exactly what Strom did." But if there was method in the madness of his personal life, there was no less logic in the contradictions of his political career.
Thurmond started as a Democrat, left in an attempt to use race as a wedge to open up the two-party system, and when he failed joined the Republicans, in whose arms he died in June. As Thurmond went, so went the South. Once the stronghold of the Democrats, the states of the former Confederacy are now the Republicans' most reliable base. When Thurmond first stood for office in 1928, three-quarters of the states won by the Democratic presidential contender were in the South. When he retired in January, the Republicans had won every southern state (with the arguable exception of Florida).
This dramatic realignment has been reshaping the US political landscape for the past 40 years. Next year's presidential election could well complete the process. The Democratic party is now thinking what would once have been unthinkable. Regardless of who is the candidate, they plan to give up altogether on seriously contesting the South.
To imagine just how much of a radical step this represents, both in policy and political geography, you would have to imagine the Labour party abandoning Scotland, completely, to the Tories by 2044. Not just losing there, but feeling that their chances were so slim that it wasn't worth their while to fight.
The immediate electoral arithmetic makes sense. The American election is decided not by popular vote but an electoral college where candidates effectively compete to win each individual state, which holds votes proportionate to its population. Even though Al Gore won no southern states, he lost the last election by just four votes in the electoral college. So if whoever wins the Democratic nomination can hold the same states that Gore did - a big but not unreasonable if - the issue will be where to pick up the remaining four votes. Those who advocate withdrawal from the South argue that rather than pouring financial and political resources into fighting for Florida's 25 votes - the only southern state where Gore even came close - why not go for New Hampshire's four, or the 21 in Ohio.
It's not just a question of resources. On almost every issue from gay rights to labour laws, the South is more conservative than any other part of the country. Why, given the potential north of the Mason-Dixon line, should the Democrats go foraging for votes in the rightwing swamps of Florida, when they could remain truer to their message in the liberal north-east and union-strong industrial midwest?
As far as crude numbers go, the appeal of avoiding the South is clear. The problem is that they do not go nearly as far as some claim. The strategy would arguably also suit the Republicans. With the South in the bag, they could also concentrate their resources elsewhere. Making less effort to entice white southerners would allow them to foster a national message that might win over voters in swing states they narrowly lost last time.
If the short-term prospects for abandoning the South are debatable, the long-term effects for the political culture of the nation and the region, not to mention the Democratic party, could be disastrous. Democrats lost the South for the same reason they lost Strom Thurmond - race and racism. The New Deal followed by the civil rights movement transformed their most loyal base from white, racist southerners to African-Americans. Integration of the races heralded the segregation of the parties; with few exceptions in the South, whites vote Republican, blacks vote Democrat.
The Democrats' failure in the South has been due to their inability to capture the votes of a sufficient number of poor whites, by convincing them that whatever privilege they get from their race is more than offset by the disadvantage experienced by their class. Being white has not saved many of them from having no healthcare, poor education and low pay. The South may be the most conservative region in the country, but it is also the most impoverished.
Failing to connect with poor whites and enthuse poor blacks is the Democrats' national problem, not a regional one. Of the 10 non-southern states with the highest rates of poverty, the Republicans won seven in 2000. Meanwhile, black Americans are the Democrats' most loyal base, yet among the most reluctant to turn out. For the Democrats to turn their backs on the poorest, blackest region in the country is unlikely to be the solution. As a short-term electoral tactic it might just work, but as a long-term approach it reflects not a means to an end but a mindset.
Uniting white and black southerners on grounds of class, rather than race, has long been considered a pipe-dream for the American left. But as Essie Mae Washington-Williams and the Thurmond family reminded us earlier this month, white and black southerners are bound together more closely than most are prepared to admit.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003