For Democrats and liberals -- not always the same thing in the Deep South -- it is a time for soul-searching about the gains made by Republicans across the region.
At a conference at the University of North Carolina, a number of prominent Democrats, from elected officials to grass-roots activists, gathered last week to assess the state of the venerable progressive tradition in Southern politics.
Progressives have an extraordinary and honorable pedigree in the South, championing civil rights and access to health care, education reform and other vital improvements in the lives of the poorest Southerners. But is that tradition passť in light of electoral victories for Republicans?
Political scientists and pollsters assessed the situation in studies for the conference, "New Strategies for Southern Progress" at Chapel Hill. Much of the discussion was about the political impact of cultural and social issues exploited against Democratic candidates -- in shorthand, "God, guns and gays."
Those issues redounded to the benefit of Republicans, by and large, in the 2004 elections. Susan Howell of the University of New Orleans noted that 10 of 11 Southern states showed an increase in the GOP vote for president over the 2000 election.
While many high-school graduates or less-educated voters share populist concerns about issues such as Social Security and health care, white voters tend to be "conservative populists," she said.
In one survey, white Southern respondents with high school diplomas or less education agreed that the federal government controls too much of daily life by a 2-to-1 margin. For college graduates or those with advanced degrees, the Southern whites were split, 47 percent agreeing and 50 percent disagreeing.
If Southern politics is to take a turn away from the right, it will be because of appeals to "the advantaged versus the disadvantaged angle," she said.
Officeholders and political consultants put it more bluntly.
Mudcat Saunders, a Virginia consultant who talked with a country accent appropriate to his moniker, said that Democrats lost the white males, the ol' boys who like to hunt and fish and see Democrats as effete elitists hostile to those pastimes.
"We got to get past the culture," he said.
More elegantly, North Carolina consultant Mac McCorkle said that Democrats have problems with policies as well as perceptions. He noted that Southerners are very religious, and instinctively don't buy the ideal of separation of church and state. "That is just incomprehensible to Southerners," he said.
"I think there is a large disconnect between the liberal educated mind in the South and the popular mind," McCorkle said.
"People will follow great human beings with great ideas for humanity," said Georgia state Sen. Sam Zamarripa, arguing that the dramatic changes in society sparked by a worldwide economy and opportunities for creative thinkers means that progressive politics can transcend recent losses. "The dissecting of that (white male) strategy is consultants' fodder," said Zamarippa, who is of Cuban descent.
America is changing so rapidly that politics has a hard time keeping up, he said, urging analysts to visit maternity wards where children are increasingly multiethnic. "Your sons and daughters are marrying Indonesians from Jakarta," he said, adding to laughter, "even, God forbid, Cubans."
U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek, R-Fla., who is black, said that politics should be a matter of talking across traditional lines, to "share with individuals outside our comfort zone." The consultant-driven politics that chips off constituencies through appeals to prejudices or fears "rewards bad behavior" by legislators and others in public life, Meek said.
But there was no question that many analysts are focused on the good ol' boy problem for progressive candidates, despite all the arguments that Republicans are interested in fat cats and Democrats the working people.
"Up in Henry County, there's a mill worker unemployed because of free trade, his wife is working at a Wal-Mart without benefits, his kid is sick," Saunders said. "The election comes around and he hears that some judge in Massachusetts says two gay guys can get married, and he goes and votes for George W. Bush.
"What in the hell is wrong with this picture?"
Lanny Keller is an editorial writer for The Advocate.
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