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Bob Moser explains why Dixie is fertile Democratic territory 

A new Southern strategy

click to enlarge 9.17-culture.lead.bluedixie.gif

Blue Dixie: Awakening the South's Democratic Majority
By Bob Moser
Times Books, 274 pp.

Suppose you're a Democratic candidate for president, running more or less as a liberal, locked in a pretty tight election. With two months to go in the campaign you are trailing in every Southern state. Shouldn't you at that point cut your losses and invest time and resources elsewhere, in key swing states you might actually win?

Conventional political wisdom—both among political scientists and many top Democratic strategists, including the ones who ran John Kerry's campaign in 2004—says yes.

John Kerry, who early in 2004 stated that "everyone makes the mistake of looking south," essentially stopped campaigning in the South, pulling campaign staff out of North Carolina and Virginia in late summer. In much of the South, as vice presidential candidate John Edwards later noted with chagrin, there was no evidence that fall that the Democrats were even contesting the White House.

Kerry instead poured everything into Ohio, to no avail. But the soundness of Kerry's strategic choice has been defended by some prominent scholars and pundits, most notably political scientist Thomas Schaller of the University of Maryland-Baltimore County.

In his 2006 book Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South (recently re-issued as a paperback with a new afterword), Schaller makes two principal arguments for a non-Southern Democratic strategy.

First, Schaller argues that there is no hope of Democrats making substantial gains in the former Confederate states in the near future in presidential contests. (In the latest edition, he has revised this thesis to account for recent Democratic gains in Virginia.) Rocky Mountain and Western states such as Montana, Colorado and New Mexico represent more promising terrain for near-term Democratic gains.

Second, and equally important, Schaller argues that efforts to compete in the South at the presidential level are not only unlikely to succeed, but likely to harm the Democratic Party as a whole. Attempting to win over conservative-to-moderate white voters in the South requires backing away from strong principled positions. The result is a schizophrenic Democratic Party with no clear "brand" identity.

Schaller thus recommends that the Democrats concentrate on building a solid brand image based on moderate liberal principles: a smart national security strategy that addresses actual security vulnerabilities instead of relying on pre-emptive attacks overseas; economic policies based on the notions of public investment and providing security to all; and strong defense of individual civil liberties and rights. In addition, Schaller says, Democrats should focus on particular issues on which they can actually deliver the goods, and should try to identify emerging issues that might benefit the party over the long term (such as support for immigrant rights).

Schaller believes the South would be the last region to embrace a platform of this kind, and suggests the Democrats might again be competitive in Dixie around 2028. In the meantime, the party's presidential contenders (even if they are themselves Southerners) should look away from Dixieland.

Schaller's arguments have won respect from many national pundits—but appalled many progressives, liberals and populists in the South. Representing those voices is Bob Moser in his important and entertaining new book Blue Dixie: Awakening the South's Democratic Majority.

click to enlarge Author Bob Moser
  • Author Bob Moser

Moser argues that the whistling past Dixie strategy is flawed in tactical terms, profoundly misguided in strategic terms, and indefensible in moral terms. Moser, who is a political correspondent for The Nation and former editor-in-chief of the Independent Weekly, presents his case through a series of insightful reports on victorious Democratic candidates in the South in the 2006 elections, along with analysis of Kerry's 2004 campaign and coverage of the 2008 Democratic primary race through early spring.

Moser's core argument is that Democrats can compete in the South—not in the distant future, but here and now—by embracing a populist approach on economics and addressing the concrete issues of jobs, wages and economic stability. Whereas Schaller assumes that competing in the South means adopting a Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), Clintonesque, GOP Lite approach, Moser argues—and shows—that Democrats have done better in the South in recent elections by tacking to the left.

Consider the case of Democratic congressman Heath Shuler, elected from Western North Carolina's 11th district in 2006. At the start of his campaign, the former Tennessee Volunteers and Washington Redskins quarterback stressed his personal faith and cultural conservatism, following the traditional strategy of trying to prove to voters that one can be a Democrat and a red-blooded American at the same time. Shuler got nowhere stressing these themes, but his campaign took off once he began emphasizing concrete, lunch-bucket economic issues on the stump. Shuler was elected to Congress by a comfortable margin.

Consider also the contrasting fortunes of two Democratic senate candidates in 2006. In Tennessee, African-American candidate Harold Ford Jr. ran as a hard-core cultural conservative with a very hard-line position on illegal immigration—without providing an accompanying populist economic message. Ford lost (in part due to some thinly veiled racist attacks by the Tennessee GOP). Meanwhile, over in Virginia, Jim Webb coupled his pro-military cultural conservatism with a strong position against the Iraq War and an even stronger populist economic pitch. Aided by an incredible racist gaffe by incumbent George Allen, Webb came out of nowhere to claim an improbable victory.

Taken alone, these examples are just stories and might be dismissed by political scientists as the sort of random variation in particular campaigns that no general statistics-based predictive model can capture. But Moser argues that these examples have an underlying logic: Voters in the South, especially white working-class voters, are now ripe for an appeal from the populist left on economic concerns, from health care to employment. Republican economic policies and the economic pain they have brought have created a growing constituency for a revival of the class-based populism that has from time to time illuminated the South's political history.

Consequently, to conclude that Democrats can't compete in the South, on the basis of the failures of recent decades, is simply wrong. The proper conclusion is that Democrats can't compete using the same old DLC, GOP Lite message. A Democratic party that based its appeal on class has an opportunity to forge real gains in the South in 2008 and the immediate future.

That's the tactical argument for not whistling past Dixie. The strategic argument Moser presents had to do with longer-term political alignments. Moser presents three key points against Schaller's "wait until 2028" approach.

First, continuing demographic shifts mean that the South will command more electoral votes in the presidential elections of 2012, 2016 and 2020, and probably yet more beyond that. The mathematical basis for a non-Southern electoral strategy will get slimmer and slimmer as time goes on.

Second, Schaller's conclusion ignores the possibility that the Democratic Party itself might get reinvigorated in the South at the grassroots level—not as a "brand," but as a concrete organization that mobilizes constituents and turns out voters. As Moser points out, throughout the long period of Republican ascendancy in the South, the Democratic Party has largely been an empty shell at the county level, with often only minimal resources available to state parties as well.

That has begun to change in remarkably short order as a direct consequence of the 50-state strategy implemented by Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean since 2004. As Moser documents, for the first time in many years, state parties now have sufficient resources to hire enough local organizers to make a tangible difference at the local level. As a result, county-level parties that have been dormant for decades in places like Wilkes County in Western North Carolina have begun to re-emerge. While Schaller also praises the 50-state strategy, he underplays the possibility that grassroots Democratic revival might change political dynamics in the South sooner rather than later.

Third, and most importantly, Moser points out that there is a significant difference between the aim of winning a presidential election and the aim of actually achieving progressive legislative goals in Washington. You can win the White House with a narrow 51-49 majority that excludes the South, but you're very unlikely to pass national health care reform or other important domestic legislation without building a wider governing majority.

Moser thus presents strong tactical and strategic arguments for a blue-Dixie strategy. But the fuel for his sharp arguments and reporting comes from an underlying moral conviction: that regardless of tactical and strategic considerations, it is simply immoral for the national Democratic Party to stop competing in the South.

Southern states, after all, comprise the region with the highest levels of poverty, the most inadequate provision of health care and education, the most severe legacy of racism, and the worst-paid, least unionized worked force. Moser effectively points out that it is wrong to think these problems represent peculiarly Southern "pathologies" (as Schaller describes them); rather, they represent an accentuated version of trends and characteristics found everywhere in America. The Southern problem is the American problem.

To abandon the South to the right wing, to refuse to challenge the echo chamber of conservative rhetoric, amounts to refusing to challenge the most severe examples of injustice in the United States. Moreover, it is folly to suggest that America as a nation can move in a progressive direction without serious progressive change in the South; it's ahistorical to think that the South is not capable of dramatic social change or that the conservative trends of the last 30 years are destined to continue for the next 30 as well. Changing the course of the country must mean changing the course of the South, not running away from it.

Be all that as it may, we are still left with the practical political question Schaller poses: Here in 2008, does the Democratic presidential ticket really want to invest a lot of time and resources in the South?

Barack Obama's answer so far has been quite different from that offered by John Kerry in 2004.

Obama has active operations in every state and is mounting a much stronger effort in the South than Kerry did, especially in Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia. He's able to do this because his unique campaign violates two assumptions (one explicit, one implicit) that Schaller makes about Democratic presidential candidates.

The first is that Democrats will always have fewer monetary resources than Republicans. If that's the case, as Schaller points out, then it is irrational to try to match Republican spending in places you are likely to lose anyway.

The second (implicit) assumption is that no Democratic presidential candidate in the near future would ever build a genuinely grassroots campaign based on strong local organizations.

Obama's campaign violates both those assumptions, thanks to his unprecedented online fundraising machine and his strong investments in community-organizing style local operations. Those operations multiply the value of the monetary investments Obama has made in hundreds of local offices nationwide (including 15 in North Carolina and nearly 40 in Virginia) by mobilizing an army of campaign volunteers and college-age interns to collaborate with full-time staff.

Click for larger image • Left to right: In Obama's Raleigh office, Rodney and Eric Ellis wait as Cheryl Ellis, a volunteer, goes outside. - PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE

Consequently, the Obama campaign has a substantial ground presence throughout the South, without compromising Obama's ability to compete in the swing states. (Obama has nearly 70 campaign offices in Ohio.)

Yet while money and volunteer time may not be inherently scarce resources, a candidate's time is. Here is where the logic of Schaller's thesis is likely to kick in during the campaign's closing stages. Do we really expect Obama to spend precious time in October courting voters in Chapel Hill and Durham, let alone locales further south, rather than in states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan?

The answer here is probably not—a point I doubt even Moser would contest. Indeed, it was reported last week that Obama is moving campaign staff out of Georgia.

In that narrow but important sense, Schaller's thesis holds. Nonetheless, it is well worth noting that Schaller too now counts Virginia—where Obama continues to campaign extensively—as a contestable, winnable state, a development that stands at odds with his prior overstated claims that the South is incapable of changing any time soon.

That modification speaks to a deeper issue raised by the Schaller-Moser debate, concerning the very way we think about politics. Do we take political geographies as largely static, and make projections about the future on the basis of the immediate past? Or do we take political geographies as fluid, and assume that human action and concerted political efforts can alter political landscapes in fundamental ways?

Schaller's thesis largely reflects the first conception of politics. The conservatives who developed a long-term strategy beginning in the 1960s and '70s to move America to the right embraced the latter view, and so too does Moser and the many Southern progressives he documents in Blue Dixie.

Obama, too, clearly subscribes to the view that sustained civic and community organizing can transform political realities, though he does not readily speak the populist language Moser calls for and though he has been painfully awkward at times in trying to speak about the concerns of the white working class.

Nonetheless, Obama clearly hopes to usher in a different kind of politics and to build a 50-state Democratic Party that can transcend the red-blue state divide and challenge Republican predominance all over the map, including the South.

Ironically, in this campaign's final weeks he will need to pursue a narrower geographic strategy that largely bypasses the South in order to get a chance to realize that broader vision.

Bob Moser makes two Triangle appearances: Monday, Sept. 22, 7:30 p.m. at Quail Ridge Books and Tuesday, Sept. 23, 7 p.m. at Regulator Books.

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