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Is "Southern Democracy" Dead?

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"Southern Democracy" is in trouble!

Certainly the Democratic Party in the South is not "dead" in the technical sense of total, terminal collapse. But as the current, unfolding election season demonstrates, the excitement and energy of partisan politics lies mainly in Republican campaigns in the South, while the historically-dominant Democrats mainly sit and stew in envy. And such has been the case for a while. So my blunt rhetorical title is a legitimate setup for talking about the state of the Democratic Party in this region.

In coming posts, I will deal with critical questions facing Southern Democracy. This analysis will probably be most interesting to Southerners, politicians, and scholars who study regional politics; but I hope that other readers will find it informative and positively provocative.

Historic decline of Southern Democracy.

I use the term "Southern Democracy" to refer to the entrenched Democratic Party as the historic ruling regime -- and more recently its competitive primacy -- in Southern politics and governance for much of our nation's history.

The institutionalized Democratic Party dominated regional affairs, as a whites-only entity, for almost a century after Reconstruction until the civil rights movement of the 1950s-60s; then absorbing new black voters, the Democrats exercised majority control through the 1970s and into the 1980s. Even as the Southern electorate shifted toward GOP candidates in the 1990s and at the dawn of a new century, Democratic politicians, organizations and voters continued as robust players in the eleven states of the Old Confederacy.

Throughout, Southern Democrats have conducted themselves as a stubborn, contrarian version of their national party. For a long time, the Solid South maintained partisan electoral loyalty as part of a strange gentlemen's agreement with their national party leaders to preserve regional autonomy on racial matters; later on, they conducted an uneasy, awkward relationship with the national party. All the while, Southern Democrats usually went their own way on issues of concern to more progressive partisans.

But the South turned a sharp partisan corner in Election 2010; and Southern Democracy clearly faces more painful adjustments in 2012 and thereafter.

So it is worthwhile to ask whether the traditionally dominant party is going to survive for the long term as an effective player, in competitive parity with the Republicans, in the Southern states. Or, are Southern Democrats devolving into permanent minority status as the loyal blue opposition in a really red region?

Yellow-Dogged optimism.

It is clear that hard-core, progressive Southern Democrats -- the "Yellow Dogs" -- are defiantly optimistic about their philosophy and future, as revealed in remarks to the news media and among themselves at party rallies.

As a reminder for those who don't keep up with Southern politics, the term "Yellow Dog" is an honorific reference to faithful partisans who would vote for a yellow dog before pulling the Republican lever. It goes back to the blind allegiance of the Solid South to the Democratic Party after the Civil War; and it is reserved today for unabashed champions of progressive politics. Yellow Dogs have long been and are still the heart and soul of the Democratic Party in every Southern state. By comparison, the "Blue Dogs" are a relatively recent incarnation who practice moderate-to-conservative politics, much to the consternation of the party core. (More about this family feud later in my assessment.)

The conventional wisdom among Yellow Dogs is that "We've got to refine our message and shout it out loudly and proudly." They claim that Republicans have bamboozled Southern voters; and once Democratic loyalists explain things clearly in terms of common-sense economics, most Southerners will see the light and flock back to the traditional party of the people. Some organizational activists emphasize that "We've got to revitalize our grassroots operations." Others are more opportunistically hopeful: "Just wait! The Republicans will screw things up bad soon and we'll be back in power just like before."

A cautionary assessment.

I'll not dwell further here on these scenarios other than to acknowledge that they all have some merit. But I doubt that Yellow-Dogged optimism will be enough for successful comeback of Southern Democracy.

I also know that I'm opening a contentious argument by even questioning, as a long-time Democrat, the future of Southern Democracy. Many Democrats and Republicans disagreed with my sentiments when I was in politics; and they undoubtedly will challenge my cautionary assessment of the current situation and my recommendations for the future. I hope my friends and critics will respond in constructive manner to the questions presented here.

The critical questions.

Being an ex-professor, I'll deal with the issue socratically, by asking critical questions and interjecting my own sentiments at certain points in a series of discussions over the next few posts. Answers, or non-answers, to the following key questions may reveal how Southern Democracy will fare as a political force in the years ahead:

1. How serious is the current plight of Southern Democracy?

2. Do Southern Democrats want to be practical players or ideological voices?

3. Can Southern Democrats survive the legacies of race and racism?

4. Can Yellow Dogs and Blue Dogs rekindle their romance?

5. Will National Democrats dump the white working class?

6. Is there a future -- short term or long term -- for Southern Democracy?

Stay tuned for the next post about Southern Democracy in peril!

Author's Note: This is the first post in a series about the future of the Democratic Party in the South.

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