THE BLOG
04/15/2012 03:37 pm ET | Updated Jun 15, 2012

Will National Democrats Dump the White Working Class (and 'Southern Democracy')?

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Saul Alinsky must be dizzy from frantic turn-overs in their graves.

Karl Marx, V.I. Lenin, and Mao Zedong have to be scratching their heads in the afterlife haunts of revolutionary socialism.

Ghostly images of Gus Hall, George Meany, and Jimmy Hoffa are crying in their beer at the union hall.

George Wallace, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan obviously are high-fiving somewhere and plotting comebacks.

And, evidently, the summoned spirit of Niccolo Machiavelli is very busy in Washington revising The Prince for the Obama presidential campaign.

My point is that all souls from past partisan, political, and class struggles by now must have read and are trying to make sense of the startling, opening paragraph of Thomas Edsall's analysis last fall in the New York Times:

For decades, Democrats have suffered continuous and increasingly severe losses among white voters. But preparations by Democratic operatives for the 2012 election make it clear for the first time that the party will explicitly abandon the white working class.

I'm referencing this speculative version of class strategy because the unfolding presidential campaign will be especially meaningful for the future of Southern Democracy. Throughout history, Southern Democrats have struggled to succeed in an environment of strained relations with the national Democratic Party; and this intra-party feud is rearing its head again as we approach Election 2012.

Whistling past Dixie

Some Democratic activists have been arguing for years that the national party ought to ignore the South, for various reasons, and build its majority elsewhere.

The strategy was pitched most prominently by Thomas F. Schaller in Whistling Past Dixie: How the Democrats Can Win Without the South (2008):

Democrats should forget about recapturing the South in the near term and begin building a national majority that ends, not begins, with restoring their lost southern glory. Most of the South is already beyond the Democrats' reach, and much of the rest continues to move steadily into the Republican column. White Southerners used to be among the most economically liberal voters in America but are now among the most conservative. The South is America's most militaristic and least unionized region, and the powerful combination of race and religion create a socially conservative, electorally hostile environment for most statewide Democratic candidates and almost all Democratic presidential nominees.

And now, as Yogi might say, the unthinkable is being thinked

Apparently, some key strategists for President Barack Obama's reelection have cooled on the working class as an integral element of the party's electoral coalition. For example, Democratic strategists Stanley Greenberg and James Carville, among others, proposed in a memo last fall ("Seizing the New Progressive Common Ground") that the party pursue a new coalition made up, as they described it, absent white working class voters.

At about the same time, academic activists Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin outlined the specifics of that strategy for Election 2012. According to Teixeira and Halpin, in "The Path to 270," Obama can survive by focusing on his progressive base, including people like professors, artists, editors, and social workers, along with African-Americans and Hispanics.

Journalist Edsall was quick to spot the critical historical shift of strategic thinking in that New York Times article ("The Future of the Obama Coalition"):

As a practical matter, the Obama campaign and, for the present, the Democratic Party, have laid to rest all consideration of reviving the coalition nurtured and cultivated by Franklin D. Roosevelt. The New Deal Coalition -- which included unions, city machines, blue-collar workers, farmers, blacks, people on relief, and generally non-affluent progressive intellectuals -- had the advantage of economic coherence. It received support across the board from voters of all races and religions in the bottom half of the income distribution, the very coherence the current Democratic coalition lacks.

Instead, Edsall explains, the party will go after a center-left market:

All pretense of trying to win a majority of the white working class has been effectively jettisoned in favor of cementing a center-left coalition made up, on the one hand, of voters who have gotten ahead on the basis of educational attainment -- professors, artists, designers, editors, human resources managers, lawyers, librarians, social workers, teachers and therapists -- and a second, substantial constituency of lower-income voters who are disproportionately African-American and Hispanic.

At this point, the new progressive coalition may be no more than an intellectual concept; but if ideas like "whistling past Dixie" and "dumping the white working class" take hold at the national level, then we can say "so long" to any semblance of competitive party politics in the South. For some, this speculation may fall into the "Hallelujah!" category; however, for many Southern Democrats, this developing situation merits serious contemplation.

Clear and present danger for Southern Democracy

The problem is that there's simply no prospect for crafting Democratic parity in the Southern electorate within a national party structured along these lines. It is true that the white working class has been an unsteady partner in the progressive cause for quite awhile; but these voters are still vitally important for Democratic candidates throughout the South.

To summarize, Southern Democracy -- recently purged of moderate-to-conservative leaders, facing the rumored forfeiture of white working class voters, and banking on college-educated professionals and poor minorities -- cannot continue as a competitive force.

So, what can Southern Democrats do, right now and over the long haul? That's the question for my next post.

Author's Note: This is the sixth in a series of posts about the future of the Democratic Party in the South. I will conclude this series with a seventh post ("Is It TIme for Southern Democrats to Walk Out on the Porch, Pee, Pull the Light Chain and Go to Bed?") next Sunday and the eighth and final post ("Will Southern Democracy Survive?") the following Sunday.