These are soul-searching times for Southern Democracy.
Southern Democracy -- defined as entrenched regional rule -- is no more. Republicans now reign throughout most of the South. The best that Southern Democrats can hope for is restoring their party to competitive parity in a two-party system.
However, it takes a lot of faith to believe that Democratic restoration in this part of the country lies simply in refining the brand, re-organizing at the grassroots, and hoping that the Republicans mess up as the governing party.
Unfortunately, I'm not sure that Southern Democrats understand the seriousness of their situation, know whether they want to be practical players or progressive voices, can overcome the legacies of race and racism, or can repair the rift between Yellow Dogs and Blue Dogs. Even beyond these problems, looming strategic decisions at the national level could prove disastrous for the regional party in 2012 and beyond.
As might be expected, many of my fellow Democrats are experiencing extreme heartburn as our party struggles through unpleasant times. One of my Alabama friends (a self-described "Yaller Dawg" whose rural politicking goes back a half-century) recently sent me an email bemoaning the situation. He added that, if Southern Democrats cannot do any better than they are currently doing, "Maybe we should just walk out on the porch, pee, pull the light chain, and go to bed."
Therefore, we have come to my bottom-line question about the future of Southern Democracy: Is Southern Democracy dead? Or can the historic ruling party rise from trending demise?
The historical reality is that the Republicans have taken charge throughout most of the South; and they continue to expand their dominance through electoral victories, party switchings, and timely retirements among Democratic officials.
Even if the Republicans falter as the controlling regime of governance, I suspect that today's Southern voters would replace most vulnerable or failed GOP leaders with other GOP politicians rather than turning back wholesale to the Democrats. Some progressives are even suggesting that Democrats should start voting in Republican primaries, where they might exercise selective influence. Others suggest that a third party or independent movement is the way to go.
Trapped in historical partisan paradox
It seems to me that Southern Democracy is constrained by contradictory patterns of unfolding history. Long-trending realignment has seriously weakened Democrats as a competitive force; and their prospects for a competitive constituency seem to lie somewhere on the hazy horizon. In short, there is no quick and easy and sure recovery.
Southern Democracy is trapped, at least for awhile, in an historical paradox of partisan trends, a contemporary overlap that favors conservatism over progressivism. The most obvious development, of course, is that for the past few decades large numbers of realigning white natives have put Republicans firmly in control of Southern elections; and the GOP is currently reaping the benefits, in terms of governance, of this windfall realignment.
But that part of the paradoxical time warp is probably time-limited. Election 2010 reflected a long-unfolding realignment, undergirded by a massive windfall of native white Southerners shifting their party preference. That pool of potential switchers has likely been drained, limiting the possibility for much further reddening in the future.
Simultaneously, other less obvious changes, perhaps favorable to the Democrats, are taking place, particularly among younger and in-migrating Southerners. Demographic studies document an increasingly diverse Southern society; and public opinion surveys show a moderating of Southern attitudes across the spectrum of public issues. Younger Southerners and migrants from other regions will not be flaming liberals; but they probably represent a more moderate and attractive market for the Democratic Party in the long run.
The South thus is becoming less traditionally Southern; and tomorrow's South may listen to alternative candidates and consider different policies.
But that's little solace right now for Southern Democracy.
Short term -- muddling through
Most Yellow Dog activists prefer the loud-and-proud strategy, even if they are only liberal voices in the conservative wilderness. But they are not likely to force themselves through traumatic, definitive debates with whatever Blue Dogs are still around. They'll all just grouse among themselves as long as progressive issues resonate among the faithful and some Democrats get elected in a GOP-dominant region.
Actually, there seem to be few options nowadays for weathering the storm, other than re-branding, re-organizing, and criticizing GOP foibles. Yellow Dogs and Blue Dogs, ideological voices and practical politicians, beset by regional divisions and national pressures, may simply have to muddle through their predicament, fussing among themselves, and hoping for happier days in the future.
But muddling and fussing and hoping is not a long-term strategy. The survival of the Democratic Party in this region requires building an acceptable alternative if and when Southern voters start looking for different politics and better governance.
That is the topic for my next and last discussion about the future of Southern Democracy.
Author's Note: This is the seventh in a series of posts about the future of the Democratic Party in the South. The concluding post ("Will Southern Democracy Survive?") will appear here next Sunday.