Is there any way for the Democratic Party to restore its role as a competitive force in the South? What can loyal Democrats do to prevent the death of "Southern Democracy"?
First and simply, Southern Democrats need to recognize the reality of their reddening environment.
The following observations represent my own assessment (based on several decades experience as a former Democratic public official and longtime political scientist) of future prospects for the Democratic Party in the South. I'm expressing my views after being out of politics for several years because I think that the party needs to take stock of the contemporary situation and consider its future options.
A regional and national party problem.
I have suggested that all Southern Democrats would be well-served to do some sober thinking about their predicament and appropriate response in a still-reddening political environment.
Actually, this situation is important both regionally and nationally. Demise of the Donkey party in this part of the country might prove disastrous in several respects -- recruitment of candidates, sustainment of activists, and fund-raising -- for both Southern Democracy and National Democracy. Some may laugh and wave derisive goodbyes to the Old Confederacy; but wholesale forfeiture of the people and resources of such a huge region could spell major, long-term problems for Democratic aspirations regarding the White House and Congress.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's return to a discussion about the South's transforming party system.
The reality of history.
The immediate assignment for Southern Democrats is accepting the reality of regional history. Many Yellow Dogs consider their current situation a passing problem that can and will be corrected through renewed fervor and conventional campaigning. I think the party's problem is much more than a temporary setback.
Since mid-20th century, academic scholars have documented conservative cultural and political entrenchment in a South still beset with troubling racial legacies. Most white Southerners -- the prevailing constituency in this region -- have settled comfortably in the Republican Party; such alignment befits their racial, social, and economic inclinations. In the same time, liberals and minorities of various stripes, who proudly preach progressive sentiments, have assumed leading roles in the Democratic Party.
It can be argued that, for the first time in history, Southern politics has now experienced rational transformation in line with the national prescriptions of American democracy.
Culminating consequences of election 2010.
Election 2010 dramatically culminated this regional transformation; and Republicans now predominate throughout the Old Confederacy. They represent majority or plurality electorates in most states (7 of 11) and the most recent presidential election (8 of 11). Likewise, they boast overwhelming control of public office, including governorships (9 of 11), state legislatures (10 of 11), and congressional delegations (10 of 11).
Furthermore, there are significant consequences for the tone and substance of Southern policy discourse. Most notably, there has been a decline of relatively progressive leaders and influence in Southern states. In the latter decades of the past century, a Democratic coalition of white politicians (working with black groups and kindred party interests) often were able to forge a competitive alignment that practiced moderate politics and legislation in this part of the country. Now, these moderate white leaders are few and far between in the corridors of regional power.
African-American Democrats have suffered different but comparable setback. A couple decades ago, most Southern black legislators enjoyed the power and influence of Democratic control in their chambers; today nearly all of these black representatives serve in the partisan minority. The South has more black elected officials than any other section of the country; but they toil today in lesser status, as racial and partisan backbenchers in Southern state capitols.
A transformed, adverse environment.
Fundamentally, we are looking at a transformed Southern political system dominated by the Republican Party, particularly in the deep South.
In terms of elections, some Democrats can win some elections in some years -- mainly in university towns, majority black communities, and the Peripheral South. Undoubtedly, certain personalities, issues, and various other factors come into play; and Democrats enjoy advantage in some of those situations. But that "D" behind the candidate's name usually represents a 5-10 percent electoral deficit, giving the upper hand to Republicans in most areas, statewide, and regionally.
In terms of policy, Republican regimes are now firmly in charge in most of the South; and the majority party espouses and implements conservative policy.
Hard decisions ahead for Southern Democracy.
It is indeed an adverse environment; and Southern Democrats have to recognize their predicament and make some hard decisions. The next post will deal with the central issue of practicality versus ideology.
Author's Note: This is the second in a series of posts about the future of the Democratic Party in the South.