Is Southern Democracy dead?
Or will the Democratic Party rise again as the ruling regime in this part of the country?
In previous posts, I laid out major challenges for reeling regional Democrats. Now, I want to present my conclusion and five recommendations regarding the future of Southern Democracy.
To answer my original, rhetorical question -- Southern Democracy is not dead. But my opinion is that the Democratic Party will not recapture regional hegemony; nor will Democrats assume parity with the Republicans in this region soon. There's not much the Democrats can do to turn the situation around easily and quickly; and some things are outside their control. But there are strategic actions that might help restore them over the long haul as competitive voices and players in this part of the country.
My general observation is that, while forced to muddle for the time being, Southern Democrats must devote serious long-term attention and energy to an alternative future -- still different culturally, more moderate politically, and less burdened with traditional baggage -- for Southern Democracy. However, building an acceptable alternative for the future means more than simple hope and change; it means more than stylistic fervor; it means serious planning, substantive commitment, and successful performance.
Now, here's some specific advice for Southern Democrats:
1. Understand that Southern Democracy is not dead -- but its future is iffy.
Certainly Southern Democrats can help themselves through re-branding, re-organizing, and possibly GOP mistakes; but Democratic revival in this region requires more than conventional strategy and expectant opportunism. Southern Democrats must address some broader, more fundamental questions about their current predicament and appropriate response if they hope to resume a competitive role in Southern politics.
2. Embrace the changing and enduring South.
Perhaps the most important lesson for Southern Democrats to learn, other than the conflicted nature of their regional history, is that the South is both changing and enduring. The South is becoming more like America (in some ways good, in some ways bad); but the South will be a distinctive region (for good or bad) for a long time. And these dynamics place special responsibilities on those who aspire to leadership.
Southern Democrats thus have to learn to deal realistically and practically with the region's attitude toward stubborn legacies of race and poverty; they need to push aggressively but sensitively for cures to endemic problems -- all the while holding on to certain aspects of regional culture, even when others demean that culture.
3. Re-introduce yourself to the middle class.
I also suggest that Southern Democrats start re-introducing themselves to the middle class, with proper compassion for those who want to better their lot and equal allegiance to the taxpayer.
Furthermore, the regional Democratic Party must present and push new policy plans--without crass class demagoguery from both parties at the national level -- for overcoming historical mistakes and making life better for everybody.
Perhaps after a few years of GOP rule, Southern voters will indeed look for alternative vision and leadership; and addressing middle class issues is central to Democratic success.
4. Prepare a popular moderate-to-progressive alternative for if-and-when.
At some time in the coming years, the Southern terrain may indeed shift sufficiently so that the Democratic Party can rejoin the fray of Southern politics in competition with the Republican Party. Realignment over the past few decades has reaped immediate benefits among traditional Southerners for the GOP; but other dynamics in this region -- particularly among younger and in-migrant Southerners -- could favor the Democrats.
For example, I believe that racial attitudes of the past will loosen their grip on citizens of this region. Also, divisive social issues, while important, may cease to distract these new Southerners from their collective interests in such things as good schools and healthy communities. Lastly, I think that voters increasingly will see that stark public retrenchment is no answer to stubborn economic problems.
Southern Democrats thus must prepare a popular, moderate-to-progressive agenda -- practically addressing historic problems of leadership, race, and poverty -- for that New South.
5. Institutionalize future leadership and solutions.
Southern Democrats may also want to develop civic entities supportive of their renewed mission. I'm suggesting the creation of party-sponsored leadership councils, policy commissions, and think tanks -- at both regional and state levels -- to help define real problems and identify positive solutions reflective of Southern culture. These institutions should be sufficiently independent of state party machinery and they should be run by professionals, with primary responsibility for developing future leaders, realistic policy counsel, and reliable research for voters and the news media. They should focus on key elements of progress like education, jobs, housing, healthcare, transportation, and infrastructure.
Democrats cannot win campaigns and govern effectively with the same old arguments and excuses of the past; but fresh new leaders, good ideas, solid research, and popular programs could prove very valuable and constructive for Southern Democracy in the long term.
Sounds like pie-in-the-sky? Maybe. But loyal Democrats have to believe that, in time, Southerners will demand different politics and better governance in this part of the country.
In that better environment somewhere down the road, maybe Southern Democrats -- committed to the middle class and armed with popular ideas -- will not have to worry about juggling policy sentiments and gut-wrenching electoral strategies; perhaps then they will discover anew the passion that fired Southern politics of the past.
Absent such efforts, we may see a drastically diminished Southern Democracy for many years to come.
Author's Note: This is the final post in a series about the future of the Democratic Party in the South.