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On Obama, Race and the End of the Southern Strategy

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Last January, on the morning after the Iowa caucuses, I published the essay you see below: "On Obama, Race and the End of the Southern Strategy." Moved by Senator Obama's incredible speech the night of the caucuses, I spent a great deal of time that morning thinking about what his rise meant for our politics and our nation. I came away believing then, as I do now, that his powerful voice that emerged that night had the potential to have a profound impact on America.

On Obama, Race and the End of the Southern Strategy

For the past several years NDN has been making an argument that for progressives to succeed in the coming century they would have to build a new majority coalition very different from the one FDR built in the 20th century. The nation has changed a great deal since the mid-20th century as we've become more Southern and Western, suburban and exurban, Hispanic and Asian, immigrant and Spanish-speaking, more millennial and aging boomer and more digital age in our life and work habits than industrial age. 21st century progressive success would require building our politics around these new demographic realities.

Looking at the leadership of the Democratic Party today, there is cause for optimism on this score. The four leading Presidential candidates include a mixed race Senator of African descent, an accomplished and powerful woman, a border-state governor of Mexican descent and a populist from the new South. Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi represent areas west of the Rockies. Taken together, these leaders represent a very different kind of politics--a 21st century politics--for the Democrats.

But of all these great changes, the one that may be most important today is the growth of what we call the "minority" population. When I was born in 1963 the country was almost 89 percent white, 10.5 percent African-American and less than 1 percent other. The racial construct of America was, and had been for hundreds of years, a white-black, majority-minority construct, and for most of our history had been a pernicious and exploitive one. Of course, the Civil Rights Movement (particularly the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act) began to change our understanding of race around the time of my birth, but it was the Immigration Act of 1965 that changed the face of America. That act changed who would enter America, reorienting our new immigrant pool from Europe, as it had been for over 300 years, to Latin America and Asia. And America changed.

As the chart below shows, today America is 66 percent white and 33 percent "minority". While the African-American population has grown a bit, most of that increase has come from the recent historic wave of Asian and Hispanic immigrants. In my half a lifetime, the "minority" population in the United States has tripled. When I was born, one of ten people walking around America were non-white. Today it is one out of three.



I think it is safe to say that America is going through the most profound demographic transformation in its long history. If current trends continue, America will be majority minority in my lifetime or soon thereafter. In a single lifetime we will have gone from a country made up largely of white Europeans to one that looks much more like the rest of the world.

If Senator Obama becomes the Democratic nominee, this profound change will become something we all begin to discuss openly. Today the nation is having a big conversation about this change - whether it understands it or not - through our ongoing debate over immigration. While this debate has seen some of the most awful racist rhetoric and imagery since the days of Willie Horton, what should leave us all optimistic is that only 15 percent of the country is truly alarmed about the new wave of immigrants arriving in America. Consistently about 60 percent of the country says we need to leave all the undocumenteds here, indicating a pragmatic acceptance of the changes happening around our people and their families. Once again, the uncommon wisdom of the common people appears to be prevailing here, and it is my hope, perhaps my prayer, that if Obama is the nominee America can begin to have a healthy and constructive discussion of our new population, rather than what we have seen to date.

My final observation this morning is a point we focus on in our recent magazine article, The 50-Year Strategy. This election is the first post-Southern Strategy election since its early emergence in 1964. The Southern Strategy was the strategy used by Conservatives and the GOP to use race and other means to cleave the South from the Democrats. This strategy - welfare queens, Willie Horton, Reagan Democrats, tough on crime, an aggressive redistricting approach in 1990 - of course worked. It flipped the South (a base Democratic region since Thomas Jefferson's day) to the GOP, giving them majorities in Congress and the Presidency. 20th century math and demography and politics dictated that without the South one could not have a majority in the US. But the arrival of a "new politics" of the 21st century - driven to a great degree by the new demographic realities of America - has changed this calculation, and has thankfully rendered the Southern Strategy and all its tools a relic of the 20th century. As Tom Schaller has noted, today the Democrats control both Houses of Congress without having a majority of southern Congressional seats, something never before achieved by the party of Jefferson, Jackson and Lyndon Johnson.

In our article we lay out what might become the next great majority strategy, one yet unnamed, that we believe may be used by the Democrats to build a durable 21st century majority. It will be built upon an America described above, and will embrace the new diversity of 21st century America at its core. At a strategic level, resistance to the new demographic reality is futile, which is why GOP leaders like George Bush, Ken Mehlman and even the Wall Street Journal's editorial page (here and here) have railed against the GOP's approach to immigration. They rightly understand that positioning their party against this new demography of America may render them as much a 20th century relic as the Southern Strategy itself.

Liberating American politics from the pernicious era of the Southern Strategy should be one the highest strategic priorities for left-of-center politics. Last night a powerful and thoughtful man emerged on the national stage who deeply understands - and is himself the embodiment of - the moral and political imperative of moving beyond this disappointing age. He appears to be summoning the courage, the vision, and the conviction to usher in a whole new - and better - era of politics for America. At its core, this new politics will embrace diversity and difference rather than exploit it; at its core this new politics will be defined by hope and tolerance not fear and Tancredoism; at its core this new politics of tolerance is not just a requirement for a more just America here at home, but is a requirement if America is to reassert itself abroad in the much more globalized, multi-polar, interconnected, and open world of the 21st century.

And of course the arrival of this new post-Southern Strategy age of American politics will be accelerated by the extraordinary level of political participation of Millennials, the largest generation in American history, whose life experiences and values are much more Obama than Nixon.

Whatever happens in this campaign, the arrival of Barack Obama and his politics is a welcome development for our nation struggling to find its way in a new and challenging day.

- Simon Rosenberg, January 5, 2008