04/05/2012 12:24 am ET Updated Jun 04, 2012

Do Southern Democrats Want to Be Politicians or Preachers?

Election 2010 resounded loudly throughout the South as a matter of political survival versus progressive theology for Democratic candidates! And the pertinent question for Southern Democrats in 2012 is equally urgent: Are you a politician or a preacher?

In previous discussions, I have cited the decline of Southern Democracy -- i.e., trending trouble for the historic, ruling regime in this part of the country. It is clear that today's Southern Democrats are in difficult straits; and, unless sudden and major quakes shake the Southern political terrain, the regional Democratic Party faces adverse prospects for a while to come.

Critical crossroads.

Southern Democracy therefore has reached a critical crossroads that requires rational self-reflection; and Southern Democrats would be wise to seriously assess their current predicament and chart their road map to a better future.

It may sound like a cynical summarization, but the major problem is that these Democrats are struggling with a tough choice between practicality and ideology in a pretty red region -- with each course representing an uncertain gamble.

So, I will try to pose a few fundamental questions for Southern Democrats as they struggle with this aspect of their contemporary adversity. Do you want to campaign as moderate players in practical politics or as ideological voices for liberal values? Do you want to continue your historic role as effective participants in important governmental decision-making, even if that means adjusting your positions on major issues; or, do you want to champion cherished progressive values, even if you lack substantial influence on public policy? Do you think either of these options will work in today's environment? Is there a possible, functional balance between regional party politics and national party theology? Finally, what are your plans for the long-term? (Sorry to say, but I don't have perfect answers to any of these questions.)

History of progressive activists and practical officials.

A little history may help the reader in understanding these questions. Over the past few decades, Southern Democracy functioned competitively in this conservative region -- both in elections and in policy-making -- because the progressive and practical elements lived together peaceably.

Progressive activists, including liberal whites and blacks loyal to the national party, dominated the state and local organizations; but it took a special breed of practical politician, steeped and comfortable in Southern culture, to compete for regionally-sensitive and conservative Southern voters. The Yellow Dogs preached the old-fashioned religion and worked the partisan fields; and the Blue Dogs provided practical public leadership for a competitive Democratic Party in the reddening South.

But in recent years, the changing nature of partisan politics increasingly strained that delicate relationship; and it was only a matter of time before the day of reckoning for Southern Democrats.

The sudden impact of Election 2010.

Election 2010 not only put Republicans in charge; it dispirited the Yellow Dogs and decimated the Blue Dogs throughout the South, creating major problems for the party in county courthouses, state capitols, and Washington.

I have been monitoring public statements and private discussions among Southern Democrats since Election 2010. I sense that most of my partisan friends don't really know how to proceed; and many seem reluctant to have a real discussion about difficult prospects and the possibility of corrective, long-term action.

Publically, the organizational leadership seeks to salve recent wounds and talk up a comeback, but private chatter is pretty messy and full of acrimony common for a deposed regime.

This campaign season, for example, loyalist Yellow Dogs have been reduced to mischievous bickering among themselves. For example, some plot to raid opposition primaries in hopes of nominating the weakest candidate; others attack the raiders for even considering something other than pledging life and fortune to the party cause.

As for the Blue Dogs, they seem to have gone with the wind.

Is there a solution?

Thus far, then, I'm not sure that Southern Democrats acknowledge the damage wrought by history, especially Election 2010; and they have yet to address their practicality-ideology dilemma. Actually, furthermore, I don't know if there is a clear, immediate solution to the problem; it may be that neither course -- moderate politicking or progressive preaching -- will be enough in the current environment.

Real recovery for Southern Democracy may depend on deliberative, positive leadership and systemic political change further down the road. And I'll return to this possibility in a later discussion.

Author's Note: This is the third in a series of posts about the future of the Democratic Party in the South.