04/21/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Democrats Should Try to Win Back the South

On July 1, 2008, the political scientist Thomas F. Schaller suggested in the New York Times that Barack Obama should "write off" North Carolina, because as a typically Southern state, no Democratic presidential candidate would have a chance of winning it.

"Mr. Obama should not hope to capture states in the country's most racially polarized region," Schaller declared in his op-ed article.

Of course, Schaller was wrong. Obama did win North Carolina. He also won Virginia and Florida.

Two years earlier, Schaller wrote an entire book encouraging Democrats to abandon the South to the Republicans. In Whistling Past Dixie, he argued that it was pointless for Democrats to even try to compete in the region. "If the Democrats can simultaneously expand and solidify their existing margins of control in the Northeast and Pacific Coast states," Schaller asserted, "... the Democrats can build a national majority with no help from the South in presidential elections and little help from southern votes elsewhere down the ballot."

Yes, Democrats are having an easy time lately in places like Massachusetts and New Jersey, aren't they?

In fact, Obama's 2008 victories in Southern states and the recent Republican takeovers in Northeastern states reveal how misguided Schaller has been all along. It's no wonder, because his original recipe for failure includes an equal mix of condescension and defeatism.

Let's start with the defeatism. Schaller says in his book that Republicans "dominate the South," and he cites two factors that "further diminish any hope that Democrats harbor about a regional resurgence."

The first is the rising share of southerners who reached political maturity since Richard Nixon's successful use of the "southern strategy" in 1968. Born during the latter stages of the New Deal and coming of age after the Great Society, this postboomer generation of southern Republicans share no familial or historical connection whatsoever to the New Deal-era Democratic Party. Southerners under the age of 50 in some states have never seen a Democrat capture their state's electoral votes. As tough as it may be to reconvert Republican seniors who once revered Franklin Roosevelt or supported Lyndon Johnson, it will be even tougher to attract young southerners who associate the national Democratic Party with Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton and have never cast a Democratic vote in their lives.

What is incredible about this passage is that Schaller simultaneously acknowledges and ignores that the Republicans who rule the South today were themselves marginalized by a Democratic party that was monolithic in the region only four decades ago. Back in the 1960s, the GOP had a lot of nerve and gumption to challenge the status quo. And while the "Southern Strategy" was cynical, manipulative, and divisive, at least it was a strategy, which is more than Schaller would encourage the Democrats to devise.

If anything, Southern Republicans have been able to effectively use cultural issues to their advantage because the Democrats usually don't bother to stand their ground. On the rare occasions when progressives in the South actually utilize their resources, intelligence, and political savvy in behalf of their principles -- such as the mobilization against the 1986 anti-abortion ballot initiative in Arkansas -- they prevail.

It's a simple concept. You have to put on your uniform and get on the field if you want a chance to win. Politics is a zero-sum game, and it can be tough. The team with the most effective plan and tactics will be successful. Faced with this reality, Schaller throws up his hands. His advice: Don't play and lose.

But even if he thinks that Democrats can't win in the South, is it morally correct or defensible for him to tell the party to abandon it to the Republicans? After all, he calls it "America's poorest region" and laments its poor track record in the areas of organized labor and civil rights.

One would think that this is the place where Democrats should focus their efforts, if they were truly concerned about the principles they espouse.

This is where Schaller's condescension comes into play. It oozes through his breezy generalizations, such as, "White southerners are aware of their economic interests, but simply assign more weight to social issues than economic ones, and accordingly vote Republican." And it leads him to conclude, "So why bother trying to leap the wide cultural chasm to reach them? Rather than superficial and mostly futile pandering to the nation's most conservative voters, Democrats should begin to build a non-southern majority by unapologetically tailoring policies and targeting messages to more receptive audiences outside the South."

Right. Why bother to convert those poor dummies on Main Street when they already love us on Park Avenue?

However, that approach won't work because the kind of people who sometimes put their social concerns ahead of their own economic interests are not relegated to the South. They also live in places like Kansas (per Thomas Frank), as well as rural Pennsylvania, suburban Detroit, Southern California, and even Boston. Where is Schaller going to find enough "receptive audiences" -- people who immediately and blissfully roll over at the mere mention of the Democratic agenda -- to build a majority party?

If I can find a place to agree with Schaller, it's that the Democrats can't win the South with superficial pandering. But we don't have to choose between superficial pandering or nothing.

Rather, the Democrats need to do the hard work to craft policies that will benefit Southerners, and they need to be thoughtful and persuasive in how they communicate their agenda to people in this region. That means investing time and resources to develop their strategy and message.

If, as Schaller suggests, Democratic political ideas are really better for the South, then they should be able to find a way to use them to their advantage, just as the Republicans discovered how to claw back from a similarly weak position 40 years ago. Furthermore, they have a moral obligation to try.

Recent events show that Democrats can't depend on their traditional strongholds to provide a base of power if they give up on the South, and Obama's victories in three Southern states demonstrate that the South should not be conceded so easily. Winners don't stop fighting for what they believe in, and they don't walk away from challenges just because they require more effort.

Winners don't whistle past anything.