I haven't had much to say on the ongoing debate about whether the Democrats can or should write off the South, other than Florida, for purposes of the presidential election this year.
If the question is framed as, "Should the Democrats write off the South?," my reaction is, No, of course not.
First -- and this is not an original thought -- there is not a bright line between the South and the North, and South-like areas such as Southern Ohio (aka Kentucky), central Pennsylvania, and much of Missouri will be as central to Democratic aims of winning those states as the industrial cities with which they are identified.
Second, there will always be surprises, and in a close race, there is sure to be at least one non-Southern state that looks promising and turns out not to be, and possibly a Southern state, such as Louisiana, that suddenly turns out to be the Democrats' to win. A totally non-Southern strategy doesn't leave much room for error or opportunity.
Third, Democrats must win at least two of the Senate races in North and South Carolina, Georgia and Louisiana, and an active presidential campaign in those states will help.
Fourth, and most important though least cynical, the South is the locus of the greatest suffering in this country, the worst education and health care, the dirtiest water, the lowest-paying jobs and anti-union policies, the sharpest racial and economic inequalities. For the Democratic Party to give up its claim to represent and improve the lives of the people of this region would be to give up its soul.
Mathematically, though, the fact that that no Democrat has won the White House without winning at least five Southern states may belong to the realm of history more than prediction. Formerly competitive states such as California and Illinois have become more comfortably Democratic, and once Republican strongholds such as Arizona and New Hampshire are moving into the swing state category, making it possible to imagine that in the last two weeks of October, when finite resources such as the candidates' time and the last few million dollars are being allocated, it may make perfect sense to assemble an electoral majority without the South and border states, again excepting Florida. Without explicitly writing off the South, there is still a plausible scenario in which Kerry wins without any of its electoral votes.
But the very fact that there is such a possibility raises a far more interesting question: What does it mean to the South that a Democrat can win without it? Has the White South overplayed its hand? Is it in danger of losing its grip on American politics? And what would follow from that, not necessarily in 2004, but in the near future??
WARNING: Hugely oversimplified history and wild speculation ahead:
For the purposes of this question, I'm not talking about The South as a whole, but a separate category, which I'll call the White South. By this I mean the reactionary, economically powerful, white and now almost entirely Republican forces that have governed the region for decades. I obviously don't mean the African-American voters or leaders in the South, and I also don't mean those elected officials or other leaders identified with the "New South," such as Terry Sanford, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, John Edwards, Mary Landrieu, etc. Among current elected officials, I mean most of the Southern Republicans, plus Senator Zell Miller and perhaps a few House Democrats who haven't switched yet. Elected officials of the White South are those who can or do win office without much of the African-American vote.
Since the end of Reconstruction in 1876, the White South has held the balance of power in American politics pretty reliably, with few interruptions. (The interruptions, such as LBJ's maneuver from the inside to break the obstacle to voting rights and civil rights laws, are major events.) The White South is very much a minority, but the most privileged minority in our history. And how did it achieve that status? By manipulating its electoral and congressional power so as to be always in a position of control. For example, for most of the 40s,-early 70s, political scientists agree, Congress was dominated by a "conservative coalition" made up of Southern Democrats and Northern Republicans. If you look at an old version of the yearly Congressional Quarterly Almanac, you'll see the votes broken down not just by party, but by "Conservative Coalition" vs. those outside of the coalition, because that was seen as a more accurate way to understand ideological breakdowns than party label.
After LBJ essentially broke the Conservative Coalition, the White South began the maneuver by which it maintained significant power for another 30 years -- the slow move toward the Republican party. Beginning with Strom Thurmond's switch in 1964, the White South ramped up its influence within the Republican party while still keeping a heavy thumb on the scales of the Democratic Party, so that it could not form majorities without their consent. As liberalism took hold of the Northeast and Midwest, Nixon's "Southern Strategy" meant as much to the White South as it did to Nixon: It gave the White South power within the Republican coalition. Now its power was not just congressional, but incorporated the White House as well, on both sides. Republicans Nixon, Reagan and George H.W. Bush won the South, and the only Democratic presidents since Thurmond's switch were Southerners, albeit "New South" liberals.
In the Reagan years, the Conservative Coalition became something like a Sunbelt Coalition, with Southern "Boll Weevil" Democrats, such as Phil Gramm, joining California and Mountain State conservatives, as well as Northern Republicans, to push through the 1981 tax cuts. And even into the Clinton years, despite having a majority in both Houses of Congress, Clinton's ability to achieve anything depended on placating nominal Democrats such as Richard Shelby of Alabama.
(Liberal Democrats who complain about Zell Miller often seem to me to have little sense of historical perspective. It is not so long ago that Gramm, Trent Lott, Shelby and others were Democrats, and when they switched, they did not go from the right side of the Democratic Party to the left side of the Republican Party, as might be expected with ideologically aligned parties, but invariably shot straight to the farthest right corner of their new party. That would not happen today: With the exception of Miller, if the most conservative Democrat, probably John Breaux of Louisiana, were to switch (which he wouldn't) he would certainly take up with the moderate Republicans such as Senators Voinovich and Snowe with whom he has been most comfortable collaborating.)
On to 1994. At this point, the White South took its stand principally within the Republican Party, elevating Gingrich, Armey, DeLay and soon Trent Lott into positions of power. But still, it was a coalition: Southern Republicans like Gingrich depended on support among Northern moderates like Rep. Nancy Johnson of Connecticut, who were mostly just tired of being kicked around by Democrats. And at that point, almost the last few Democrats like Shelby and Billy Tauzin joined the Republicans, all but completing an alignment of party and ideology that makes such artificial constructs as the "Conservative Coalition" no longer needed to understand Congress. Of course, it was also a disaster. The "Contract with America" triumphalism, which led to the shutdown of government, and later the impeachment, strengthened Clinton at Gingrich's expense, and in the 1998 mid-terms, the African-American vote in the South was substantially higher than in previous years and helped elect John Edwards and three Democratic governors in the Deep South.
With the election of Bush, whose aggressive rejection of his father's Northeastern and Ivy League conservatism makes him the first president to come out of the tradition of the White South since Woodrow Wilson, the White South finally found its dream: it dominates national politics unchecked. It no longer holds the balance of power: Bush, Rove, DeLay, Lott and then Frist hold power, period. And the agenda of military spending, tax cuts, corporate subsidies, minimal social provision, and hate cloaked in religious/moral language, occasionally colored with populist rhetoric unrelated to the policies, which sometimes seems so strange to students of true conservatism, is not unfamiliar to the South. It is the same gruel that conservative Southern governors have been dishing out for dozens of years. The idea that government is an alien and oppressive force, while remaining dependent on military spending, development spending such as TVA, and subsidized industries such as oil and sugar, is a product of Southern, and to some extent Western politics.
While the Republican majority still depends somewhat on the consent of Northern Republicans, it no longer governs by any coalition or compromise, and hence we see the politics of the White South distilled to their essence. When the House Republicans push through legislation by just a few votes, as with the Medicare bill, they are essentially daring the Northern Republicans -- both moderates and "true" conservatives -- to break with them, they are not incorporating their views in a coalition. (Interestingly, of the 25 House Republicans who opposed the Medicare bill last year, 14 were from the Midwest or West.) And as Michelle Goldberg and Paul Caffera reported in Salon this week, a rebellion may be brewing among Republican moderates, as well as among conservatives associated with Senators McCain and Hagel.
Now, all this could amount to nothing. Bush could win handily, all the Southern Senate seats in play could go to conservative Republicans, the moderates could shrink away to voice their objections meekly in caucus as usual, and the unilateral rule of the White South would continue, at least for a few more years, when its inevitable contradictions catch up to it.
But what if it doesn't? What if Bush loses, Kerry is elected without a Southern state, Louisiana and both Carolinas send a Democrat to the Senate on huge black turnout, Tom DeLay goes to trial for political corruption, and the moderates do rebel and decide that it is more important to govern the country than to block everything a Democratic president tries to do?
At that point, the White South will be essentially out of the game, for the first time since Reconstruction. They will have no power over the presidency, far less power in Congress. And they will have only themselves to blame. It is always wiser to try to hold the balance of power than to try to claim power and exercise it unilaterally, and its just possible that the White South has overplayed a very good hand. If so, the next Democratic president may have more freedom of maneuver than Clinton ever had, and a new political era will have begun.