Southern States Looking for a Different Sort of Democrat

The Southern states are looking for a different sort of Democrat (US News)

The hundred or so Democratic activists gathered in an auditorium at North Carolina Central University on a January weeknight to meet with state party bigwigs have each been given two paper flags–one green, one red. When someone says something they agree with, attendees are supposed to wave green flags; if they disagree, they wave the red. Plenty of the proposals elicit green flags, like withdrawing from Iraq. Then a member of the state party’s executive committee suggests reaching out to NASCAR dads. “We have churches and values,” she says, “and we have to make that clear.” A wave of red flags ripples across the room. Grumbles activist Don Esterling, 62: “We don’t need to be Republican light.”

Or maybe they do. In the American South, the ranks of Democratic senators have shrunk from 20 to four since 1980, and the party’s presidential ticket has lost every state for the second time in a row. “This is the worst it’s been for Democrats here . . . since Reconstruction,” says Emory University Prof. Merle Black. And yet a handful of “red” state governors, including North Carolina’s Mike Easley, Tennessee’s Phil Bredesen, and Virginia’s Mark Warner, have proved Democrats can win in the South, partly by irking party activists with NRA endorsements and support for capital punishment. “I’m a former prosecutor, a hunter, love to drive race cars, have very strong religious beliefs,” says Easley. “That’s everything you’d think of as conservative.” But while it’s possible for Easley to distance himself from the national party, it’s a tougher gambit for presidential hopefuls.

Of course, it’s everything you’d think of as a Republican, too. These guys aren’t “Republican light,” they’re Republican mislabeled.

Democrats lost their iron grip on Dixie after spearheading the civil rights bills of the 1960s.

Spearheaded? I don’t think that word means what you think it means. In fact, Southern Democrats bitterly opposed these bills to the point of filibuster. They passed through an alliance of Republicans and northeastern Democrats.

The New South’s economic boom attracted fiscally conservative northerners, while the political realignment of the region’s evangelical Christians hastened the GOP ascendancy. The last few years have seen, for the first time, more southern voters identifying as Republicans than as Democrats or independents. That helps explain why, last fall, five Senate seats vacated by retiring Democrats fell into GOP hands.

This process is now 30-odd years old, though. The South has been voting Republican at the presidential level since the early 1970s, with the exception of native son Jimmy Carter in 1976 and a few states here and there voting for native son Democrats in other elections. It’s true that it’s taken longer at the gubernatorial and congressional levels, although mostly because it takes so long to ween the system of incumbents.

FILED UNDER: General,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. jpe says:

    So…..if you’re religious and you hunt, you’re necessarily a Republican? I…..see. Interesting taxonomy ya got there.

  2. McGehee says:

    Democrats lost their iron grip on Dixie after spearheading the civil rights bills of the 1960s.

    Spearheaded? I don’t think that word means what you think it means.

    This misconception has been such an integral part of the Democrats’ image of themselves that it’s no wonder they’re falling apart. When you live by a lie, the truth is not your friend. And the truth nearly always wins out eventually.

  3. James Joyner says:

    jpe: Religious (thus quite likely anti-abortion), pro-NRA, pro-death penalty, pro-hunting, etc. is anathema to the Democratic Party platform.

  4. Just Me says:

    Southerners were democrats more along the lies of FDR, I don’t think FDR would recognize the DNC as his party today.

    The DNC essentially left the southern democrats, the further it moved to the left, and now the way the DNC apparantly wants to reach out to them, isn’t by moderating their positions, but telling them they are morons.

  5. Southern States Looking for a Different Sort of Democrat (otb)
    Southern States Looking for a Different Sort of Democrat (otb)

  6. “Democrats lost their iron grip on Dixie after spearheading the civil rights bills of the 1960s.”

    Which of course is false on many levels. Let’s try:

    Democrats lost their iron grip on Dixie after sneering at patriotism and embracing the anti-American left.

  7. bryan says:

    I don’t think that word means what you think it means. In fact, Southern Democrats bitterly opposed these bills to the point of filibuster.

    I think by spearheading, he may be thinking of President Lyndon Johnson, who signed the Civil Rights Act of ’64 and the Voting Rights Act of ’65, who was the quintessential suthun democrat, even though he came from Texas, which as we all know is not REALLY part of the south.

    Some have argued that Johnson’s support of civil rights legislation basically gave the south to the republicans thanks to a history of racism.

    I don’t think it’s that simple. I think a lot can also be laid at the feet of other societal changes related to morality.

  8. SoloD says:

    The states that had Democrats who opposed the civil rights bills in the 60s are now solidly Republican. And it was Democratic Presidents who pushed for these bills, even at the expense of their party’s power.

  9. basil says:

    “Since the early 1970s”??

    How about 10 years earlier? In 1964, my home state, Georgia went for Goldwater. In 1968, for Wallace. In 1972, Nixon, which is where you pick up. And Georgia’s not alone.

    Not disagreeing with what you posted, just offering an adjustment in the timeline.

  10. James Joyner says:

    Basil: Most Southern states voted for Johnson in 1964, although Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and Louisiana went for Goldwater. Wallace was a Democrat, although he ran as an independent in 1968. Nixon’s 1972 race was the first where a majority of the South went Republican.

  11. Just Me says:

    And I think you can make a stronger case that the South started going GOP because of the left’s move towards the anti war/military, rather than over civil rights.

    The South sends more of it citizens into the military than any other region-the South is very much a God and Country kind of place, and the dems just aren’t all that God and Country anymore.

  12. jenniebee says:

    Democrats lost their iron grip on Dixie after spearheading the civil rights bills of the 1960s.

    Spearheaded? I don’t think that word means what you think it means. In fact, Southern Democrats bitterly opposed these bills to the point of filibuster.

    Oh, come on – you’re going to hang the Dixiecrats around Democrats’ necks on the very issue that the party split over? Need I mention Goldwater’s campaign against the Civil Rights Act? Or that Strom Thurmond et al had a warm welcome from the Republican caucus? Say that Dems couldn’t be rightly termed “populist” anymore after the Civil Rights Act because the Dixies were the populist base, fine, but Democrats parted ways with segregationists in the mid ’60s.

  13. I live in North Carolina. The South is a tricky area politically. I think a lot of people, including half of my family, vote Democrat because that’s what their dad did (my grandfather). The federal democrat party is drastically different than the “southern democrat” party. One needs look no further than Zell Miller for evidence of that.

    Those political junkies may remember “Jessecrats,” the term given to Democrats that voted for Jesse Helms, one of the most conservative members of the senate for many years. Southerners as a whole tend to be more conservative, possibly a long-held belief that the government should stay out of as many affairs as possible.

    I believe, having lived here my entire life, that southern democrats, who have been democrat their entire lives, are realizing that republicans are more in line with their views.

    This past senate race sealed that belief for me. Erskine Bowles lost to Richard Burr in a closely fought election here. This is one reason that Edwards was chosen to run as VP, because he was a one-termer in NC as a senator.