FDL Book Salon: Whistling Past Dixie
(Today we'll be discussing "Whistling Past Dixie" by Tom Schaller, who will be joining us in the comments– JH)
It seems as if I've been thinking about southern politics all of my life. The truth is that since the founding, everyone who has ever been involved in American politics has thought about it their whole lives. The struggle over politics and culture and regional pride in the south is America's story — it is us and we are it, no matter where we live.
The day after the 2004 election we all looked at the electoral map and knew that we were now dealing with a rock solid Republican south. The realignment that had been in the works since the 1960's was complete. (In fact it was almost exactly the same electoral map of 1860, with the parties reversed.) The south has pretty much voted as a bloc from the very beginning. And it is also a fact that the south is the most conservative region in the country, always has been. (Even FDR had to agree to keep civil rights off the menu — and once the crisis of the depression passed, the Dixiecrats immediately got restless. That coalition forged in the depression was always on a collision course with itself.)
In his book "Whistling Past Dixie" Tom Schaller gathers all the data to prove what those maps imply — the south is conservative in ways that the Democrats cannot crack without offending its other constituents or losing its progressive identity, which is exactly what's been happening since 1992 when Clinton made a last charge through Dixie and barely managed to get 43% of the national popular vote. In this article by Schaller in The Democratic Strategist, you can see that the statistics tell the story. By all measures of gender,age, religion, family/marital status, occupation and socioeconomic status, the demographics strongly favor conservative Republicanism in the south for the foreseeable future.
And more strikingly, it's quite clear that as much as attitudes about race are losing their salience in the rest of the country, it remains a strong predictor of voting Republican in the south. From Rick Perlstein's article called "The unspoken truth about the GOP. Southern Discomfort" in The New Republic:
The very heart of his argument is a taboo notion: that the South votes Republican because the Republicans have perfected their appeal to Southern racism, and that Democrats simply can't (and shouldn't) compete.
But, among scholars, this is hardly news. Schaller builds this conclusion on one of the most impressive papers in recent political science, "Old Times There Are Not Forgotten: Race and Partisan Realignment in the Contemporary South," by Nicholas Valentino and David Sears. Running regressions on a massive data set of ideological opinions, Sears and Valentino demonstrate with precision that, for example, a white Southern man who calls himself a "conservative," controlling for racial attitudes, is no less likely to chance a vote for a Democratic presidential candidate than a Northerner who calls himself a conservative. Likewise, a pro-life or hawkish Southern white man is no less likely–again controlling for racial attitudes–than a pro-life or hawkish Northerner to vote for the Democrat. But, on the other hand, when the relevant identifier is anti-black answers to survey questions (such as whether one agrees "If blacks would only try harder, they could be just as well off as whites," or choosing whether blacks are "lazy" or "hardworking"), an untoward result jumps out: white Southerners are twice as likely than white Northerners to refuse to vote for the Democratic presidential candidate. Schaller's writes: "Despite the best efforts of Republican spinmeisters … the partisan impact of racial attitudes in the South is stronger today than in the past."
I read the paper Perlstein mentions and this is not a misrepresentation. It shocked the hell out of me.
Now, before everyone gets upset and thinks that we are saying all southerners are racists: the data does not say that. But when it comes to conservative white southerners, I'm sorry to say that the evidence is clear. When all is said and done, the thing that separates them from the rest of the nation is racism. All the racial codes, the slick misdirection, even the appeals to homophobia and religion are in some sense directed at this one simple characteristic. And that characteristic is the thing that trumps all the other concerns about economic justice that Democrats persist in believing they can use to persuade white southern males to vote for them. Democrats simply cannot thread that needle.
Schaller does not "write off the south" as so many assume. Indeed, he explicitly endorses Howard Dean's 50 state strategy to build for the future and ensure that Democrats are prepared to step in where opportunities present themselves. What he is saying is it is impossible for Democrats to currently win nationally by trying to appeal to the southern conservative majority, which seems to me to be an obvious point. You can't be all things to all people.
Yet we have seen for decades now a concerted effort to persuade the Dems that they must appeal to NASCAR dads and "the heartland" and "evangelicals" and all the other cultural signifiers that relate closely to the conservative south. But that's not where the votes for us are and the more we try to get them, the less appealing we are to everyone else. As Schaller persuasively shows, there are plenty of votes to be had among blue collar workers in the upper mid-west and among the less traditionalist and religious types in the west and southwest. These appeals offer the possibility of emphasizing areas on which we agree instead of compromising on fundamental issues on which we never can. Schaller's "diamond demography" chapter shows exactly where the Dems stand the most to gain.
The fact is that it is the Republicans who have backed themselves into a corner. By allowing their southern wingnuts to dominate they have marginalized themselves and are losing their appeal to the country as a whole.
Here's Harold Myerson in the Washington Post:
You've seen the numbers and understand that America is growing steadily less white. You try to push your party, the Grand Old Party, ahead of this curve by taking a tolerant stance on immigration and making common cause with some black churches. Then you go and blow it all in a desperate attempt to turn out your base by demonizing immigrants and running racist ads against Harold Ford. On Election Day, black support for Democrats remains high; Hispanic support for Democrats surges. So what do you do next?
What else? Elect Trent Lott your deputy leader in the Senate. Sure locks in the support of any stray voters who went for Strom in '48.
In case you haven't noticed, a fundamental axiom of modern American politics has been altered in recent weeks. For four decades, it's been the Democrats who've had a Southern problem. Couldn't get any votes for their presidential candidates there; couldn't elect any senators, then any House members, then any dogcatchers. They still can't, but the Southern problem, it turns out, is really the Republicans'. They've become too Southern — too suffused with the knee-jerk militaristic, anti-scientific, dogmatically religious, and culturally, sexually and racially phobic attitudes of Dixie — to win friends and influence elections outside the South. Worse yet, they became more Southern still on Election Day last month, when the Democrats decimated the GOP in the North and West. Twenty-seven of the Democrats' 30 House pickups came outside the South.
The Democrats won control of five state legislatures, all outside the South, and took more than 300 state legislative seats away from Republicans, 93 percent of them outside the South…
The one strategist who fundamentally predicted the new geography of partisan American politics is Tom Schaller, a University of Maryland political scientist whose book "Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South" appeared several months before November's elections. Schaller argued that the Democrats' growth would occur in the Northeast, the industrial Midwest, the Mountain West and the Southwest — areas where professionals, appalled by Republican Bible Beltery, were trending Democratic and where working-class whites voted their pocketbooks in a way that their Southern counterparts did not. Al Gore carried white voters outside the South, Schaller reminded us; even hapless John Kerry came close.
I would suggest that there are a couple of other reasons why Schaller's theory is sound, which he doesn't mention. While the party is listening to the likes of Amy Sullivan about how to compromise on abortion rights so as to appeal to conservative evangelicals, there is a resurgence of ideological progressivism throughout the country and we are not going to sit still for anybody running against us latte swilling liberals anymore. It would behoove the party to factor that into their calculations and see if they can find a way to properly respect their left flank while reaching out to swing voters.
I also suspect that the progressives in the south, with the help of the 50 state strategy, are going to begin to work harder than ever on that stubborn old region from the grassroots — and netroots — up. If they want us, we are here to help our southern brothers and sisters, many of them African American and our most loyal voters, to change that political dynamic once and for all. There's nothing that says just because the conservatives have ruled pretty much forever that they always will. Where there are candidates who want to run, even if it's a long shot, we will do what we can to help them just as we did this time — and we'll be trainspotters for the national party to see where the soft spots are.
But the national party must forge an identity that makes sense, that conveys what we stand for and what our values are. And we cannot do that if we continue to try to split the difference on these culture war issues and tailor our message to some mythical southern white conservative whom we think will vote for us if only we wear the right clothes and carry a shot gun. The data shows that unless we start running "call me, Harold" ads, that isn't going to work on those guys. (And, btw, the southern conservative women vote pretty much the same way — no gender gap in the south.) Until further notice, they are the southern majority. We'll do better in places where we can make a case based on economic populism and civil liberties that is untainted by a majority that are still too influenced by racism and fundamentalist religion to even meet us part of the way.
The proof is in the pudding. If Democrats can gain power we can begin to make a real case for progressivism in the south based upon progressive achievement.
(I do disagree with Schaller's belief that the Democrats could turn South Carolina into the "Taxachusetts" of the south — meaning that we could use it as a symbol of being out of touch with the mainstream. I don't think it would work. That kind of thing works for the Republicans because they are exploiting an existing grievance among a group of right wingers who are perpetually aggrieved. Those guys have been railing against the yankees since before the country was even a country. It's peculiar to their own sense of regional pride.)
Now keep in mind that for every assertion I've made here, there are a hundred qualifiers and data points that Schaller's book addresses. He believes that the south will eventually become more progressive from the outside rim inwards, hence the win in Virgina. He sees Florida as a different kind of southern state and subject to a different analysis. There are many other fascinating details that only reading the book will fully satisfy.
I should also take the time to point out that it is an entertaining read for such a dry subject. Schaller spares no important data — it's a work of scholarship. But it's written in the lively style that those of us who've been reading his posts at Daily Kos, the Gadflyer and TAPPED for the last few years have come to enjoy. It is a very breezy read for a work of social science.
So, on behalf of the Firedoglake crew, I am thilled to welcome Dr. Tom Schaller to today's book salon.
Fire when ready.