The West Will Rise Again

Is the South's hold over American politics on the wane?


Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South, by Thomas F. Schaller, New York: Simon & Schuster, 352 pages, $26

The name is already starting to fade a little, like that of an actor who hasn't starred in anything bigger than a TV pilot for years. But think back: A few years ago, Georgia Sen. Zell Miller was one of the most pivotal characters in American politics. Republicans courted the disillusioned Democrat to give the keynote address at their 2004 convention. Most Democrats took a pass on criticizing his strong-selling book. The title hit too close to home: A National Party No More.

Miller was a living, breathing reminder of how both parties had transformed during the previous few decades. He had started his career in the small North Georgia town of Young Harris in the 1950s; in the 1960s he twice ran for Congress as a segregationist but lost the Democratic primaries. He landed on his feet as chief of staff for Lester Maddox, the infamously anti-integration governor. While the state's Democratic Party faced tougher and tougher challenges from the rising GOP, Miller kept winning elections into the 1990s, serving as lieutenant governor, governor, and senator. In 1992 he gave the keynote address at the Democratic convention that nominated his fellow Southern governor, Bill Clinton. That November he helped Clinton beat George H.W. Bush in Georgia.

Eleven years later, Miller published his book and loudly endorsed George W. Bush for a second term. Democrats might not have understood why he did this, but according to Miller, that was because they didn't understand the South. "Four times-1972, 1984, 1988, and 2000-the Democratic candidate couldn't carry a single Southern state," Miller wrote. "Either the Democratic Party is not a national party or the candidates were not national candidates. Take your pick." If Democrats couldn't win the South, he suggested, they couldn't (and perhaps didn't deserve to) win the country.

Former South Carolina Sen. Fritz
Hollings labeled the Miller monologues "a bunch of baloney." But the Democratic presidential candidates were listening. Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry told the audience at a South Carolina debate that "I'm going to talk mainstream American values. And I intend to win in the South and campaign all across it." Months later Kerry and running mate John Edwards (himself a Southerner) did what had seemed impossible: They underperformed Michael Dukakis in most of the South. The party lost seats in both houses of Congress, including Miller's own Senate seat, in a bit of Election Day poetry.

Shaken Democrats openly wondered whether the Zell Millers had been right all along. When former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean took over the Democratic National Committee, party hacks initially opposed his candidacy, pushing for former Texas Rep. Martin Frost and South Carolina activist Donnie Fowler instead. When the talk turned to the 2008 elections, pundits in The Washington Post and The New Republic promoted the party's few remaining Southern politicians-Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen-as the party's best hopes to win back power.

Tom Schaller, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, takes a radically different view. The Democrats, he argues, should abandon the South. To quote the title of his book, they should try Whistling Past Dixie.

The Republicans have become more dominant in the region with every decade since the '60s. So let them have it to themselves, Schaller suggests. The Democrats should make up for the loss by aggressively converting the rest of the country. Make it as uncomfortable as possible, he argues, for people in the blue states to back the party of George Bush and Left Behind novels, as uncomfortable as it is for conservative white Southerners to back the party of Hollywood and Hillary Clinton.

"The best strategy for winning in the immediate term," Schaller concludes, "is to consolidate electoral control over the Northeast and Pacific Coast blue states, expand the party's Midwestern margins, and cultivate the new-growth areas of the interior West."

The book, which builds on an analysis Schaller has been offering for years, appeared right before the 2006 midterm election. Schaller's party bounced out of the grave Zell Miller had dug for it, picking up 30 House seats, six Senate seats, six governorships, and more than 300 seats in state legislatures. And it did this everywhere but the South. Of those 30 fresh House seats, only five were in the old Confederacy-two in Texas, one in North Carolina, two in Florida. (One of those seats was on the blue-tinged Mexican border, and two were practically gift-wrapped for the party by the Mark Foley and Tom DeLay scandals.) Only one new governorship (in Arkansas) and one Senate seat (in Virginia) came from the South. Republicans actually gained some ground in the legislatures of Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, and Texas.

This was a watershed result. From the days of Andrew Jackson through the Democrats' last congressional majority (elected with Clinton in 1992), the party had never won power without a base in the South. After this election, Republicans worried that Southern votes were not enough to build their own base. In December The Washington Post quoted Rudy Giuliani ally Barry Wynn, a former chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party, expressing real worry about what the Democrats' non-Dixie gains meant. "Republicans do understand it is political suicide to keep this red-state, blue-state thing going any longer," Wynn said. "We need someone competitive in all 50 states."

The modern Republican ascendancy was built in the 1960s and '70s by trading African-American supporters for white Southerners. In the election of 1964, Barry Goldwater's vote against that year's Civil Rights Act sent five Deep South states racing into the GOP column for the first time in history. Alabama, which hadn't elected a Republican congressman in the 20th century, elected five of them. Mississippians, who had given just 25 percent of their votes to Richard Nixon in 1960, gave 87 percent to Goldwater four years later. "The maverick Arizona senator became an unwitting vessel," Schaller writes, "into which southern whites, angered by the increasing race liberalism of the national Democratic Party, poured their venom." After 1964, in what came to be known as the Southern Strategy, Republicans campaigned in the South against affirmative action and other controversial elements of desegregation.

While some conservative scholars argue that the South was trending Republican before the rise of the civil rights movement, Schaller, with the help of a few pages of data tables, insists that the rightward swing among Dixie voters can be explained only by the parties' shift on race-related issues. But it's not enough, in Schaller's plan, for Democrats to attack the GOP's civil rights record. They must make a "systematic effort to point out…the disconnect between southern religious and political values and those to which most other Americans subscribe." He doesn't mean racial issues. He means abortion and gay rights. More and more Americans outside the South are opening up on those issues, adopting the positions held not just by liberals but by old Western Republicans like Goldwater. (Not only was the senator gay-friendly and pro-choice, but his first wife helped found Arizona's branch of Planned Parenthood.) If Democrats want to fight for votes in the South, they have to soften their stances on personal liberties. But given national trends, says Schaller, "whatever small gains might come from abandoning support for reproductive choice or gay rights will likely be erased by the votes lost, both inside and outside the South, from projecting moral ambiguity."

As Schaller's data show, voters in the South are far more socially conservative than voters in the rest of the country. Support for school prayer is 13 points higher among Southern evangelicals than among non-Southern evangelicals. Support for legal abortion is 8 points higher outside the South. Southern voters hold the nation's most restrictive views on gay rights, school prayer, premarital sex, even women in the workplace. It follows that if the Democrats no longer compete for those votes, they will identify with less restrictive positions on all of those issues.

When Southern politicians joined the GOP, they brought extra-pork, extra-fat spending addictions with them. The old Republican coalition didn't want for porkers, of course, but the addition of pols who would have been Dixiecrats four decades earlier grossly inflated their numbers. Senators like Mississippi's John Stennis, a Democrat whose 41 years in Washington produced the John C. Stennis Space Center and the John C. Stennis Lock and Dam, were succeeded by the likes of Trent Lott, a Republican also of Mississippi, who spent 2005 and 2006 lining up appropriations for his state-spending $700 million, for example, to move some train tracks that had just been repaired-and slamming free market advocates who opposed his pork projects.

Operators like Lott and former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay staged a shotgun wedding between tax cuts and giant increases in spending for education, for entitlements, and for nation building in Afghanistan and Iraq. DeLay even bragged about this in 2005, defending the government's bloated spending by saying "after 11 years of Republican majority we've pared it down pretty good." Schaller acknowledges the damage this did to the Republican coalition, given the GOP's lip service to reducing the size and scope of government.

Yet he doesn't argue that either party should abandon massive spending; he believes that the future will pit big spenders from the blue party against big spenders from the reds. "The era of big government is not over," Schaller writes, "but the era of hating big government seems to be ending."

That's a soothing hymn for liberal Democrats such as Schaller, who believes his party can win with its current economic platform, which is heavy on infrastructure spending, government-sponsored insurance, and business regulations, and which he packages as "a culture of investment." For him, the place to differentiate is on social issues.

He may be onto something, especially if Republicans continue to push themselves as the party of social conservatives and refuse to re-engage their limited-government constituents-the ones that Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform, calls the "leave us alone" coalition. If the Democrats and Republicans are seen as equally free-spending, the West may well turn to the former not out of enthusiasm but out of something more like desperation. Voters in the Rocky Mountains and the Southwest are not comfortable with the Democrats' economic policies, but they are generally more liberal on social issues.

But if Republicans decide to fight on economic and regulatory issues rather than social ones, the debate over the next decade would be more libertarian than anything Americans have heard in modern political history. Both parties would default to roughly libertarian positions on the culture war, from gay rights to gun rights, and libertarian economic views would be at the center of the national political conversation. Given the shellacking Republicans took in the midterm elections, the GOP would be wise to look for a new-or old-strategy. Indeed, some highly visible Republicans are fairly demanding precisely that: Former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, a Texan, has called social conservatives such as James Dobson "a gang of thugs" and "real nasty bullies" who are hurting the GOP; he urges a return to fiscal conservatism as a cure for the party's problems.

Such a turn of events would discombobulate Schaller, who warns the Democrats against embracing economic policies that libertarians might like. But if the Democrats are serious about expanding and consolidating power in the Rocky Mountains and the Southwest, they might have to think about economic as well as personal liberties. And if the Republicans are serious about expanding their power base in those same regions, they'll have to once again think about pairing economic freedom with personal liberty.

David Weigel (dweigel@reason.com) is an associate editor of Reason.