What happened to the Democratic South? For much of American history, it was the “Solid South” that put Democrats into national office, while the Republican Party ruled the Northern states. These political battle lines were drawn during the Civil War, but they lasted well into the latter half of the 20th century.
But recently, and most radically over the last decade, the South has changed its political allegiance. Breaking from their past, Southerners are embracing the Republican Party. George Bush won every Southern state in the 2000 election — including Al Gore’s home state of Tennessee.
The Republican Party sees the South as the way to keep and strengthen its hold on both the White House and Capitol Hill. In the Senate, there are many seats held by Southern Democrats that now appear vulnerable since Democratic incumbents Zell Miller of Georgia, John Edwards of North Carolina, Ernest Hollings of South Carolina and, most recently, Bob Graham of Florida all announced that they will not seek reelection in 2004. In elections for state office, the decreasing popularity of the Democratic Party is also evident. Last Tuesday, Republicans emerged as victors in the governor’s races in both Kentucky and Mississippi, and a tight gubernatorial race in Louisiana, with elections this Saturday, will also be a test of the growing Republican machine of the religious right. On the presidential question, Senator Miller, who is arguably one of the most conservative members of the Democratic Party, recently endorsed Bush over any possible Democratic candidate in 2004.
The Democratic Party has recognized that its electoral math does not add up without the support of the South. So it is no wonder that many of the Democratic presidential nominees have begun to focus on how the Democratic Party can remain electable in the South. One popular answer is to put a Southerner on the ticket — either as the presidential or the vice-presidential nominee. The logic goes that if Graham is on the ticket, the Democrats win Florida without spending a dime, and the same goes for Wesley Clark in Arkansas and Edwards in North Carolina. Further, there is the hope that a candidate with Southern roots would attract voters from other Southern states to the polls.
While this “favorite son” philosophy does often guide electoral politics, the 2000 election was a painful reminder for Democrats that it cannot be taken for granted. Tennessee’s 11 electoral votes would have been enough to put Gore in the White House.
Many candidates — especially those from the North who cannot claim such favorite-son status in the South — have provided other answers to the question of how to regain the trust of Southerners.
One of the most controversial answers came from Howard Dean. In a telephone interview quoted in Nov. 1 Des Moines Register, Dean said, “I still want to be the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks.” There was an immediate backlash from the other Democratic candidates, criticizing Dean for pandering to a part of the population that is against the fight for civil rights that has defined the platform of the Democratic Party over the last half century.
Few in the Democratic Party — certainly not Dean — would defend the Confederate Flag or what it stands for, as Dean made obvious in a string of apologies last week. In 2001, Georgia Democratic Governor Roy Barnes decreased the size of the Confederate flag symbol on Georgia’s state flag, and white southern voters responded by ousting both him and Georgia Democrat Senator Max Cleland from office. To many Southerners, the flag is a symbol of regional pride that represents something quite different than a period of racial oppression.
No matter what it represents, Dean is right in recognizing that it is unlikely for the Democrats to be victorious in 2004 without the support of “guys with Confederate flags.” Although some consider the flag a distasteful symbol, the Democratic Party would be wise to focus on the issues in the South where there is a potential to mobilize Southern whites with shared values. Democrats can reclaim the South if they can convince working whites to vote based on economic and domestic issues such as better schools, universal health care, and more jobs, as they have convinced Southern blacks, who vote overwhelmingly Democratic. While the days of the Democratic “Solid South” may be gone, the Democrats still have a chance to keep it in play.
Alissa Stollwerk is a sophomore in Saybrook College.