On Sunday, the country witnessed the great North-South divide again as the New England Patriots took on the Carolina Panthers. Happily, the division lasted only about four hours and all that was at stake this time was a Super Bowl title and trophy. Yet, within our political system, the divide continues to widen as the southern portion of the United States becomes more conservative and more likely to vote for Republican candidates.
Mathematically speaking, John Kerry may have been right to suppose that a Democratic candidate could win the presidency without the support of a single southern state. Of course, Kerry, after receiving criticism for the statement, wisely stated in the South Carolina debate his intentions to compete in and win the South. Even so, the importance of the South does not lie in mere electoral votes, but rather in its role as an important part of what makes this nation so great. As someone who takes great pride in being from Texas, I can say that with complete confidence. At times, we may consider ourselves to be our own country, and I know many people who would argue that we should be, but quite often we willingly lump ourselves with the other Southern states.
Unfortunately, Texas and the rest of the South suffer from poverty, inadequate school systems, and job loss like many other areas of the country, and in order to form a more perfect union, these problems must be addressed. Democratic candidates must bring these issues to light and discuss how their policies will actually mitigate many of the problems that plague the South and debunk the mythical idea that the Bush administration is better suited to handle these problems.
According to the Census Bureau, in 2001-2002, the South had a disproportionately large share of the people who suffered from poverty. Of the 10 states with the highest poverty rates, all of them were Southern states if you exclude the District of Columbia. Why then should the South rally behind Bush when his policies give tax breaks to companies that move their headquarters overseas, many of which were located in the South, and effectively contribute to job loss? With the promise to provide tax incentives for companies to stay in the United States, Democrats better understand the devastation the loss of jobs has brought to many families.
Additionally, the war, with regard to the treatment of troops, is an issue that Democrats can challenge Bush on in the South. With an undeniable respect for those who serve this nation, the South houses many of the country’s military bases. In the fall, the Bush administration opposed legislation that would have extended the increased combat pay for troops in Iraq. Aside from purely monetary failures, reserve troops often live with poor housing conditions and inadequate health care. For all his dedication and faith in our military, as exhibited by his surprise visit to Iraq over Thanksgiving, Bush misses the mark when it comes to taking care of the troops stationed here at home. Democrats recognize this failure, and many of the presidential candidates including John Edwards and John Kerry have vowed to fight for the improvement of housing, health care and pay to our troops.
Moreover, our public school system is at stake especially in the South. Many rural- and urban-poor areas in the South, like those in the North, are denied the quality teachers as well as the adequate educational tools and facilities that are necessary for children in public schools to lean sufficiently, and Bush’s policies are not helping. Although Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” Act served to address the problems of the nation’s suffering educational system, the administration’s failure to properly fund the program has prompted sharp criticism from both the left and the right. Most recently, the Virginia House of Delegates, a Republican-controlled legislature, criticized President Bush’s bill arguing that it costs more money than the state has and conflicts with the tougher standards set by a testing program already in place. Many of the Democratic candidates have education plans that would seek to properly fund education programs, pay higher salaries to teachers, and set higher standards to assess achievement, but ensuring that the lessons being taught are not simply those that will help children pass these tests.
If you have ever met anyone from the South or visited the South, then you know that we have an obsession with hospitality, and yet, despite Bush’s southern upbringing and “compassionate” conservatism, he has left an inhospitable mark on a region from where in draws most of his support with his economic and social policies. Thus, it is necessary for whoever wins the Democratic nomination, be he from the North or the South, to vigorously compete in the region. It does not require changing one’s values to meet the moral or religious nature of southerners or becoming more conservative, but rather an honest discourse about the failed policies of the Bush administration, the effect it has on the people of the South and viable alternatives. Trust me, we’ll listen; it’s a natural element of southern hospitality.
Alicia Washington is a junior in Trumbull college.