Doug Jones is the snow leopard of American party politics: He exists, but his extinction seems inevitable. With his 2017 special election victory, Jones became Alabama’s first Democratic U.S. senator since Howell Heflin retired 20 years earlier. The former prosecutor is the only Democrat among the ten who currently represent the five Deep South states, and one of three among the 22 senators from the 11 former Confederate states. The other two, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, both hail from Virginia—a commonwealth that, by dint of its unusually high household incomes, non-native population, and Washington metropolitan influence, shares with Florida the distinction of being the least Southern of the Southern states.
Consider what it took for Jones to capture that Senate seat. He needed to win statewide in Alabama, where Republican presidential candidates as dissimilar as John McCain, Mitt Romney, and Donald Trump each amassed around 61 percent of the vote. He needed to win during a special election when turnouts are historically low, a fact that tends to draw more affluent and therefore more Republican voters. And although Republican President Donald Trump supported Luther Strange in the GOP primary, Jones had to beat a different Republican nominee who, nonetheless, was still endorsed in the general election by a President very popular in this deeply conservative red state.
In fact, the real reason Jones beat back these collective headwinds to win the seat Jeff Sessions vacated when he became Trump’s attorney general was that the man who Alabama Republicans nominated to face Jones in the general election was a terrible candidate. A creepy moralizer accused of serial predations against women, including teenage girls, Judge Roy Moore was a disastrous nominee. Critics also accused him of a history of racism, although whether such a credential is a liability in Alabama remains an open question. And with all that, Jones eked out a narrow, less than two-point win. For now, at least, he’s the Democratic senator from Alabama. (Moore is running again in 2020.)
The politician whose identity reveals more about Southern politics today is the Yellowhammer State’s other senator: Richard Shelby. First elected and then reelected to the Senate in 1986 and 1992 as a Democrat, Shelby promptly changed parties to join the new GOP majority after its sweeping victories in the 1994 “Republican Revolution.” Rather than punishing him for a career-ending partisan apostasy, Alabama’s voters rewarded Shelby following his conversion with comfortable reelection victories as a Republican in 1998, 2004, and 2010. In 2016, a year before Jones defeated Moore, Shelby won a sixth term with 64 percent of the vote. If Jones is a momentary anachronism, Shelby is the embodiment of the current, converted South: What was once America’s most Democratic region is now its most Republican.
In October 2006, I published Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South (Simon & Schuster). The book’s thesis was simple: Because the party has no chance to recapture the South—and would pay a heavy political price even if it could—Democrats should build a non-Southern national majority. At the time, I took a fair amount of heat. Some said I was advocating partisan suicide. At the January 2007 winter meetings of the Democratic National Committee at the Washington Hilton, stalwart centrist South Carolina Democrat Donald Fowler, Sr. began an unprompted rant about the book’s description of his native South and his lifelong party. Unaware I was among a gaggle of reporters chatting him up, I politely identified myself as the book’s author. Fowler angrily pointed his long index finger into my chest and told me in terms not family-friendly enough to repeat here what I could do with myself, and my book.
And now, here we are, hurtling toward an election in which the Democrats seem likely to take another drubbing in the South. How well, or poorly, has my thesis worn, and what should the Democratic Party’s posture toward the South be today? Virginia excepted, the South is even more Republican than when my book first published. In the past decade, an increasingly progressive Democratic Party has proven that it could win both congressional majorities and the presidency with a non-Southern strategy. Although the party has by now likely reached its electoral rock-bottom in the former Confederacy, Democratic revival in post-Donald Trump America necessarily begins outside Dixie.
The South Doesn’t Matter
I get why Don Fowler was so defensive. He’s old enough to remember a Democratic-dominated South. But critics of my non-Southern national strategy were hardly limited to veteran white Southern Democrats like the former South Carolina Democratic Party and Democratic National Committee chair. When Whistling went to print, the suggestion that Democrats could build national majorities for President and in Congress was radical. As I heard repeatedly, the previous three Democratic presidents—Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, and Lyndon Johnson—were all native sons. Harold Ford, Jr. and other Southern Democrats, dressed up in camouflage and dropping the “g’s” from their culturally conservative vernacular, warned that abandoning the South spelled doom for the party.
Within six short weeks of the book’s publication, however, Democrats flipped both chambers of Congress and gained net seats among governorships and state legislatures. As I noted in the paperback edition of Whistling a year later, more than 85 percent of those pickups came in the 39 states outside the former Confederacy. The point is this: As both of Barack Obama’s victories and even Hillary Clinton’s defeat demonstrate, the South continues to be almost completely irrelevant to the Democrats’ winning presidential election calculus.
Although the book proposed a strategy for national elected office—the presidency, Congress—doubters were quick to point out that Democrats remained vital in the region’s state electoral politics. After a lecture I gave at Arkansas’s Hendrix College, where my colleague and friend Jay Barth teaches, Jay’s mostly native Arkansan students reminded me that their home state boasted two Democratic U.S. senators and majorities in both chambers of the state legislature. Arkansas was not alone. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Democrats at the time controlled both state legislative chambers not only in Arkansas, but in Alabama, Mississippi, and North Carolina, with partisan control of Tennessee’s legislature then split. Heading into the 2006 midterms, Democrats held nine of the South’s 22 state chambers. Today, a little more than a decade later, the Republicans control all 22 chambers. Arkansas since lost its state legislative majorities—and those two U.S. Senate seats, too. Complaints about Democrats writing off the South persist, but complainants have a shrinking number of counter-examples to cite.
As for presidential elections, a parallel critique emerged following Barack Obama’s rise. Obama won Florida and Virginia in both 2008 and 2012, and narrowly carried North Carolina in 2008. It’s telling, though, where Obama won in the South compared to Bill Clinton in the 1990s. Clinton, too, carried Florida in 1996. His other Southern electors, however, came from his home state of Arkansas, his running mate Al Gore’s Tennessee, plus Louisiana and Georgia (the latter in 1992 only). Deep South victories in Arkansas and Louisiana harkened back to the Democrats’ now-dead New Deal coalition, whereas states like North Carolina and Virginia reflect a changing South increasingly defined by non-native Southerners. It’s also true that Democrats in “new South” states like Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida with liberal “ideopolises”—as John Judis and Ruy Teixeira termed them in their book, The Emerging Democratic Majority—can cobble together winning statewide coalitions comprised of black voters, the Latino community, and white liberals clustered around major cities and university towns. Sometimes that’s enough to deliver Democratic presidential electors.
Setting aside the difference between the states Obama and Clinton won, the important and oft-ignored parallel between their two winning coalitions matters more: Both won some Southern states, yet both amassed more than 270 non-Southern electors. Dixie was vital to none of their four combined victories.
Had she spent more time and resources in the Midwest—the most pivotal region in presidential politics for nearly a century—Hillary Clinton may have erased her approximately 78,000-vote combined margin of defeat in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. In that narrowest of cases, yes, she would have still required Virginia’s 13 electors to capture the White House. Had Clinton run a better campaign, or had she not faced the now-evident domestic and international advantages Trump enjoyed, she could have easily joined Obama and her husband in assembling a coalition of 270-plus non-Southern electors. And let’s not forget 2016’s most damning regional statistic: Despite losing all but one Southern state, Hillary Clinton received 2.8 million more popular votes nationally, a margin barely dented by subtracting her 212,000-vote surplus in Virginia. In an alternate universe of American politics in which there’s no Electoral College, the Democrats’ overwhelming non-Southern coalition, which has delivered six popular vote wins in the past seven presidential cycles, would give them a virtual lock on the White House.
A closer examination of the 2016 results—especially the behavior of the working-class white voters who’ve drawn so much attention since Trump’s surprise victory—confirms the South’s irrelevancy in creating either winning or losing Democratic presidential nominees. Among working-class whites, pundits and pollsters have focused inordinate attention on the so-called “Obama-Trump” voters. According to analyses conducted by the University of Virginia’s Geoffrey Skelley of both the American National Election Study and the Cooperative Congressional Election Study, an estimated 6.7 million to 8.4 million Americans who voted for Obama in 2012 turned around and cast their votes for Trump four years later. Almost exclusively white, these voters constituted somewhere between 11 percent and 13 percent of Obama’s 2012 supporters.
Where are they? Obama-Trump voters are hardly confined to the 206 counties that flipped from Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016. But county-level results show these counties to be concentrated in states along the U.S.-Canada border, including critical Midwest states like Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, plus rural white swaths of reliably blue presidential states like Maine, New York, and Washington. Thirty-one states, including nine southern states, featured at least one Obama-to-Trump county. According to tabulations by Ballotpedia, however, the 11 Southern states accounted for only 28 of these 206 counties; the most in any Southern state was North Carolina’s six. Elsewhere, Iowa alone contains 31 such counties; add in Minnesota’s 19, Ohio’s nine, and Wisconsin’s 23, and those four states alone are home to more than a third (82) of the Obama-to-Trump counties. In other words, there are far fewer Obama-Trump voters in the South for the obvious reason that white Southerners also voted overwhelmingly for John McCain and Mitt Romney. They vote Republican. Period.
In the only region where both 90 percent of African Americans vote Democratic and 80 percent of white Americans vote Republican, swing voters, swing counties, and therefore swing states in the South are too few to warrant significant investment or attention. The debate rages on about whether economic anxiety or racial attitudes motivated white voters in 2016, and let it rage. But about one thing there’s no debate: The 2016 presidential race was decided outside the South.
The Democratic Southern Vote Has Dwindled…
It’s no mystery that Republicans, since the 1990s, have used racial gerrymandering to pack minority voters into heavily majority-minority districts in order to limit the number of Democratic seats in state legislatures and the U.S. House. Doing so dilutes the voting power not only of Democrats, but of African Americans and Latinos. As I pointed out in Whistling and again in my next book, The Stronghold, too many pundits fail to notice the second, intended benefit of Republicans’ race-based gerrymandering schemes: It increases the non-white share of the reduced cohort of Democratic legislators. The result is that Republicans’ racialized politics has further marginalized Southern Democrats.
Consider the racial composition of the South’s 11 U.S. House delegations in the current 116th Congress, as shown in the table below. The media’s top-line story is the partisan split in the delegations. Statewide and regionally, House seats tilt heavily Republican thanks to the GOP’s vaunted “REDMAP” program implemented following the 2010 elections. At present, the GOP holds 88 of the South’s 136 House seats, or 64.7 percent, and all but Virginia’s delegation is majority-Republican. Arkansas, that supposed plucky Democratic bulwark against the encroaching Republican South, stands alone as the only Southern state without a single Democratic House member.
Notice the racial profile of Southern House members. Eighty-six of the 88 Republicans, or 97.7 percent, are white. With only two non-white GOP House members—Cuban-American Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida and African-American Will Hurd of Texas—nine of the 11 Republican delegations are all-white. (Hurd has announced his retirement, so the number of non-white GOP House member is likely to drop to one.) South Carolina Senator Tim Scott aside, Southern Republicans do not bother to recruit, train, or elect minorities to Congress. This is a feature, not a bug, of their race-based partisan strategy.
A key correlate to that strategy is the GOP’s quest to blacken and brown what remains of the Democratic delegations. Fait accompli: The composite portrait of Southern House Democrats differs dramatically. Six of the 10 Democratic House delegations are majority non-white. To be fair, to classify as majority non-white the Democratic delegations in three states—Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi—is slightly misleading because each state has but one Democrat. All three are African Americans elected from districts into which Republican state legislators and governors packed as many black voters as possible so the GOP could capture the 11 other combined House seats from these states. I label these districting plans “perfect Republican gerrymanders,” because in these states GOP mapmakers managed to not only create the maximum number of winnable Republican seats but practically guarantee that each state’s lone Democrat is non-white. (A special hat-tip again to Arkansas, where Republicans shrewdly created districts that elected Republicans to all four U.S. House seats, despite the fact that only about 60 percent of Arkansans are non-Latino whites.)
Overall, 56 percent of Southern House Democrats are non-white; Tennessee stands alone as the only state with an all-white Democratic pair of House members. The clear racial bifurcation of the two parties’ delegations is precisely the point, of course: Republican gerrymanders in Dixie not only maximize the GOP’s seat shares, but send a powerful signal to voters about which is the region’s white party—and which is not.
To summarize, the Democratic Party’s fortunes in the South are more dismal today than they were when I wrote Whistling. Congressional representation for Southern Democrats has shrunken to three U.S. senators and four dozen House seats, half of which are packed with non-white voters and any other liberals Republicans can stuff inside the borders. Meanwhile, Democratic electoral votes won in the South are rare and rarely if ever decisive to presidential election outcomes. The good news—which I proclaim without snark—is that Southern Democrats have probably reached bottom. They have nowhere to go but up.
…And Isn’t Worth Building Back Up
As I made clear in Whistling, even if centrist Democratic candidates and their advisers could devise ways to win elections in the South, those victories would not be worth it because the things Democrats would have to say and the positions they’d have to embrace to win would do larger damage to the party’s agenda and image.
Consider how strong a foothold progressives have gained within the party since 2000. That year, Bill Bradley mounted a largely unsuccessful challenge from the left to Al Gore’s near-certain capture of the Democratic presidential nomination. But in the post-Clinton/Gore era, the progressive challenge to the increasingly maligned “Democratic establishment” is everywhere evident, from the rise of groups like Democracy For America to the collapse of the Democratic Leadership Council. Democratic presidential contenders in recent years, including Dennis Kucinich, Howard Dean, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders, have in their own ways indicted what they believe is a too-corporate and too-centrist party. Positions now widely popular among Democrats—support of gay marriage, marijuana legalization, a $15 national minimum wage, free community college and student debt relief, heightened regulation of financial markets, Medicare for All or universal health care, and a foreign posture that rejects American interventionism except for the most dire causes—barely registered on the party’s radar two decades ago.
While they were busy transforming their party’s platform, some of these same progressives called for a 50-state strategy designed to sell this liberal agenda with equal fervor in the deepest Deep South counties as the most densely populated urban precincts. As Democratic National Committee chair from 2005 to 2009, Howard Dean is most associated with this foolhardy ambition, but he was not alone. Yet as I argued in Whistling, a 50-state strategy is utter folly, if for no other reason than undermining the party’s progressive principles through any coalition with Southern whites.
The South is, after all, the most conservative, most religious, and most racially polarized region in America. In the book’s concluding chapter, I delineated four related features of the South that make it especially hard ground upon which to plant the flag of progressive revival:
- Economic inequality in the region is pervasive, and “those gaps are not just between black and white Southerners, but among white Southerners”;
- Racial animosity in the South is prevalent, and “xenophobia toward outsiders—foreign or domestic—is most palpable”;
- “Evangelicals are many and libertarians are few” in the region, leading to government interference in “personal decisions from conception to the end of life,” not to mention passivity toward both government and corporate surveillance; and
- “The South is the most militarized region of the country,” and the region now produces a disproportionate number of service members per capita.
The questions I asked rhetorically in the concluding chapter of Whistling Past Dixie are as relevant today, if not more so, as they were when the book first published. I wrote: “Why would Democrats turn to the most rural, economically stratified, racially polarized, anti-union, evangelized and culturally conservative region of the country to begin the process of building a strong and sustainable majority for the twenty-first century? It makes absolutely no sense for a progressive party to repair itself by first targeting the nation’s most conservative region. Indeed, the Republicans would be delighted if Democrats continued to obsess over the South: That way, the GOP can deplete the Democrats’ resources and more easily capture the Midwest and Southwest.”
A party that values greater economic equality, inclusiveness, natural resource conservation, women’s reproductive freedom, and a less imperialistic American posture will struggle to find converts here. More to the point, attempting to convert those Southerners would force Democrats to compromise many of their core beliefs and much of their national governing agenda, thereby losing support in other regions. That’s neither a practical nor moral tradeoff, were it even possible at this point in our increasingly polarized era.
Democratic policy positions are not outside the mainstream of American public opinion, or even white Americans’ political attitudes. They do, however, fall outside the mainstream opinions and political values of one set of Americans: Southern white voters. Despite the endless focus on the economic anxieties and racial attitudes of white Americans, a majority of white voters in every region except the South supports the Democrats in presidential elections. That was true in 2006, and it’s still true 13 years later.
Build the Non-Southern Coalition First
Can Democrats stage a Southern revival? Yes and no. The party has likely reached its regional nadir and will almost certainly make gains in the years ahead. But the Democrats are not going to dominate the region in the foreseeable future.
The most obvious way to restore the party’s competitiveness is to build mixed-race coalitions that pair pockets of moderate and liberal whites with African Americans and the growing Latino population. This project is fully underway and already delivering victories in Virginia, and to a lesser degree in North Carolina. Although Florida’s Andrew Gillum and Georgia’s Stacey Abrams both lost their gubernatorial races despite a strong Democratic national wave in 2018, the impressive showing by these two African-American candidates is encouraging. Their campaigns also disprove the notion that Southern Democrats must rely on white nominees to win statewide contests. As for Latino population growth, the “pickle ball generation” of white retirees plus older Cuban-Americans’ enduring conservatism will offset Latino growth elsewhere in the state for a while, but Florida’s demographics should help Democrats over the long term. And yes, Texas’s large and growing Latino population soon may alter radically both the state’s partisan control and the national Electoral College calculus.
Those who carp that identity politics don’t work or backfire are wrong: As I explained in The Stronghold, empirical evidence confirms that the GOP holds together an equally diverse coalition of identity groups, a fact overlooked because the party’s heterodox components are mostly white. But relying upon demography-is-destiny is too passive a solution for Democrats. Both inside and outside the South, the party must also develop platforms that appeal to the South’s rising racial polyglot. More immediately, Democrats need to find a way, during the 2020 cycle and the subsequent redistricting process, to prevent Republicans from continuing to dilute their voting power via gerrymandering. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling this summer to continue to allow severe partisan gerrymanders may doom Southern Democrats for at least another decade.
Democrats Should Just ‘Look Away’
Much as it did for New Deal Democrats, the South serves as the backbone of current Republican majorities—presidential, congressional, state elections. Because today’s Southern Republicans typically comprise between 30 percent and 40 percent of Republican U.S. House and Senate delegations, they can set the tone for the party’s national agenda. The South’s sometimes gradual and at other times rapid partisan conversion during the post-civil rights era continues to have major political implications for American policy and politics. But to what end?
The South’s most enduring legacy during the past eight decades is the creation and entrenchment of white populist power. During the New Deal, white Southerners, who were then Democrats, were hardly small-government conservatives. They empowered presidents from Franklin Roosevelt to Lyndon Johnson to create and expand Social Security, to invest in national infrastructure, to fund the G.I. Bill, and to complete monumental projects like the Tennessee Valley Authority, all of which today’s conservatives would decry as socialism. None of these massive public investments and welfare state expansions could have happened without the electoral support of white Southerners.
Prior to the 1960s and ’70s, however, these investments were designed and correctly understood to be largely, if not exclusively, reserved to white Americans. The civil rights movement threatened this comfortable formulation. The expansion of the social-welfare state to include a race-neutral set of claimants immediately began to erode white voters’ support for that agenda. In his new book Dying From Whiteness, Jonathan Metzl demonstrates that racially resentful whites today knowingly vote against programs that would improve, extend, and even save their own lives. The crippling political effects of racism know no regional boundaries, but Southern whites are more familiar with them than anyone else.
Sure, Social Security and Medicare remain popular among whites and even white Southerners. None other than Donald Trump broke with modern conservative orthodoxy—and broke the hearts of self-styled libertarians like Paul Ryan—by announcing he would not mess with either entitlement program. Recognize, however, that half of all federal expenditures in the forms of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and veterans benefits go to senior citizens, the whitest living American generation. There’s no mystery why many of the same conservatives and Republicans who repeatedly tried to repeal the Affordable Care Act howl if a cost-of-living increase for Social Security comes under threat. The apparent schizophrenia is really just veiled racism: The ACA is geared to serve younger, less-white generations.
In short, white Southerners delivered pivotal votes for the white-dominated New Deal welfare state, then turned around and delivered pivotal votes for the Ronald Reagan-led revolution that subsequently attempted and often succeeded in restricting the welfare state claims of non-white Americans. The creation and preservation of a white-tilted welfare state is arguably the South’s single biggest policy achievement of the past century—a task so monumental it required nothing less than the partisan reversal, within two short generations, of almost the entire white South.
Thirteen years after publication of Whistling Past Dixie, white Southerners’ partisan reversal continues to have vast and seismic implications for both parties, and for state and national policy. Long before Donald Trump glided down that escalator in June 2015 to announce his candidacy, the South’s partisan and policy legacy was evident for all to see. In that sense, the South continues to serve as the vanguard for the preservation of white power in the United States. Whether they whistle or shout, Democrats invested in the political-electoral potency of an inclusive coalition derived from an increasingly mixed-race American populace have little reason to invest precious resources in Dixie.