Southern Strategery

I’m a big fan of Jesse Jackson Jr and his endorsement of Howard Dean is meaningful to me. So, when I read this article in The Nation I was hoping for a thorough explanation of Dean’s "Southern Strategy" that would convince me of a new and bold approach to a long term problem. Unfortunately, it was more or less what I already knew and I am left with the opinion that it’s either a naïve misunderstanding of the complexities of voting behavior or a feint to hide the fact that Dean has no intention of challenging in the south. I hope it’s the latter because if it’s the former he may find echoes and reverberations of this miscalculation throughout the campaign if he wins the nomination.

But, it isn’t just Dean. There seems to be an common belief among Democrats in which it is assumed that we can make a populist pitch to poor and working class southern whites and circumvent the unpleasantness of certain racist attitudes and culture war issues with an appeal that consists of saying that and they should vote for us because their economic self interest is more in line with working class blacks than rich whites. This belief seems to rely on the idea that southern Republicans have been led astray by Nixonian racist appeals to the extent that they are unaware that the Democrats are for progressive taxation and social programs that might benefit them. They just need to be informed of this misunderstanding and they will fall into line.

But, part of this theory also maintains that Democrats have failed to illustrate the differences between the two parties and that they have neglected to point out that Republicans don’t have working people’s best interests at heart. This is not true. Nor is it true that Democratic politicians up to now (if not rank and file big city liberals) have written off the Southern white male vote or treated them disrespectfully. Progressives have spent decades trying to figure out how to reach this block of voters who should by all rights be aligned with the Democrats on the economic issues that most affect their lives.

The question has always been, why don’t southern working class whites vote their economic self-interest?

In this paper (pdf) Sociologist Nathan Glazer of Harvard (bio), who has long been interested in the question of America’s underdeveloped welfare state, answers a related question --- “Why Americans don’t care about income inequality” which may give us some clues. Citing a comprehensive study by economists Alberto Alesina and Edward Glaeser of Harvard and Bruce Sacerdote of Dartmouth called, "Why Doesn't the United States have a European-Style Welfare State?" (Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, 2/2001) he shows that the reluctance of Americans to embrace an egalitarian economic philosophy goes back to the beginning of the republic. But what is interesting is that both he and the economists offer some pretty conclusive evidence that the main reason for American “exceptionalism” in this case is, quite simply, racism.

AGS [Alesina, Glazear and Sacerdote] report, using the World Values Survey, that "opinions and beliefs about the poor differ sharply between the United States and Europe. In Europe the poor are generally thought to be unfortunate, but not personally responsible for their own condition. For example, according to the World Values Survey, whereas 70 % of West Germans express the belief that people are poor because of imperfections in society, not their own laziness, 70 % of Americans hold the opposite view.... 71 % of Americans but only 40% of Europeans said ...poor people could work their way out of poverty."


"Racial fragmentation and the disproportionate representation of ethnic minorities among the poor played a major role in limiting redistribution.... Our bottom line is that Americans redistribute less than Europeans for three reasons: because the majority of Americans believe that redistribution favors racial minorities, because Americans believe that they live in an open and fair society, and that if someone is poor it is his or her own fault, and because the political system is geared toward preventing redistribution. In fact the political system is likely to be endogenous to these basic American beliefs."(p. 61)

"Endogenous" is economics-ese for saying we have the political system we do because we prefer the results it gives, such as limiting redistribution to the blacks. Thus the racial factor as well as a wider net of social beliefs play a key role in why Americans don't care about income inequality, and why, not caring, they have no great interest in expanding the welfare state.

Glazer goes on to point out how these attitudes may have come to pass historically by discussing the roles that the various immigrant support systems and the variety of religious institutions provided for the poor:

But initial uniformities were succeeded by a diversity which overwhelmed and replaced state functions by nonstate organizations, and it was within these that many of the services that are the mark of a fully developed welfare state were provided. Where do the blacks fit in? The situation of the blacks was indeed different. No religious or ethnic group had to face anything like the conditions of slavery or the fierce subsequent prejudice and segregation to which they were subjected. But the pre-existing conditions of fractionated social services affected them too. Like other groups, they established their own churches, which provided within the limits set by the prevailing poverty and absence of resources some services. Like other groups, too, they were dependant on pre-existing systems of social service that had been set up by religious and ethnic groups, primarily to serve their own, some of which reached out to serve blacks, as is the case with the religiously based (and now publicly funded) social service agencies of New York City. They were much more dependant, owing to their economic condition, on the poorly developed primitive public services, and they became in time the special ward of the expanded American welfare state's social services. Having become, to a greater extent than other groups, the clients of public services, they also affected, owing to the prevailing racism, the public image of these services.

Glazer notes that there are other factors involved in our attitudes about inequality having to do with our British heritage, religious backround etc, that also play into our attitudes. But, he and the three economists have put their finger on the problem Democrats have with white Southern voters who “vote against their economic self-interest,” and may just explain why populism is so often coupled with nativism and racism --- perhaps it’s always been impossible to make a populist pitch that includes blacks or immigrants without alienating whites.

So, we are dealing with a much more complex and intractable problem than “southerners have been duped by Nixon’s southern strategy” or that liberals have been insulting them for years by supposedly devaluing their culture. Indeed, even the nostalgia that Howard Dean professes for FDR’s coalition is historically inaccurate. A majority of whites have never voted with blacks in the south. (In the 30’s, as we all know, southern blacks were rarely allowed to vote at all.) In fact, FDR had an implicit agreement with the southern base of his party to leave Jim Crow alone if he wanted their cooperation on other economic issues. The southern coalition went along out of desperation (and also because they were paying very little in taxes.) But, as soon as the economy began to recover, and Roosevelt began to concentrate on programs for the poor, the division that exists to this day re-emerged.

Ed Sebesta over at Temple of Democracy thinks that Dean was on a course to launch a much more familiar “southern strategy” with a classic southern states rights argument and he gives some supporting evidence to back that claim. He says that liberals are always interested in using his research on the neo-confederacy when it comes to taking down Repubicans but that they aren't interested in hearing about Democrats who may be playing the same game. I’m not willing to go as far as he does but I do think it illustrates at least a crippling naiveté that liberal Democrats all over the country are so earnest about getting white votes in the south but failed for months to realize that the semiotics of the confederate flag are a hell of a lot more complicated than a simple demographic shorthand for “southern white guy.”

And, regardless of his earlier intent, I think it’s obvious by the timing of events that Dean realized that if he wanted the support of the unions who were on the verge of endorsing him he had to find another way to appeal to white southern voters. Unfortunately, the idealistic view that Jesse Jackson Jr voices, of a purely economic appeal to both blacks and whites, is probably also only effective in pleasing white liberals who are already persuaded. It will likely have the opposite effect on working class whites. I’m fairly sure that Joe Trippi knows this and has actually written off the south in his electoral calculation.

There is another way to approach this issue that neither winks and nods at racism, depends upon a naïve idealism about the attitudes underlying southern voting patterns or writes off the south entirely. The key is to continue to reject racism in no uncertain terms while re-framing the economic argument in a way that appeals to Americans’ belief in their social mobility.

I didn’t invent that idea, of course. I believe that Clinton understood the long standing association between racism and egalitarianism and began to take steps to de-link them by re-directing the good government argument to the middle class --- the class most people, regardless of their race, identify as their own. (Welfare Reform was another, as painful as it was.) That reframing, combined with his sincere affinity for African American concerns, helped him to capture Georgia, Louisiana, Arkansas, Kentucky and Tennessee in 1992 and Florida, Louisiana, Arkansas, Kentucky and Tennessee in 1996 --- with more than 90% of the black vote and close to 50% of the white vote.

Throughout both of his terms he walked a fine line, trying to move this argument about government away from its subliminal racist underpinning while continuously speaking out and proselytizing against racism. He was trying to make the country begin to see that government services benefit the vast majority rather than those who are “lazy” or “inferior,” while also trying to get people to see African Americans as middle class working people like everybody else. Whether he succeeded is open to debate, but he does deserve some credit for winning in the south with his approach.

Racism is the original sin of the American experiment and progress in expunging it is slow going, especially in its ground zero, the south. It may even be that some of our most cherished beliefs about ourselves --- individualism and self-sufficiency --- are partially grounded in an ugly reaction to slavery and the fallout from it. White Supremacists and neo-confederates are exactly what they appear to be and more subtle aspects of their philosophy play themselves out in the multitude of ways that people rationalize their beliefs about government social programs and many other things in American culture. (If you don’t believe me, read this study from the University of Chicago called Racial Bias in Hiring: Are Emily and Brendan More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal?)

So, we can argue about whether we even need to capture the south as Thomas Schaller rather convincingly shows here. We also could adopt a strategy that only feints to the south in order to force the Republicans to spend time and money there. And, we surely should keep in mind, as Donkey Rising writes”… many southern voters are, in fact, reachable by Democrats and becoming more so over time. This is especially true in the emerging “ideopolis” areas of the south–Florida’s hi-tech and tourist areas, North Carolina’s research triangle, the Northern Virginia suburbs of DC, etc.–and Democrats need to cultivate these voters, not abandon them. Otherwise, Democrats will throw away the longer term opportunities created by demographic and economic change in the south.”

But if we think we can make any headway with working class whites (particularly in the south) who currently vote Republican by making an appeal to their class solidarity with blacks, we are going to be disappointed. Their resistance to that idea is one of the main reasons they reject government social programs in the first place. We don’t help blacks or whites by failing to understand that and we certainly won’t win any votes by ignoring it.

Note: If anyone would like a different perspective on this issue, I urge you to read Christopher Caldwell’s 1998 piece in The Atlantic called "The Southern Captivity of the GOP" It seems to me that Caldwell’s observations are as salient today as they were 5 years ago --- the only difference is 9/11.

9/11 gave Republicanism a national boost that nothing else could have and it is the real battleground on which the coming election will be fought. If we can make the national security case then we might even bring in some of those southern voters who don’t vote their economic self-interest. They do value the military and they are suffering disproportionately from this massive error in judgment in Iraq. If we fail on that issue I fear we will fail nationally and George W. Bush will finally get the mandate he so desperately seeks. Lord help us then.