How the Democratic Party Can Win the South

by Benjamin Studebaker

Since Donald Trump’s election I have increasingly become interested in how the left engages with white America. The left isn’t getting enough white support. Even with over 90% of the African-American vote, alleged pedophile Roy Moore came absurdly close to winning in Alabama. This can’t just be because white Americans are racist, stupid, or evil. There has to be more to it. In the past I’ve identified many things wrong with our approach–we’re too condescending and patronising toward white voters, and too quick to blame and shame them. We don’t spend enough time talking about and emphasizing programs and policies that help all marginalized people, including poor, working, and middle class whites. But today I want to go further and discuss in detail a new way of looking at the South and at middle America more broadly–one that takes these people and their concerns seriously. If we’re willing to tell a different story about the South, or at least acknowledge a different story, and build that acknowledgement into our policy and rhetoric, I think we can make some gains.

There’s a story we tell about the South. You know it. It goes something like this:

In the 60s, Lyndon Johnson passed the civil rights act. But the South was full of racists who hate black people for no reason. They betrayed and murdered the Great Society and threw their lot in with Richard Nixon’s “law and order” and Ronald Reagan’s “moral majority”. The Southern Strategy worked, and the South has been paying the price ever since. But they kind of deserve it, because they’re willing to vote against their own interests out of racism and bigotry.

But I want to tell a different story, one that begins much earlier.

At the dawn of US history, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and other Federalists pushed for the northeast to industrialize. But the Jeffersonian and Jacksonian Democrats–who tended to be from the south–continued to pursue an agricultural economy grounded in slavery. This was a mistake, both morally and economically. The northern model was much more effective, and the federal government always had a much greater stake in the north’s success, because industrialization confers wealth and power on the state.

The north often needed the federal government to pass tariffs on British manufactured goods to protect nascent American industries from British competition. When the federal government did this, the British would respond by passing tariffs on agricultural products from the south. The northern economic model could only prevail at the south’s expense, and because the northern model was both more efficient and more moral the federal government tended to back it. The more time passed, the more the north developed, and the bigger the power disparity between north and south.

The south sought independence in an attempt to maintain the agricultural slave economy model a little longer. It was always doomed because it was much too inefficient. It was good that it was doomed because the slave system was morally abominable. But the war that followed nonetheless inflicted grievous wounds on the South. Hundreds of thousands of Southerners died and huge amounts of Southern capital was destroyed. Most of the war was fought on Southern territory and most of the civilian victims were Southern. The North fought a campaign of total war and deliberately set out to damage the South’s economy in a lasting way, and it succeeded in this.

After the war, the North occupied the South and ran the southern states as military dictatorships. During that period the North confiscated Southern lands and redistributed them to former slaves. It gave those former slaves a bunch of civil and political rights without consulting the South. When the Southern states were re-admitted, Southern whites found that much of their wealth had been destroyed or turned over to Northern carpetbaggers. Some land–not much, but some–had been turned over to African-Americans. They attempted to reassert their sense of authority and autonomy by passing the disgusting Jim Crow laws. For some of these Southerners, the right to oppress African-Americans was all they could redeem of the pre-war world. For them, their sense of autonomy had become bound up with the right to have racist institutions. They couldn’t feel free unless black people weren’t. Because the South was forced to undo its slave model at gunpoint, its legacy gained a certain importance to Southerners. The North took the choice to emancipate the slaves away from the South and made the Southerners feel like subjects in their own country. That leaves a mark.

When the Jim Crow laws were repealed, they were repealed by federal decisions which once again took the choice–and therefore the sense of autonomy and self-rule–away from the South. Emancipation and the end to Jim Crow were deeply necessary. We didn’t have time to wait for the South to choose to do it. But imposing these changes by force had consequences, both for the South’s economy and for Southern politics. We have to deal with those consequences.

Despite the end to Jim Crow under Johnson, Democrats continued to compete in the South for much longer after 1964 than is generally acknowledged. The problems for the left in the late 60s and early 70s ran deeper than just Southern defection. Lyndon Johnson might have been re-elected in 1968, but he declined to run. The Democratic Party split over Vietnam, and nominated two Northerners. First in 1968 there was Hubert Humphrey, from Minnesota, who was much too socially liberal for the South and much too supportive of the Vietnam War for the peace movement. The Southerners defected to George Wallace and Richard Nixon; the hippies stayed home. In spite of this, Humphrey trailed Nixon in the popular vote by less than a point. Then in 1972 there was George McGovern, from South Dakota, who was too socially liberal for the South and much too opposed to the Vietnam War for the hawks. Jimmy Carter, from Georgia, won every former confederate state save Oklahoma and Virginia in 1976. Was Jimmy Carter much more socially conservative than McGovern or Humphrey? Not really. But he was from the South. He seemed like he cared. Even as late as 1992, Bill Clinton–from Arkansas–could win multiple former confederate states for the Democrats. Mississippi had two Democratic senators until 1978, and one until 1988. Alabama had two as late as 1994, and one until 1997. Alabama last had a Democratic governor in 2003. Mississippi last had one in 2004. It was only very recently that the South became unwinnable for Democrats. And even now, it’s not that unwinnable. Louisiana has a Democratic governor right now, and he didn’t have to run against a pedophile to win. No, he ran against Bobby Jindal’s successor. Remember Bobby Jindal? Yeah, he bankrupted that state and wrecked its schools.

The South will still go left, in spite of everything, when it feels like we care about them and they don’t. That’s all it’s asking of us. Respect. Concern. It starts with acknowledging something. We deprived the South of its autonomy and freedom. We did it for good reasons. But we still did it. We destroyed the South and left it much poorer than the North. We did it to end slavery and preserve the union. But we still did it. Here’s the legacy of what we did:

We’ve ignored Southern whites for too long. They’re an economically marginalised group, and we marginalised them. The difference in median household income between whites in Arkansas and whites in Maryland is even larger than the national black/white gap. To this there is only one appropriate response–an apology. Not for freeing the slaves or ending Jim Crow. We were right to do those things. But for abandoning the South afterwards. For treating them as an afterthought. For acting like they deserved to suffer. For making fun of them and their values. And that’s why, every time I hear us talk about reparations for slavery, I want to also hear us talk about making Southerners whole. Every time we talk about expanding social programs to help Americans with low personal and household incomes, I want us to talk not just about all the families of color those policies can help, but the white families who benefit too. Not to demean or diminish black causes the way “All Lives Matter” often does, but to make white Southerners feel our concern and our love, to invite them to join us in making the country a better place for all marginalised and exploited Americans, including them.

Let’s build roads in the South. Railroads. Bridges. Windmills. Let’s flood the South with federal cash. Let’s give it to everyone who needs it. And let’s get everybody in the South health insurance, high-speed internet, and great schools. Let everyone see that the left cares about every person who works, who wants. That no injustice is irrelevant to us. That we recognize that a white child born into a poor family in Arkansas or Alabama is disadvantaged and deserving.

Do we already believe these things? I thinks so. But the South has to see it. It has to believe. We have to make them believe. We have to stop believing we’re too good, or our causes too obviously important, to take a little time showing white Americans that they matter to us. They do, and we should be happy to say so. Let this 1500 word love letter to the South be the first among many. We see you guys. We care about you. We want to help.