Dixie Turning Blue

BY David Moberg

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Why the change? Partly because Democrats, encouraged by Chairman Howard Dean's 50-state party-building strategy, have been organizing more aggressively at the grassroots.

Former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner’s tepid keynote address to the Democratic convention Tuesday night was little noted and will not be long remembered.

But it was important in signaling new Democratic political hopes in the South.

For decades, following Richard Nixon’s successful “Southern strategy” to win over white Democrats by playing on backlash to the civil rights movement, many national Democrats had written off the South – and often with good reason, if wretched long-term consequences.

But Bob Moser, author of the new book “Blue Dixie: Awakening the South’s Democratic Majority” and newly appointed editor of the muckraking Texas Observer, argues that Democrats in the rest of the country should put aside their stereotype of the South as uniquely racist and resistant to change.

“Democrats saw the South as unwinnable, and Republicans viewed the South as a base,” Moser told a symposium held by Progressive Democrats of America on the periphery of the Denver convention. But there are new cracks in that base, and the South itself is changing in ways that may bring breakthrough wins in the presidential race as well as in crucial Senate contests.

Moser says Obama has a reasonable chance in Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Texas, and maybe even Mississippi. Democrats, who have recently won special Congressional elections in Louisiana and Mississippi, could take away Republican Senate seats in Mississippi, North Carolina, Texas, and almost certainly, Virginia, where Warner is the candidate.

Why the change? Partly because Democrats, encouraged by Chairman Howard Dean’s 50-state party-building strategy, have been organizing more aggressively at the grassroots.

More important, young whites in the South are much different from the older backlash generation. Moser says that 63 percent of white Southerners under 30 voted for Kerry in 2004, for example. And they’re less anti-government, less likely to see politics in a backlash framework, and more sympathetic to action on poverty, environmental protection and other progressive goals. With a high number of local black elected officials in many parts of the South, younger Southern whites are more accustomed to voting for black officials than in many parts of the country.

And among evangelical Christians, the shock troops of the Republican right resurgence, younger believers are more tolerant (with a majority of those under 45 supporting gay civil unions) and more interested in issues such as the environment and global poverty – even if opposition to women’s choice regarding abortions makes voting Democratic more difficult for many. Other evangelicals are returning to a traditional distaste for worldly politics, partly in reaction to frustration with Republican scandals.

Democrats also benefit from the migration of Northerners to the South – not just to retirement havens, but also to the new research and technology centers. And they also gain from the huge migration of Latinos into many parts of the South, turning states like Texas, and soon Georgia, into majority “minority” states.

Obama may still have deep-seated problems winning over older whites, but there is some hope. If his campaign makes a major issue of McCain’s support for privatization of social security, he could make inroads with older white voters. And, Moser adds, “if he revives some economic populism, and takes after the big corporations, that could help, too.”

Dixie isn’t going to be solid blue anytime soon, but neither will the South be the safe base on which the Republicans have long built national victories.

David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy. He can be reached at davidmoberg@inthesetimes.com.

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