Thursday, November 09, 2006

Whistling Through (NOT past) Dixie

With Tuesday's long-overdue and merciful election results now a reality some of the folks on The Gadflyer -- a blog I really enjoy reading, just so you know I'm not sniping at them -- have taken this as an opportunity to unite in praise of one Tom Schaller, author of Whistling Past Dixie: How the Democrats Can Win Without the South.

Before I begin with my reservations about that, I have to preface my comments with the admission that I have not read that book. I have only read commentary about it. So, if any suppositions I make here are an inaccurate or incomplete representation of Mr. Schaller's position, I apologize in advance and invite the opportunity to be corrected.

However, if the commentary I've read both from supporters and critics alike is accurate, Schaller's main argument seems to be that the south is so far out of reach for the Democrats that they have no reasonable expectation of making any headway there anytime soon. As such they should concentrate their efforts on the rest of the country and pretty much write the south off.

Now the good people at The Gadflyer are touting Tuesday's election as a vindication of that strategy with one contributor even adding that it all certifies Schaller as brilliant. Now, I have no intention of questioning Mr. Schaller's expertise on this subject nor his intellect. But I think before we heap this kind of praise on him for this particular work we should take a closer look at what really took place Tuesday.

From where I'm standing, far from being any vindication of the idea that the Democrats should regard the south as a dead zone, the exact opposite seems to be true. Consider the following:

First, much of south was off the table for this election so it's difficult to use this a gauge with which to judge claims the Gadflyers are making. In the Senate only four of the 14 states that would traditionally be considered "the south" (south of the Mason-Dixie line -- DIXIE!) were contested at all. And a quick examination of the red/blue map shows that there is a fair share of blue in that same region.

Arkansas, the state that elected Bill Clinton to two gubernatorial terms:
  • 3 out of the four seats up for grabs were won by Democrats. The state was an incumbent sweep in districts that were not competitive, however. Still, 3 out of 4 ain't bad.
  • In the race for governor Democrat Mike Beebe defeated former DEA chief, Asa Hutchinson, handily 55-41%.


Bad juju.

Florida's senate and key house races:
  • Democratic Senator Bill Nelson trounced Katherine "Voter Purge" Harris.
  • Democrat Tim Mahony won the seat vacated by disgraced Rep. Mark Foley.
  • GOP candidate Vernon Buchanan barely edged out the Democrat Christine Jennings by less than a single percentage point.
  • DemocratRon Klein defeated incumbent Republican Eugene Shaw by 4-points.

  • 6 of the 13 seats up for re-election were won by Democrats.
  • In a key race the Democrat John Barrow defeated the Republican Max Burns in the 12th district
  • Incumbent Democrat Jim Marshall held off challenger Mac Collins in another key race
  • No key races were won by republicans in Georgia, of all places.

  • A key race in KY's 3rd district was won by a Democrat, John Yarmouth, over a Republican incumbent, Anne Northrop.
  • Democrats only won 2 of the seats contested here but, obviously, one of them was in a pivotal race against a long-time GOP incumbent.
  • This is Kentucky I'm talking about here. It so southern there's literally no way to even pronounce it's name without sounding southern yourself. I dare you to try!


The Dems didn't win a majority of the seats here, taking only 2 of the 7 seats but, once again, they took the one that mattered -- the "key race" in the 2nd district holding on to a seat already held by the embattled incumbent William Jefferson. So you see the first sign that embattled Republicans are getting ousted while similarly situated black Democrats can hold on even in the deep south state of Louisiana.

  • Ben Cardin handily defeated the highly-touted Republican Michael Steele for that state's vacant senate seat.
  • Democrat Martin O'Malley won in a strong showing against incumbent governor Robert Ehrlich.
  • None of Maryland's house races were pivotal in the determining the balance of power but still, 6 of the 8 seats were won by Democrats.


Not much action here but the house seats up for grabs were split 50/50 and Republican Trent Lott retained his senate seat as expected.

North Carolina:
  • In the only race seen as "key", Democrat Heath Shuler soundly defeated the Republican incumbent Charles Taylor by an eight point margin, representing what I believe is his first win since leaving the Vols.
  • 6 of the 12 seats contested were won by Democrats.


Not much good here. One Democratic incumbent won in a heavily Democratic district. But even that fact alone also helps my point. There are heavily democratic districts in every state in the union. Build on that.

South Carolina:

What can I say? It's South Carolina. I never said this thing was going to be easy. Still again, two Democratic incumbents won in heavily Democratic districts that actually exist in South Carolina.

  • In the race for Bill Frist's Senate seat Harold Ford, Jr -- a black man in Tennessee, shamelessly attacked by race-baiting opponents with thinly veiled references to "the taboo", fell to his Republican opponent but made a strong showing in the heart of Dixie by bringing in 48% of the vote.
  • The incumbent Democratic governor, Philip Bredesen, handily defeated his Republican challenger, Jim Bryson, by 39% of the vote.
  • None of the house races in this state were thought to have a major impact on the balance of power but it is telling that the Democrats won 5 of the 9 seats up for grabs.
  • This is Tennessee I'm talking about, people.

  • Texas is Texas. This is the state that is mostly responsible for the Bushit we put up with today. Yesterday they also gave us another 6 years of Kay Baily Hutchinson.
  • 12 out of 32 House seats went to Democrats but, as we all know, this state was gerrymandered out the whazoo a couple of years back.
  • Despite all of this, once again ij the race that mattered the Dems broke through with Nick Lampson taking the Sugar Land seat vacated by the slimey yet disturbingly popular, Tom Delay.

You all know by now that an incumbent Republican senator with Presidential aspirations was narrowly ousted by the Democratic challenger, Jim Webb, with the fate of the Republican congress hanging in the balance. Nuff said.
West Virginia:

  • Democratic incumbent Senator Robert Byrd retain his seat as expected.
  • The state was an incumbent sweep with Democrats retaining 2 of the 3 seats contested.

In addition to the above results the Dems took seats that looked all but lost until recently in the old border states like Indiana, Missouri and Kansas plus the big sky state of Montana -- states that are not technically "the south" but share a lot in common with it politically.

Taken altogether I'm missing the part where these results constitute any compelling argument that the Democrats should write the south off. If anything the exact opposite seems true. One can talk all day about historical results, polling data and high-end political calculus. But this election appears to me to be, if anything, a stunning vindication of at least the idea behind Howard Dean's 50-state strategy for rebuilding the Democratic party.

Make no mistake about it. "Whistling past Dixie" is not a new idea nor is it a good one. It is essentially what the Democrats have done for much of the past 30 years -- sometimes consciously and other times not -- and all it has earned them is a shrinking political footprint in a nation where the vast majority of Americans agree with their policy positions on most of the issues. Simply put, it's a non-starter. It's absolutely crazy to advocate growing the party by relegating it to a semi-national or regional status with a publicly enunciated strategy to ignore the south. This is especially true considering there are so many natural reasons for southerners to support you if you'd only get out there and show them why.

More importantly, the spectacle of even talking about writing the south off (let alone actually doing it) could have the lethal effect of validating all the right-wing rhetoric about Democrats being elitist, "northeastern liberals" who don't care about the "real Americans" in the south (and extended into "the heartland"). The GOP will be free to paint them all as snobs looking down their noses at middle and lower income constituencies that reside there. This is exactly the wrong the message to send.

Meanwhile, the GOP will be attacking you on every front on every square foot of this nation, all over the country, not just in the south. What could be more suicidal than to adopt this reverse southern strategy?

Now, I'm not saying that succeeding in the south on a consistant basis is going to be an easy thing for the Democrats to accomplish. But simply giving up on it altogether seems to me to be the easy and foolish way out. A national party competes nationally.

Note: I would have liked to have posted my thoughts on this in the comments section at The Gadflyer but, unfortunately, they don't seem to have one.


I just got my first celebrity response in the comments section this past Friday from Joshua Holland of Alternet and The Gadflyer. In the words of Peoples Hernandez, "We got Hollywhoo!"

Mr. Holland pointed out that "Schaller specifically limits his analysis to the eleven states of the confederacy", not the broader south-of-the-Mason-Dixon Line analysis I'm using here. I will make the proper adjustments now while making note of one important objection -- there are more than 11 states that were part of the confederacy.

Maryland is out: It truly wasn't a confederate state and is considered by all a border state despite it's south-of-the-Mason-Dixon-Line geography. However, even after correcting this my point doesn't change a great deal. Maryland is the only non-confederate state I've included here and, although the great gains made there did help my argument, it was just a bonus. Move my reference to it to the paragraph on border states instead and everything is all hunky-dory.

West Virginia stays: Although there was no state of West Virginia in the confederacy there was the old state of Virginia. A quick peek at a Civil War era map of Virginia seals the deal:

Look at little fat? That excess you see to the west is none other than West Virginia, which was part of the state of Virginia at the time of its secession from the union – a bona fide part of the Confederacy. West Virginia stays.

Oklahoma stays: Although Oklahoma was technically Indian Territory during the civil war, any analysis of the American south that includes Texas but excludes Oklahoma would strike me as particularly meaningless. Let's hope this is not what Schaller has done.

Finally, if we look at the confederate criteria technically I should have included Missouri. However, to avoid the appearance of gratuitously taking advantage of the situation, I'll continue to exclude it.


joshua holland said...

To be fair, Schaller specifically limits his analysis to the eleven states of the confederacy. Here's the short version he did for In These Times.

Also, most of my stuff at the Gadlfyer's also cross-posted at AlterNet, where we do have comments. Drop by and say hello.

FearItself said...

Hey, thank you for dropping by. I'll make the proper adjustement, re-evaluate and post my results here. That's exactly the kind of thing RTFB* could have helped me on. :-)

But still, on the general point of whether to disregard an entire region of the nation, I think my point stands. Thanks again.

* - "Reading the F'ing book"