"I'll Take Political Delusions for $200, Please"

Thursday, March 03, 2005

"I'll Take Political Delusions for $200, Please"

I had to laugh when I read Chris Kromm’s article in The Nation (“Southern Strategies”). Kromm wrote about a recent gathering in Chapel Hill, N.C., at which Southern progressives gathered to regroup and strategize after a difficult election year.

Don’t get me wrong. The issue Kromm raises — how to make progressive ideals resonate with the Southern electorate — is an important one to place on the table. But I think he is guilty of putting a pretty face on an ugly situation. He writes:
… there's a rich progressive legacy in the South, and Democrats are far from dead: There are four Southern Democratic governors, hundreds of Democratic state legislators, and in six of thirteen Southern states, more registered voters identify as Democrats than Republicans.
A rich progressive legacy in the South? The South of what — the south side of Chicago?

One could probably count the number of Southern, progressive, white political leaders on two hands. Legacy? Those whites who entered public life as relatively enlightened (George Wallace and Orval Faubus, for example) soon opted to play the “race card” in a prominent, hateful way.

Kromm mentions Democrats Dale Bumpers and Terry Sanford as examples of this “legacy,” but it has been 13 years since Southerners elected either one of them to public office. Yes, there are hundreds of Democrats in Southern state legislatures. And most of these Dems have voting records that would put a smile on Zell Miller’s face.

In Arkansas, most Democratic legislators happily endorsed the anti-gay marriage amendment that was referred to voters last fall. In Alabama, the current GOP governor, Bob Riley, proposed a tax increase that shifted the burden to wealthier residents — a far more progressive package than that proposed by his predecessor, Democratic Gov. Don Siegelman. (Siegelman went no further than proposing a lottery .… gee, I wonder which socioeconomic class will cough up most of that revenue?)

Some of the ideas offered by panelists who attended the Chapel Hill conference were as off-the-mark as Kromm’s delusional assessment.
How to win them back? Rally white working voters around economic populist themes against the "corporate elite," said Professor Susan Howell of New Orleans …
But exactly who are the “corporate elite”? As someone who grew up in the South, my strong impression is that for most Southerners, the term “corporate elite” conjures up an image of Wall Street or of the pin-striped, business-suit wearers who enter a high-rise in Chicago or midtown Manhattan.

Hearing this term would be unlikely to make Southerners think of economic conditions in their own states or communities.

Moreover, most Southerners don’t think poorly of the business leaders in their cities or towns. In many cases, these individuals are seen as pillars of the community — the person who donated $3,000 to repair the church roof or help renovate a community center.

One of the reasons why union organizing drives have fared so poorly in the South over recent decades is precisely because efforts to ostracize company executives never gained traction. Why not? Those company executives may have lived in bigger houses and driven nicer cars, but at least, went the thinking, they’re “one of us” — as opposed to the union organizers, most of whom were out-of-staters.

I’m not sure that an anti-corporate harangue will play particularly well with any audience other than the existing progressive base. Huey Long might be one of the handful of 20th century, white Southerners who could be fairly called a “progressive.” But this isn’t Huey Long’s South anymore. This is Wal-Mart’s South.

Sadly, as do other groups, progressives often try hard to convince themselves that the message they get excited about delivering must be the one people will be excited to hear.

Excuse me for being the mosquito at the picnic, but saying what first comes into our heads, saying what energizes us will not necessarily resonate with Southern voters.

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