Anyone interested in the future of Southern politics should take a long look at Bob Moser's excellent cover piece in this week's issue of The Nation.
Moser's story begins with an entertaining personal look back at the year the "solid South" -- which he makes clear has always been a misnomer -- in 1972, and then moves into a lucid and compelling account about prospects for Democrats in the South.
Definitely read the whole thing, it's worth it. I'll be writing more about Moser's analysis and the issues he skillfully nagivates. For now, I'll focus on one of the most basic and important insights of the piece: that the decline of progressive politics in the South hasn't been due to any natural antipathy towards the Democratic Party among Southerners -- as so many pundits writing about the South today imply -- but because the Democratic Party, at a critical moment 30 years ago, let itself get out-mobilized in the region, and silently ceded the South to the Republicans.
As Moser recounts:
[In the late 1970s] national Democrats began to beat a retreat from Dixie. Democratic state parties in the South, which had never had to mount full-scale general-election campaigns in the past, were woefully unprepared to counter the Republican surge--and were largely left high and dry. "We'd had it so easy for so long that when Republicans started to crest, we had no idea what to do or how to do it," says Maxie Duke, a longtime Democratic activist in Oconee County, South Carolina. National Democrats, she says, "just didn't care."
Worse, the Democrats failed to take the opening left them by the Republicans' Southern strategy: Adapt the South's economic populist tradition into a fresh, class-based politics with broad appeal to blacks and whites alike, directly challenging the politics of cultural fear and racial unity. "The party abandoned its New Deal legacy as a positive force for change and hunkered down behind a defensive shield," writes John Egerton, author of The Americanization of Dixie. "The leaders failed to comprehend that Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson died for their sins, and in so doing freed the Democrats to reclaim their heritage as the fountainhead of egalitarian opportunity."
In other words, it was a growing "forget the South" mentality among Democrats -- and the party's failure to articulate an authentic progressive Southern strategy -- that guaranteed the ascent of a competitive Southern region in which Republicans could make headway.
How would the South be different today, if the Democrats had adopted a "50 state strategy" and invested in policy and media infrastructure in the South that could identify the issues and constituencies for progressive success?
It's impossible to say, but the answer to that question has enormous relevance today, as Democratic leaders debate about whether to "forget the South" or "move to the right in the South." Perhaps history points to a third option: investing in the creation of a new progressive majority in the region.