Two books, two perspectives on the decline of Democrats in the South and Midwest from a decade ago. I bought both these books in the summer of 2004 while embroiled in that election year, which proved to be incredibly frustrating and depressing (though I consulted on some victorious local races in south Florida).
Election 2014 with the exception of Gwen Graham’s victory here in Florida essentially wiped Democrats out in the south. The party has lost every legislative chamber and Governorship in the south outside of Virginia and every Senate seat outside Virginia and our own Bill Nelson. Election 2016 just cemented these trends. Yet ten years ago the Democrats were still holding their own in the south, particularly at the state level where Democratic Governors and legislators continued to be elected even though the region has turned decidedly towards the GOP at the Presidential level for good in 2000.
In 2004, US Senator Zell Miller (D-Georgia) penned a book called A National Party No More: The Conscience of a Conservative Democrat. I found the book to be shallow and self-serving though some good points were made. First off, Miller was a left-leaning Democrat for much of his career, challenging Senator Herman Talmadge from the left in the 1980 US Senate Primary and spending eight years as a progressive-oriented Governor. Miller gives in the book justifications for his flip-flop on women’s reproductive rights and his strong gun advocacy. He fails to discuss his efforts in 1990’s to remove the Confederate Flag from the corner of Georgia State Flag or his acceptance of minor gun control proposals when he was Governor. His change in ideology is glossed over as he casts himself in the patriotic image of the conservative southern Democrats of the past such as Josiah Bailey, John Stennis and James Byrnes (he doesn’t mention these men by name but is from my vantage point trying to set himself up as heir to these individuals legacies).
So for many years, I simply let A National Party No More: The Conscience of a Conservative Democrat collect dust on my bookshelf. But after November 4, 2014 I thought it was worth a re-read or at least re-skimming. Perhaps the book contained ominous pearls of wisdom someone as ideological as myself missed previously and wish I had thought about in 2010 and 2014 (and again in 2016).
But the book even ten years and several GOP wins later still is way off base. For example, Miller discusses the Democrats position on foreign policy as a key reason the party was pushed to the margins by the American electorate. But the 2006 and 2008 elections proved it was the GOP, once thought to be the more responsible (and less war-mongering) of the two parties on foreign policy that was badly out of step with the electorate on international issues. Miller’s views on tax cuts also prove to be well out of the mainstream as the deficits of today and economic collapse of 2008 can be directly tied to George W. Bush’s Tax Cuts and decision to invade Iraq.
Miller’s narratives about gun control and abortion make sense in the context of socially conservative white southern voters, but we knew Democrats had a problem on these issues in 1994 and re-positioning the party to the middle on these matters would rip the soul out of the party. At no point does Miller address the potential of the Democrats losing the enthusiasm of urban or minority voters by pushing too far right.
Perhaps the most shortsighted section of the entire work (if you want to refer to it as that) was the discussion of immigration. In 2004, George W. Bush had done well among Latino voters and Miller’s view was that the Democrats could go to the right of Bush on this. By going to the left, the Democrats won the 2008 and 2012 elections as well as winning the popular vote in 2016. In 2014, the Democrats punted on immigrations and I continue to reiterate that I believe President Obama’s inaction on immigration cost Charlie Crist the Governorship in Florida. Democrats are on the moral side and the right side of history when it comes to immigration reform. As I currently read multiple works on the fall of Rome, we’d be best to heed lessons about assimilation and tolerance from what the Roman elites failed to do with German subjects.
A better read about how the Democrats can rebound in the heartland and the south comes from Thomas Frank, who is an outstanding thinker and political theorist.
What’s the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America also written in 2004 appeals to Democrats to emphasize quality of life and economic issues. Education funding, Health Care and Environmental issues. This is the way to winning over voters which the Republicans have won through cynical campaigning on hot-button social issues like abortion, gun control and school prayer. Frank mentions that despite the rhetoric from the right,
“abortion is never outlawed, school prayer never returns, the culture industry is never forced to clean up its act.”
Florida provides a great example on the school prayer issue, because Republicans and conservative rural Democrats pushed the legislation for years when the Republicans were in the minority or did not control the Governorship. After one shot the first year Jeb Bush was Governor, the issue disappeared. As Frank states, these issues are essentially kept alive so that they can be used in campaigns when needed. If school prayer ever did return or reproductive choice was banned completely in Florida, Republicans would lose ready-made issues to motivate the base down the road.
Frank echoes my view that economic conservatives and Wall Street types have used the naivety of social conservatives to acquire and maintain power using the Republican Party and its associated special interest groups as a vehicle. The downfall of economic fairness and the American dream since the 1980’s can be directly tied to the electoral success of this unholy alliance.