From 1964 when the Civil Rights Act was passed, the South has morphed from a one-party, white, Democratic region to a one-party, white, Republican one. Consequently, Republicans take us for granted and Democrats cringe at the idea of penetrating further South than North Carolina and Virginia.
We have as much real effect on this race as we would last year’s presidential election in Kazakhstan, a remote, under-populated former Soviet satellite nation of mountains, steppes and deserts in central Asia.
Last year, President Nursultan Nazarbeyev, in office since 1991, brushed aside a move to install him in the presidency for 20 years and bravely submitted himself to the voters. He won more than 95 percent of the ballots.
He is more popular than Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton combined, a level of approval that both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney would covet.
We won’t see much of Romney and, outside of Florida with its Midwest cultural flavoring, nothing at all of Obama. Since 1964, when Goldwater swept the white South by 71 percent, the Democratic Party has been estranged from the South.
Zell Miller, a successful governor of Georgia in the ’90s and since a turncoat Democrat, has a snarky bite to his writings that, nevertheless, reveal some truths about the national Democratic Party.
“National Democratic leaders know nothing about the modern South,” he wrote in 2003. “They still see it as a land of magnolias and mint juleps, with the pointy-headed KKK lurking in the background waiting to burn a cross …”
He went on to accurately describe the new Southern economy. “Average Americans, especially those who follow the job market, know a lot more. They know the South has become a land of great promise with an unlimited future. It isn’t rusting and rotting away like a lot of places up North. Recent Census statistics on the 100 fastest-growing counties show two-thirds are in the South. Many arrivals are immigrants from the ‘blue’ states.”
Yet despite Jimmy Carter carrying every state but Virginia of the old Confederacy and Bill Clinton in 1992 winning Georgia, Arkansas, Louisiana and Tennessee, neither of the Southern Baptists had a majority of white voters.
What is this invisible, noiseless, white force that national Democrats dare not cross and which is pushing the Southern majority further to the GOP’s right wing? It is not the Celtic screams evoked by racist demagogues of the past; it is a natural human reaction to its history and environment.
An old friend, a celebrity black leader whom I won’t name because he told me in private, said the explanation is simple, “It’s nothing but racism.” If he’s right and the entire white South should be indicted on suspicion of prejudice, the only solutions are expelling the guilty states or ethnic cleansing.
Realism suggests the national party get to know a touchy tribe, made so by a history with large measures of defeat, pride, poverty, guilt and striving through scorn and turmoil to make a better place.
You get to know such a people, first of all, by showing up with the recognition that you are strangers to one another, and so you’re on your best behavior; courteous, complimentary and curious to hear their story.
It is quite a story: modern cities built from worn-out cotton fields, colleges and other intitutions so thorougly integrated that no one bothers to note the fact.
This is the South that an insurgency named the “Blue South Project” hopes the national party will meet and come to know. The Blue South was created from a meeting of Southern Democratic chairmen in Atlanta earlier this year. (Full disclosure: I was elected an officer.)
BSP had visibility at the Charlotte convention, hosting three luncheons and seminars with star-power panelists telling its story: the party can be revived in the South by the same formula that made it competitive in the West.
Party revivalists are facing into a fierce fund-raising headwind as the Obama team is frantically trying to compete with the battalions of billionaires who need Republican protection from regulation and taxes on their vast wealth.
But beginning in 2013, there will be an organized team on the field to enable strangers, former friends, to meet and renew old acquaintances. It is a matter of trust.
Stangers have to meet with mutual respect and get to know each other for friendship to flourish, and out of renewed friendship hard-won trust can develop.
A Southern electorate that trusted both parties would improve national politics by checking the extreme fringes of each, make elections truly national, and thus contribute to a more perfect union.
That’s a long way from and a more familiar place than Kazakhstan.
H. Brandt Ayers is the publisher of The Star and chairman of Consolidated Publishing Co.