Go West Old Party!

“To those who say that we are rushing this issue of civil rights, I say to them we are 172 years late! To those who say… this civil-rights program is an infringement on states’ rights, I say this: the time has arrived in America for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of states’ rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights!”

– Minneapolis Mayor Hubert H. Humphrey at the Democratic National Convention, 1948

“[Better to see civilization] blotted out with the atomic bomb than to see it slowly destroyed in the maelstrom of miscegenation, interbreeding, intermarriage, and mongrelization.”

– Senator Theodore Bilbo (D-Mississippi), 1947

The ideological fissure between these two statements is irreconcilable. Indeed, it is astounding that these two sentiments could coexist in the Democratic Party for as long as they did. Mr. Humphrey’s speech at the 1948 Democratic National Convention began the process of prying apart these two ideologies and LBJ’s Civil Rights acts of 1964 set them permanently asunder. Lyndon Johnson was the wiliest, most skillful politician of the twentieth century, and he was prescient in positing that the 1964 Civil Rights acts would lose Democrats the South for a generation.

We are living in the middle of that generation right now. Democrats can take pride in the fact that they are the party of Hubert Humphrey’s progressive idealism and not of Theodore Bilbo’s hateful racism. In the sixty-six years since the 1948 Convention, history has proven Mr. Humphrey’s ideology to be correct. While the Southern Strategy of every Republican since Nixon has been successful, it is small historically.

Still, moral victories are for losers; however, examining the underpinnings of the shift of power away from Southern Democrats and to Southern Republicans can point the way towards a progressive and victorious future.

Republicans are currently the party of the “shadow of states’ rights” and this is why they now have an iron grip on the once Democratic South. No, not every Republican or Southerner is a racist (and several exemplary Democrats have been elected from the South since 1964), but it is not for nothing that Reagan made that trip to Philadelphia, Mississippi to talk about “states rights” in the same town that two Civil Rights activists had been murdered in the 1950s. As the famous saying goes, in the South the past isn’t even past; in the forty years since the 1964 Civil Rights acts Republicans have taken on the mantle of states rights including all of the racial baggage contained in that phrase. Trent Lott’s vague conclusion that “we wouldn’t have had all of those problems” had Strom Thurmond been elected President in 1948 shows the power of the Republicans’ amorphous coded racism. Obtuse concepts like “family values” and “morals” are meant to combat “all of those problems.” Many people who voted based on “values” were earnest in their concerns – but the kernel of all of this still goes back to 1964 and fears of “mongrelization.”

While a favorite son Democrat like Bill Clinton is still capable of winning in the South, his gains do not have any staying power as was demonstrated in 2000 and especially in 2004 when even the presence of the telegenic Southerner John Edwards on the ticket did not allow Kerry/Edwards to come close in any Southern state with the exception of Florida whose large immigrant communities and liberal northeastern “sun birds” make it an exception to the rest of the South. Otherwise, Kerry/Edwards only got within single digits in Arkansas and Virginia (where they lost by 9%).

While the media has generated lots of noise about the Democrats’ losses in the south, they have failed to notice that the Republicans are faltering in the West. Remember that Orange County, California was the epicenter of the “Reagan Revolution” and that Nixon and Reagan were both Californians. Loretta Sanchez, a Hispanic Democrat, now represents Orange County, once the den of the wacky archconservative Robert “Mad Bomber” Dornan, in the House. Oregon and Washington have been Democratic strongholds since 1988, and California has since 1992. This shift is almost as substantial, albeit not as dramatic, as the South’s migration from Democrat to Republican since 1964. The data indicates that this trend is slowly creeping from the coast to the interior Mountain West. In 2004. the most meaningful gain the Democrats made in a competitive statewide race was in Colorado where Ken Salazar defeated the Aryan beer magnate Peter Coors. Although Kerry/Edwards barely faltered in New Mexico (where Gore had won by 366 votes in 2000) they gained ground in Nevada and Colorado. Moreover, Democrats won the governorship and several legislative seats in Montana and already own the Governorships of Arizona and even Wyoming.

The Mountain West briefly became more conservative in the early 90s as many right-wingers moved there from the increasingly liberal West Coast. Many of them settled into the exurbs of the booming cities. As these cities grew they attracted people from across the country and numerous immigrants, especially Hispanics. As the suburbs around places like Denver mature the demand for cosmopolitan features such as mass transit is growing and the ethnicity of the cities is becoming more mixed. In short, the metropolitan regions are becoming increasingly large and increasingly Democratic.

In the West politicians such as Salazar and former Oregon Governor Tom Kitzhaber have been at the forefront of establishing creative solutions to issues surrounding natural resources that are key in rural areas. If Democrats become known as the party of solutions to energy and natural resource dilemmas then the can embark upon a “Western Strategy” of adding Mountain Western states to their West Coast and Northeast base thereby equaling the Republican base of Southern and Great Plains states. Elections then, would be decided on the battlegrounds of industrial Midwestern states and Florida.

Rather than trying to regain the past North/South magic of Roosevelt/Garner and Kennedy/Johnson Democrats should try to establish a West/North electoral lock. Kerry/Edwards lost the 19 electoral votes of Nevada, New Mexico and Colorado by approximately a combined 135,000 votes; conversely, they lost the 19 electoral votes of Arkansas and Virginia, their two closest non-Florida Southern states, by approximately a combined 369,000 votes. Had Kerry/Edwards garnered the 135,000 votes necessary to win Nevada, New Mexico and Colorado then they would have won 271 electoral votes and the presidency WITHOUT Florida, or Ohio, or Iowa. Winning those 135,000 votes and then Arizona, and then Montana (and then Idaho, where Boise has elected a Democratic Mayor, and Wyoming) should be the short and long-term goal of the Democratic Party, not trying to win a “states rights” fight with the South – that is an argument that cannot be won for another generation.

To do this will require a candidate who is comfortable being folksy, is knowledgeable about American Indian issues, appeals to Hispanics and delivers the loyalty of ultra-liberal city dwellers while remaining true to libertarian rural dwellers by crafting empowering solutions to natural resources and energy issues. Luckily, just such a man exists in the Democratic Party right now. Perhaps you know who he is. More on this to come.