With the loss of Sen. Mary Landrieu in Louisiana’s run-off election last weekend, Southern Democrats have just about gone extinct. For the first time since Reconstruction, no state in the Deep South has a Democrat in the Senate or the governor’s office.
As a Southern liberal, I say: Good. America will be better off without them in the long run.
But every time Democrats hemorrhage numbers in the South — a trend that’s gone on steadily since the Newt revolution of 1994 — we’re treated to the same hand-wringing pageant, in which the Southern center-left’s last political fossils emerge to plead their relevance and bring us ill portents of their demise.
Case in point: Phil Bredesen, the last Democratic governor of Tennessee, who this week told Politico that Democrats have to rebrand to win the South now: “I come out of the business world. If you have a product that’s not working, you don’t say, ‘Our customers are lazy’ or ‘Our customers don’t know what’s best for them.’ The ones that are successful say, ‘I need a better product.’”
That’s laughably false, of course. If the business world trusted consumers, it wouldn’t create marketing departments, maintain advertising budgets and “brand managers,” or oppose consumer protection agencies and advocates.
In fact, maybe the lesson from the business world should be to ask: Why do bad products “work” so often? Consumers opt all the time for products that harm them (see: cigarettes) or cost them unnecessarily (see: subprime mortgages) or just stink (most foreign-made mass-produced widgets available at Walmart).
Why? Because they satisfy an immediate need or addiction. Because they’re cheaper up front. Because they’re there. Because most of us, given all of this freedom by American law, are bound in our everyday lives to economic decisions made largely for the benefit of the rich, and we see no other way. So the slightest comfort available to us becomes a desirable good, even if the system underlying that comfort is unnecessarily complicating our lives in a million ways.
This is how Republicans have maintained their majorities — even though they represent a numerically shrinking portion of America, even though most Americans in poll after poll reject Republican policies and tactics when presented with them individually. It’s slick marketing and branding. It’s what they accused Obama of in 2008. It’s why, when the GOP got shellacked just two years ago, they sought to change not their ideology but their messaging strategy. For them, outreach is not reaching out and listening to new constituencies: it’s saying the same old things to those new audiences.
The last thing Democrats need to do is play that dumb game, insulting the voters by patronizing them. Do Southern voters reject a politics that celebrates diversity, that believes all policy should begin with compassion and empathy, that offers the financial and emotional benefits of marriage to all, that believes it’s lunacy to let a tycoon-dominated unfree market determine which sick people get better or which poor people eat? Fine. Respect those voters’ wishes and move on. But don’t gloss over your disagreements. Let the South vote Republican… for now.
Now, I don’t mind a Democrat who’s willing to stand up and tell a president in the same party when he’s wrong. It would be nice to see more Dems challenge Obama, for example, on the NSA’s spying programs, on not prosecuting torturers who worked for the government, and on his continued deployment of troops for no great reason in Afghanistan. But good luck finding a Republican who opposes Obama on those issues — and doesn’t follow it up by saying something stupid about civil rights.
We don’t need any more Landrieus or Pryors or even Crists or Nelsons. And we certainly don’t need any more Alex Sinks. They’re Dems whose stands against the president are on all the wrong issues for all the wrong reasons, and don’t yield any better results at the ballot box.
Gwen Graham? She won a GOP-held House seat in Tallahassee, against stiff odds, largely because she ran against an odious old tea partier whose values were out of step even with many Florida panhandle Republicans. If she wants statewide office, as is rumored, she’d do best to remember her politically famous dad is from Miami, which is very far north of the South these days.
This country’s political divisions may seem intractable. They certainly won’t be solved by having two parties race to confirm the selfish fears, resentments, and biases that hold together the GOP’s enduring Southern coalition. Those antipathies are going to melt away, or possibly even implode, on their own. There’s no need for Democrats to dignify or strengthen them by pandering. That’s a game that the Republicans will win every time.
Adam Weinstein is a Tallahassee-based senior writer for Gawker. He has worked for the Wall Street Journal, Village Voice, and Mother Jones.