< Bob Moser’s new book, Blue Dixie, offers a compelling case for Democrats not to give up just yet on the South. Before turning to the many merits and potential pitfalls of Bob’s book, let me say a few preliminary things to clarify the situation as it relates to him and his argument—and me and mine.
I like Bob Moser. He is a smart, thoughtful, compassionate, reasonable, tough and unapologetic southern liberal; in fact, I’ve grown convinced that these adjectives are practically redundant to the “southern liberal” label they modify. Basically, one cannot be a liberal in the South today without being most if not all of these things because, well, it’s inarguably the toughest region in a America to be a Democrat (especially a liberal Democrat). I’ve met many good southern liberals over the last four years, and Moser not only typifies but exemplifies the shared qualities that, time and again, I find among them. He has a strong narrative writing style, and in this book and a one-on-one debate we had last year at Wake Forest University he made me rethink several things I thought I “knew” about southern politics. Plus, in a way—and this may surprise some FDL folks, especially those who have not read carefully my own book, Whistling Past Dixie, which Bob’s book is partially (and politely and honestly) dedicated to answering—I would actually prefer that his hopes and prescriptions for a southern revival bear out, and in the long term I think many of them will. When the South moves in significant ways back toward the Democrats it almost certainly will mean that the Democrats have forged a formidable majority nationally. In short, though I think Bob is wrong (better: overconfident) in some of his arguments about and prescriptions for a Blue Dixie, especially in the near term as the Democrats continue to build their undeniable non-southern majority, I am still hoping he will be proved right in the medium- to long-term, a sentiment I express at the end of Whistling.
Now, Moser’s big argument: Economic populism will save the white South and, if practiced properly by Democrats, national and local, it will finally bring around disgruntled white southerners. Here I find myself strangely rooting for Bob’s prescriptions because we have the same ideological moorings, and yet reminding myself of the limited appeal of economic populism to white southerners. Basically, what Bob is arguing in Blue Dixie—and this takes some guts on his part, frankly, so major kudos to him for it—is that Clinton-Gore, Al From-inspired centrism ruined the Democrats’ chances to restore themselves in the region. This argument runs very counter to the conventional wisdom and superficial history of the politics of the past two decades which, of course, is that DLC moderation is what helped Clinton get into the Oval Office and what will only work moving forward. (I would love to hear what Clinton himself would say in response.)
I am so sympathetic to this argument because I think the econ-pop solution holds such potential in other parts of the country. So why not the South? Because—and here is where I think Bob is too hopeful, too unwilling to take a clear-eyed look at race and religion and social conservatism as the undeniable impediments they are—the economic populism that worked before the Great Society was successful precisely because the beneficiaries of New Deal distributive and regulatory policies were almost exclusively white. This fact just cannot be massaged or punted or covered with a nice coat of blue paint. Post-civil rights and Great Society, redistribution took on new meaning because it had to be inclusive. I’m sorry to have be the cold bucket of water here, but it is simply too convenient to point to the days of, say, South Carolina’s Santee Cooper Dam or the Tennessee Valley Authority and then project forward that what worked then can be revived today. Bob has spent a lot of time in South Carolina, the state where one Democrat told me (not for attribution, naturally) that the reason school choice is such an animating issue there for whites is that it is basically the “last legal form of segregation.” Translation: You can still use it legally to keep the white resources in the white communities. This was said in 2006–by a disgruntled but, hey, at least realistic Democrat.
I have four or five specific questions from the book ready to pose, but I’m already hogging this forum with my blather. To close: Buy Bob’s book and read it because it’s the best response thus far to the arguments made by non-southern strategists like me. With that, let me get out of the way so FDL’s readers can pose their questions for Bob.