The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down

dixieThe song, first recorded in 1969 by The Band, was of course about the Civil War. But for southern Democrats, the song could just as well have been describing the night of July 2, 1964. That was the night Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act. To this day, debate persists about the future of the Democratic Party in the South. Tom Schaller, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, started the most recent tiff with his book Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South.  

Call it the “anti-Southern Strategy.”  Schaller asserts that the Democrats should focus on more fertile areas (Midwest, Mountain West, Southwest) rather than “pandering to the nation’s most conservative voters.” Schaller uses analysis of southern demographics to illustrate why the South is openly hostile to Democrats.

An elegant rebuttal was Bob Moser’s cover story in the Nation (available here). In his essay, “The Way Down South,” Moser believes that the formula for democratic revival in the South is by way of economic populism (i.e. Jim Webb in Virginia). This must-read article is a gem. There are many great quotes from Moser, but one of my favorites is this:

“Many non-Southern progressives still see the region as a dank, magnolia-scented Otherworld where the cultural obsessions of race, religion, and rifles hold white voters together in an unbreakable sway.”

Moser continues, with a condemnation of the Democratic party leaders who are willing to surrender the south:

“It ain’t wise, and it ain’t right”

…and concludes, powerfully, with a quote from Chris Kromm, director of the Institute for Southern Studies in Durham:

“For progressives to give up on the very place where they could argue they are needed the most…would rightfully be viewed as a historic retreat from the party’s commitment to justice for all.”

There have been plenty of spirited interactive discussions on websites on this topic.  For instance, go to Dailykos (courtesy of Greg Flynn and  BlueNC).  Or, read Schaller’s entertaining and vigorous defense of his opinions at TAPPED.  Better yet, go to our comments and start one of your own.  See you there.


  1. JT

    February 16, 2007 at 10:12 am

    Democrats who believe the party should bypass election efforts in any region of the country haven’t paid very close attention to the 2006 midterm election results. These would probably be the same people who, early in the last election cycle, wanted to replace Howard Dean as DNC chairman over his 50 state strategy.
    The most over-used and over-simplified labels in politics today are red state vs. blue state. There are progressives in all parts of this country, including Dixie, who should be encouraged to promote and vote for Democratic causes and candidates. The above quote from Chris Kromm is dead-on.

  2. sturner

    February 16, 2007 at 1:03 pm

    Agreed. Also, as Moser notes, 50% of African-Americans live in the South. It is presumptuous of the Democratic party leaders to expect minority voter support, while disregarding half the constituents. I also get (more than) a little tired of the racial stereotyping of Southerners. I grew up in Illinois and lived in Chicago for 10 years before moving to NC in ’95. Chicago must be the most racially segregated city in the country. For three years I lived in Hyde Park (near the Univ. of Chicago and where Obama lives currently). This is the only truly integrated neighborhood in the city. Otherwise, the racial lines are always drawn, and frequently the ethnic ones, too. Frankly, race relations in the South seem healthier to me than the Midwest. The problems in the South are poverty and education, not race.

  3. mb

    February 16, 2007 at 1:51 pm

    i would just add that southern states are increasing in population, while midwest and northeastern states are losing population to the south. eventually, the sunbelt states will gain even more power electorally through sheer population growth alone–reason enough not to dismiss them.

    this of course is in the context of national politics. nevermind that quite a few southern state legislatures are controlled by and governor’s mansions are occupied by the democratic party. that apparently doesn’t matter?

  4. Marvin Woll

    February 16, 2007 at 5:58 pm

    I have not read the book Whistling Past Dixie and I doubt that I will waste my time reading it. If a national party were to write off a large section of the country then that party would be going against the principles that they stand for. Besides if we are ever going to move this country in a more progressive direction then we need to include that part of the country that is most in need of moving in that direction. So many parts of the south have the deep poverty that progressives are trying to help. How can you recognize global warming and not include such a large area that also needs to follow policies that will help slow this impending disaster. The south has played a key role in the history of this nation and its elections. Anyone with just a touch of common sense will know that you should not “Whistle Past Dixie” but should “Whistle to Dixie” with a progressive message that will promote progressive values and help improve the lives of all the people of that area and all the people of the entire country.

  5. […] In this week’s Nation magazine both Tom Schaller and Bob Moser have their final say on whether it is possible to build a progressive movement in the South that is a powerful champion for working Americans. Unfortunately, for now, it is behind a subscription wall. The original Progressive Pulse post on this subject is here. What follows is a summary of the authors’ rebuttals: […]

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