Wednesday, January 28, 2004

MORE TALK OF A “NORTHERN STRATEGY”: Tim Noah in Slate magazine advises the Democrats to forget about carrying any Southern states for Prez in 2004.

Bottom line, this may be perfectly sound advice. The shortest path to a Democratic win may be to circle around the South entirely. But I’d like to enumerate my gripes with this piece, and with Tim Noah, about whom I vacillate between thinking he’s pretty smart, and thinking the poor guy must get the bends when he strays—not even outside the Beltway—to any point where one cannot still smell the phosphates in the Potomac River.

Southerners now consider it their God-given right to supply Democrats with presidential candidates or, failing that, to force non-Southern candidates to discuss Him using an alien evangelical vocabulary. (God doesn't hear the prayers of Episcopalians, Congregationalists, or Presbyterians. No use even discussing Unitarians, Jews, and atheists.)

This bit deserves its own post, and to be fair Mr. Noah is hardly alone in exaggerating the evangelical character of religion in the South. But the news story he links to is about Howard Dean’s groping for a way to talk about his faith at all. Howard’s not an evangelist; he’s just trying to be a pew-warmer. Sample: "I don't go to church that much because I don't have a lot of time for that particularly in this milieu." Not exactly soul-stirring. But let’s move on.

Overindulgence has also made the South grotesquely hypersensitive to what non-Southern liberals say about it; to quote a famous witticism about the writer John O'Hara, today's South is "master of the fancied slight."

I trust Mr. Noah never, ever, referred to Bill Clinton, former Democratic President, Rhodes Scholar and Yale Law graduate, as “Bubba.” That one was the particular slight that gave me a chip on my shoulder about Washington media types looking down their nose at anyone with a twang, no matter how accomplished that person. Maybe I fancied it; it sure seemed real for a few years there.

Thus when Vermonter Howard Dean made the perfectly innocent remark that he'd like to win votes from "guys with Confederate flags on their pickup trucks"—a comment, incidentally, that indicated he did not intend to write off the South—he had to fall all over himself apologizing to Southerners offended by the shorthand.

Maybe I’m wrong, but who exactly was offended by mixing Howard Dean with the rebel flag? Okay, Al Sharpton, predictably, was offended. John Edwards was offended. Other party figures from the South were offended, and certain personages who consider themselves guardians of the “sensible center” of the party were offended. And not so much offended as threatened, because it’s their job to wield the ancient cultural symbols, and Dean was being presumptuous. Were the Southern VOTERS Mr. Dean intended to address, were they themselves offended? Not in great numbers. Frankly, not many Southerners are alertly awaiting Mr. Dean’s overtures, but I don’t see the harm in his trying.

Noah quotes political scientist Thomas Schaller, approvingly: [T]he South has the fewest independent-minded voters available for Democratic conversion. Protest candidates John McCain, Ralph Nader and Perot all bombed there. Of the 10 states where Perot fared worst in 1992, all were Southern. … The South is where insurgents and independents go to die.

Hold the phone. McCain was the victim of a notorious smear job from the right by G.W. Bush in South Carolina in 2000; it may not be the only factor in McCain’s poor showing in the South, but it’s worth mentioning. And McCain was competing in a Republican primary anyway. This is being rejected by the swing voters? I’d say Ross Perot and Ralph Nader were hampered by the difficulty of a third party candidate even getting on the ballot in many Southern states. Those campaigns had to spend a lot of resources just to get in the door, and historically speaking, we have the Democratic Party to thank for the ballot access problem. And since when are Ralph Nader supporters “swing voters”?

Noah quotes Ruy Teixeira, but for debunking purposes; Noah belittles Teixeira’s remarks thusly: Democrats should resist "wholesale abandonment" because it's … impolite. [Ellipses in the original.]

That’s not what Teixeira said at all, in my view. The Teixeira quote is the single most sensible passage in the article: the Democrats need to guard against seeing the South as “a culturally alien mass that we don’t know how to talk to.” A national political movement, particularly one who very name alludes to democracy, should not write off a huge segment of the populace as immune to the movement’s message.

In the last third or so of the article, Noah catalogs the baleful racial history of the South, from Jim Crow back to secession back to the three-fifths compromise. This is the crux of the matter: Tim Noah deplores the influence of the South in American history. That’s a perfectly defensible point of view. But here I thought we were discussing contemporary American politics, and here is a region of, I don’t know, 40 million people that is not going to go away because Tim Noah wishes it would.

Certainly, the Democrats should spend their resources where they will get the most bang for the buck. I’ll cling to what I said on January 12, that “Southern values” are held by a lot of Northern voters, therefore the party needs to nod, at least, to these values. But this feels somehow like a circular argument. Either you feel enough affinity for the South to embrace it as part of America, or you don’t.

I wouldn’t want to be accused of hypersensitivity, and goodness knows I appreciate Tim Noah’s name-checking a bunch of Southern writers. But it’s ALLEN Tate, you supercilious putz.

Ahem. Sorry.

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