At Thursday’s Democratic Party debate, Bernie Sanders provided the latest defense of his blowout defeats in the Deep South. “Secretary Clinton cleaned our clock in the Deep South,” Sanders said. “No question about it. We got murdered there. That is the most conservative part of this great country. That’s the fact. But you know what? We’re out of the Deep South now. And we’re moving up.”
Hillary Clinton supporters and loyal Democratic Party liberals seized on Sanders’s comment as an indication of his apathy toward Southern black voters, the core of Clinton’s support in the region.
I was also dismayed, if for slightly different reasons. For me — a Bernie Sanders supporter who is also an African American and a Southerner — it was disheartening to hear Sanders, a man with a reputation for standing up for all workers, brush aside the concerns of millions.
The Sanders campaign has the potential to transform American politics. Running as an open democratic socialist (albeit within the confines of the Democratic Party), Sanders has pushed a platform that, if victorious, would represent a stunning triumph for the American left. Yet if that victory came at the cost of writing of the South, it would be a hollow one.
Sanders has, so far, failed spectacularly in Southern primary elections. He lost South Carolina, the first test south of the Mason-Dixon line, by 47 points (or by almost 180,000 votes). He came up short in Florida by almost 500,000 votes. And Clinton bested him in Georgia and Alabama by over 300,000 votes and in North Carolina by 150,000 votes. In short, the Vermont senator hasn’t just struggled in the South — he hasn’t even been competitive there.
But lopsided losses shouldn’t dissuade Sanders from training his sights on the South. Here are four reasons that Sanders — and leftists more broadly — ignores the region at his own peril.
Liberals might not need the South, but leftists do.
For decades, liberals have said they don’t have to look to the South in a general election. Books such as Thomas Schaller’s Whistling Past Dixie have argued that the Democratic Party can mine votes exclusively from the North.
And there is, after all, a precedent for this: the Republican Party of the late nineteenth century slowly learned how to succeed without Southern states, where the vicious reaction to Reconstruction had broken African American political power for generations. In 2008 and 2012, Democrats picked off states such as Virginia and North Carolina — but they would have won the Electoral College even without them.
Despite performing well in the Deep South, there is nothing to suggest Hillary Clinton would campaign in the region in the general election. Advisers of hers could look at an electoral map and suggest she concentrate on the Midwest and West.
Yet regardless of who wins the Democratic Party nomination, leaving the South behind would doom millions of voters who refuse to go along with the region’s right-wing Republicans. In an election where conservatives are already conceding defeat, doing nothing to rally Southern voters and lay the groundwork for a fresh, radical democratic politics would be an enormous missed opportunity.
Ignoring the South has already cost Sanders this primary season.
2. Ignoring the South has already cost Sanders this primary season.
More support from Southern voters would have given Sanders more delegates going deeper into the campaign. Going forward, a stepped-up campaign in the South could galvanize voters in a region accustomed to conservative Republican rule and acquiescent, anemic state Democratic parties.
Part of the weakness of progressive movements in the South is due to low voter turnout — in South Carolina, the 2014 midterms witnessed the lowest level of participation in forty years. And while Clinton supporters have excoriated Sanders for not doing more to support down-ticket races, the Democratic Party as a whole has failed to present a plan to win majorities in the House or Senate during the Obama administration.
Howard Dean’s “Fifty-State Strategy,” which briefly gave the Democrats control of the House and Senate in 2006 and arguably played a role in Barack Obama’s two presidential victories, seems to be a distant memory.
Hopefully Sanders doesn’t suffer from the same amnesia. As Matt Karp recently pointed out, Sanders’s core issue of battling economic inequality has significant resonance among African-American voters, and many of these voters are in the South. Brushing them aside means missing out on a chance to make the South politically competitive for progressive policies.
History shows that what starts in the South doesn’t stay in the South.
Political and economic developments in the American south have a tendency to impact the rest of the country.
Indeed, Southerners have played a major role in not just conservatism’s history, but in the history of undercutting left politics from the center — take the rise of the Democratic Leadership Council and Clintonism.
Or think about what Clintonism looked to replace. As Ira Katznelson chronicles in Fear Itself, even the most social-democratic legislation in US history was shaped partially by conservative politicians from the South. Indeed, without their votes such legislation would never have passed.
The Great Society programs of the 1960s — not to mention the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 — only passed during a brief high point of liberal political power.
Southerners backed the New Deal (as long as it did not upset the Jim Crow status quo), and a Texan, Lyndon B. Johnson, pushed the major liberal acts of 1964–65 through Congress. Any attempt at significant reform on behalf of all Americans requires garnering at least some Southern support.
In brief, you can either ignore the South and hope the rest of the nation can unite behind progressive polices, or allow entrenched conservative interests from the South to damage reform efforts. Building genuine change within the South means fighting those elements on the ground.
There’s a history of left-wing activism below the Mason-Dixon line.
The Civil Rights Movement is the most well-known example of what energized Southerners can do to change a region, but it is not the only one. The 1934 textile strike and the CIO’s “Operation Dixie” of the late 1940s remind us that labor struggle is a mainstay of Southern history — and the recent Charleston longshoremen’s strike, not to mention Fight for 15, show that native Southerners have not thrown in the towel.
Often the fight for progressive politics has come at great personal sacrifice. As the 1979 deaths of five left-wing activists in Greensboro, North Carolina at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan illustrate, Southerners have paid a steep price for holding back not a metaphorical fascism, but the real, terrifying version that has been in America since the Reconstruction era.
Donald Trump’s victories in Southern primaries, the Charleston massacre perpetrated by white supremacist Dylann Roof, and the passage of anti-transgender laws under the guise of “religious freedom” might be seen as the latest examples of the region’s hopelessly reactionary hue.
But for every one of those moments, we can point to movements like North Carolina’s Moral Mondays, historical figures like Fannie Lou Hamer or Jim Hightower, and achievements like the creation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party in 1964.
If the United States is to truly witness a political revolution, it cannot leave behind the South. Too much sweat, tears, and blood have been shed by courageous African Americans and defiant white Southerners to simply whistle past Dixie.