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Saturday, December 04, 2004

Taking Back the South Pt. 1 – “Welcome to Flea Country”

Although I currently live in a blue state, I come from a long line of inbred Southern rednecks. My family tree looks more like a Mobius strip. And let me tell you, there is nothing like a good dose of racism, cognitive dissonance, Rush Limbaugh and the flurry of gunfire over Thanksgiving dinner to make one ponder the wisdom of Lincoln’s decision not to let the South secede in the first place.

Alas, the damage is done. We are stuck with them. And while his choice of imagery was perhaps unfortunate, I applauded Howard Dean when he had the guts to say he wanted the vote of the guy with the Confederate Flag on his truck. I would like to open up a dialog that looks at key results from various states in the last election and examines them in the light of how they can influence Democratic policy change, specifically regarding the problem of the South in future elections. It’s just not good enough to wait for a national election to roll around and watch the wingnuts jump up and bite us in the collective political ass every four years. State party leaders are banding together and begging the DNC for help on the local front. And I would like to offer this diary to spark discussion on how we can begin to approach the South on a local level and wrest control from the religious right without selling out the values of the party.

Driving into Springfield, a small town of 14,000 in middle Tennessee, one of the first sights you see is a large corrugated iron building with the banner “Welcome to Flea Country” painted on it. In an attempt to capitalize on the national craze for flea market items, it is a classic example of how a good idea can go suddenly, horribly wrong in the South. People from the Blue States have a hard time comprehending the seemingly willful ignorance of these neighbors. Conventional wisdom has it that Southerners get their misinformation from Fox News. They don’t. Primarily, they get their information from each other. “Well, Myrtle told me down at the Piggly-Wiggly…” continues to carry far more weight than any learned text you would like to invoke.

I had the unique opportunity to be in Springfield staying with family when 9/11 happened. It was a profoundly surreal experience. By noon the local TV news was calling for the roundup of all people of Middle Eastern descent for detainment in concentration camps. My cousins were all very glad that they had been stockpiling tens of thousands of dollars of ammunition for years with which to defend themselves against the Illuminati and the Trilateral Commission, which could now be put to good use against invading Afghan armies.

“You’re joking, right?” I said. “They fight with rags on their feet. Look at the TV. Rags on their feet. They’re the poorest country in the world. How on earth are they going to get the technology to airlift themselves to the US? And even if they could, why the hell would they drop themselves in the middle of Robertson County, Tennessee?” All protestations fell on deaf ears. One Middle Easterner was the same as another, and somebody over there had oil money. It’s all they knew and all they wanted to know. It is no shock that, for the most part, they continue to believe in a link between Saddam Hussein and Al Quaida. They are unteachable.

They are not, however, unreasonable. Okay – not wholly unreasonable anyway. They can always be counted on to act in their own perceived self-interest. Take, for instance, my cousin Ronald. Now Ronald is a big hunter. Politically, he stands just to the right of Attila the Hun. He is a veritable fountain of “queer” jokes. But if you asked him, “hey Ronald, would you rather eliminate gay marriage or have this 50 bucks?” Ronald would take the fifty bucks. Hands down.

How does this translate into policy you ask? Well, the trouble lies in convincing Ronald that he will actually wind up with the fifty bucks. If you start to drone on about tax deductions – too abstract. Doesn’t really understand them. Higher minimum wage – not his problem. Social Security – he’s 35. He’ll worry about that when the time comes. Keeping foreigners, both legal and illegal, from coming into the country and doing his job for less – now you’ve got his attention.

Southerners are often accused of voting against their own economic interests, much to the frustration of Democrats wonder why a largely working class population turn their collective noses up at the party who promotes the rights of labor. I believe this occurs in large part because they do not like traditional Democratic rhetoric on the subject; without using the dreaded “f” word (framing), they construe it as anti-American and negative. Further, they are inherently suspicious of unions or anyone talking to them about worker’s rights (communists). But there is a keen and growing concern in the South that the government is deliberately letting foreign workers into the country whose willingness to work for less is deteriorating their working conditions and threatening their jobs, the economy, the environment, and their standard of living. Not to mention compromising national security. And there is an egregious leadership vacuum on this issue that neither party has been willing, for various reasons, to step in and fill.

I argue that stepping into this vacuum and taking the leadership reigns offers the Democrats the opportunity to shape the debate, to throw it in the faces of the Republicans who are largely responsible for the abuses inherent in the current system, and to use it as a deeply resonant and emotional wedge issue that can help the Democratic party to wrest control of the South from the hands of the religious right. I strongly believe that there is not only increasingly strong public sentiment around this issue, but also a growing grassroots movement that is comprised quite curiously of both members of the left and right that will create its own leadership to broker its political clout if the Democrats do not step in and fill the void.

In future installments, I hope to examine the following issues as they relate to the topic at hand:

. The recent near-defeat of Republican David Dreier at the hands of immigration reform activists in California, with no help from the Democratic Party
. The surprising win of Democrat Brian Schweitzer in the Montana gubernatorial race, and his ability to appeal to Republican voters while retaining a Democratic populist voice
. The success of Arizona’s Proposition 200 despite opposition from both parties, and its aftermath
. The push for immigration reform initiatives in numerous states in the 2006 elections by groups who feel they have no voice in Congress
. The woeful records of powerful Republicans who repeatedly vote in favor of supplying cheap foreign labor to big business at the expense of American workers, the exorbitant weight of the consequential “externalized” costs on the American taxpayer, and the potential vulnerability of these candidates on a state-by-state level in the 2006 election
. The potential catastrophic impact of George Bush’s “guest worker” program and how it can be utilized against powerful Republicans who support him, appealing to both patriotic and populist instincts of the Southern voter
. The remarkable proclivity of the right-wing media to devour their own over this issue (“Savage Nation” and others), and the potential for inciting political mayhem within the Republican party
. The fallacy of the notion that assuming a leadership role on immigration reform will alienate the Hispanic vote, and
. The need to shape the dialog so as not to let the tremendous groundswell of popular concern around this issue be seized and manipulated by racist wingnuts, further consolidating the power of the right.

I hope this topic provides a lot of lively and constructive debate, so please contribute your thoughts. I like to think of it as inviting everyone to share in my annual family Thanksgiving brawl.

Other posts in this series:

Taking Back the South Pt. 2 - Bring Me the Head of David Dreier
Taking Back the South Pt. 3 - What Would a Progressive Immigration Policy Look Like?"
Taking Back the South Pt. 4 - Immigration and "Democratic Values"