Friday, May 13, 2011

Democratic party resurgence in the South?

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The other day I characterized President Obama's foray into immigration politics as a long game. I was making the point I make here frequently that the browning of the population means, if the Dems manage to continue to make themselves the more attractive option for Latinos and other immigrants, they should be able to win majorities for a generation or so. I suggested Arizona and Texas as obvious examples of states where this strategy can be pushed now with rewards in view in the not too distant future. On a hunch, I threw Georgia into the same category, thinking I was probably blowing a little smoke.

Maybe this wasn't so much smoke after all. Jamelle Bouie at The American Prospect has done real reporting on Georgia politics and he too sees glimpses of a Democratic future. White Democrats were pretty much wiped out at all levels of Georgia politics in 2010, but Democratic party chair, Mike Berlon told Bouie that

"Georgia had a pretty significant increase in the population, over 18 percent," he explains, pointing specifically to the decline in the number of whites and the increase in the number of Hispanics. Since 2000, Georgia's Latino population has grown by 96 percent to 854,000 people. At present, Latinos are more than 10 percent of the state's population. What's more, Georgia's African American population has grown by double digits, as millions of blacks have migrated from the North and back to the South; together, the two groups are responsible for the majority of Georgia's population growth over the last decade. The state's white population, by contrast, grew by just 8.6 percent.

What's happened in Georgia has happened all across the South. Every state in the region saw double-digit growth in its Hispanic population, and three states -- Mississippi, South Carolina, and Alabama -- saw their Latino populations grow by more than 100 percent. As Georgia Democratic consultant Tharon Johnson succinctly puts it, "In the next 10 to 12 years, maybe even 14 years, the Latino community will grow so significantly that it could actually surpass the white community. The smart thing for Democrats to do right now is to continue to reach out to the Latino and Hispanic community."

Bouie looks at the impediments to a black and brown-based Democratic resurgence and raises some sensible cautions. Southern whites shifted their allegiance to the Republicans not only to flee a party identified with civic and social equality for people of color, but also as they became more middle class in recent decades. Unfortunately, a tax-averse conservatism goes with new and uncertain middle class status, so their new position contains a potent motivation that is not about race -- or is added on top of racial motivations. Also, the new southern Latino population is largely composed of non-citizens, documented or not, so that community's influence in elections is not great, yet.

The experience here in California offers an additional qualification. The state that gave the nation Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan (sorry about that) has become a complete Democratic bastion thanks to the racially-tinged efforts of Republicans to keep people of color down via racist measures in the 1990s. These days, in this state where no racial group is a majority, an electoral coalition of consisting of people of color and a minority of whites reliably gives all state offices to Democrats. But note: this coalition wouldn't work if some 40 percent of white voters hadn't stuck with the Dems. So the question arises in the states of the Old South: can Democrats win any such percentage of white voters? To my way of thinking, that's the challenge that differentiates Georgia from Southwestern states.

Chris Kromm at Facing South addresses the question of which Southern whites might stick with the Democrats. His article suggests the conclusion that Democrats' best hope among whites will be "hard pressed Dems" who think government has to level the playing field for individuals against big corporations. These are mostly women, while "disaffected" white men are more likely to feel "a pox on all politicians" -- and break Republican if they vote.

I think we can reliably project a move toward Democrats in Texas and Arizona (and reinforced Democratic strength in Colorado and Nevada.) But the core Old South may work out differently, even as it experiences the same demographic shifts.

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