Another loss for Democrats in the South.

Photographer: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Catch of the Day: Don't Write Off the South

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
Read More.
a | A

A Catch to Harry Enten for a takedown of the idea that Democrats should just give up on the South. He points out, for example, that the South is hardly monolithic (don’t Virginia and Florida count?) and that many states and districts are well within reach of a good Democratic candidate in a good year for Democrats -- just as many New England or Pacific states are within reach of Republicans in a good year for Republicans.

A lot of the “give up on the South” sentiment is based, I suspect, on not appreciating the extent of the parties' polarization. So Michael Tomasky writes that “Trying to win Southern seats is not worth the ideological cost for Democrats.”

Yes, it’s true that Democratic senators from conservative states such as the Mark Pryor of Arkansas or Kay Hagan of North Carolina will be more conservative than, say, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts or Al Franken of Minnesota. But they will still be with mainstream Democrats more often than the handful of moderate Republicans will. Even West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin has a more liberal voting record in the current Senate than Republicans Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. After all, all 60 Democrats eventually voted for the Affordable Care Act.

Moreover, even a Democrat somewhat more conservative than Manchin would be much more liberal than the center of the Republican Party, much less a typical Republican from a conservative state.

Trying to shift the entire Democratic Party so its center of opinion is equal to that in South Carolina or Mississippi would be a bad idea. But accepting a diversity of candidates, with national Democrats willing to support centrists or mild conservatives in conservative states, is good politics that costs the rest of the party little. Those moderate candidates won’t be favorites to win in Alabama or Oklahoma in normal times. But they give the party a chance to capitalize when circumstances allow it.

Likewise, Republicans should compete in solid Democratic states, and shouldn’t mind if that means supporting moderate candidates. It’s still going to pull things their way when they win.

Not only does this diversity within the parties make for real electoral competition even in areas with a strong partisan majority. It also encourages the bargaining politics and individual influence for politicians that the system depends on.

Democrats were correct to kick the Dixiecrats out of the party in the second half of the 20th century, and it’s fair to criticize them for moving too slow on it. But that’s ancient history now. Democrats need to look for Southern politicians (and not just Anglo ones) who can fit well into their districts, even if they aren’t on board with many mainstream liberal positions.

Nice catch!

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net