It's not surprising that the success of the candidacy of Barack Obama is causing dramatic effects in the politics of the South. But Obama has taken us into the land of unforeseen consequences, and small surprises, and lessons, abound. Mostly this morning I am thinking about the Democratic Party. The Party now needs to rise to the historical moment, define itself, show that it can win elections, and present a clear (enough) and compelling (enough) vision and agenda to govern. Right now we are working out what exactly the Democratic coalition is, and until that comes into focus we will not be able to develop a coherent philosophy, because we don't at the moment know who we are. These abstractions are made very concrete by the political news coming out of the Old South. A "perfect storm" scenario has developed as the candidacy of Obama has at long last awakened the sleeping giant of the Southern black electorate, at the same time as the Republican Party is left holding the bag of an alarmingly bad economy, a hugely unpopular war, and a president whose disapproval ratings are higher than those of Richard Nixon's on the eve of his resignation. Add to this decades of immigration into the region of people, white, black, and otherwise, who don't share the political instincts and tropes of the old, apartheid South.
But Democrats need to be careful. Consider the lessons of the recent victory in a special election of Travis Childers to Congress in a heretofore safely Republican district in Mississippi. Childers won with overwhelming support of black voters there, and their numbers had been greatly increased by the Obama phenomenon. But he also was able to gain enough white votes to win because he is a staunch Dixiecrat, against gun control, against abortion rights: someone who would have had to run as a Republican in many other regions of the country. The key lesson in this is about party loyalty: the bridge between social conservatives who are disenchanted with the economic and foreign policy of the Republican establishment and African-American voters in the South is the Democratic Party. A Party that represents real black civic power and enfranchisement, while still appealing to traditional regional values, can only be based on the concept of Party loyalty at this point; later on we can grow into our new coalition. Right now it's just a practical reality that the Dixiecrats need the African-American vote, and the African-American community needs white allies. This is not the same conceptual equation as building something on "the left," or winning a battle between conservatives and liberals. For that matter, many Southern blacks are also strong Christians, law and order folks, and so on.
Meanwhile the race issue, that has floated the Republicans' boat so many times in the past, threatens to sink it now. In the special election in Mississippi Republicans were quick to play the race card (look, it's not some "dirty little secret" that the GOP uses racist tactics in the South; apart from national security rhetoric and Christian rhetoric, race baiting has long been the main tactic of the GOP in the region). But this time, running ads "tying" (I'm not sure how "tying" works) Childers to Obama had the effect of rallying the newly-galvanized black voters to Childers' cause. It works both ways: if the main issue in Republican rhetoric in the South is going to be built around the point that Obama is black, that means that the Republicans are distinguished from the Democrats mainly on race, and not in a good way. Nor can the Republicans simply walk away from their base, which has helped them win so many times before: somewhere around one-third of the Republicans' voters are frankly, explicitly racist at least in the sense that they would decline to vote for a black, and they will tell you so if asked (roughly mapping onto the one-third who identify themselves as "Christian fundamentalist," sadly enough. What happens to the GOP if being a self-identified Christian comes to mean that one is against racism?).
That brings me to the last point. Jon Stewart on The Daily Show this week ran clips of racist white voters in West Virginia. One middle-aged woman in a diner said that granting the history of conflict between blacks and whites, she was frightened of black candidates and would vote against them. To many of us (myself included) this may seem like a rather bizarre way to process America's history of slavery and racism (all Stewart had to do to get his laugh was run the clip and mug at the camera in disbelief), but we have to take a deep breath and try to listen to these people, understand their fears, and communicate with them. The Democratic Party will go on to govern in the years ahead, and to transform the country in the needed ways, if we can present an alternative political reality to people like her.