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Opinion | Reclaiming The New South

If the Democratic Party truly cares about improving education, reducing poverty, reforming the criminal justice system, confronting racism, saving the environment, protecting against institutionalized discrimination, guaranteeing the First Amendment, and eliminating the scourge of political corruption, then it needs to put its money where its mouth is.

A pro-choice Democrat is the next junior U.S. Senator from the great state of Alabama.

A transgender woman defeated the chairman of the state Republican caucus, a virulently anti-LGBT lawmaker, for a seat in the Virginia House, part of a Democratic wave.

In Texas, Democrats have lined up candidates to challenge every single Republican in Congress and for every statewide office, as well as fielding candidates for 85% of state legislative seats.

Here in Louisiana, as Mark Ballard of The Advocate recently noted, a Democratic candidate for state treasurer, a man who barely campaigned at all and raised only $25,000, came within 40,000 votes of winning against a Republican candidate who had spent nearly $1 million.

All of this occurred during the past two months.

The media, by and large, has reported these stories as anomalous and surprising, a temporary glitch caused by the historic unpopularity of President Donald Trump and, in the specific case of Alabama, the candidacy of a uniquely repulsive Republican, Roy Moore, a man who allegedly molested teenage girls when he was well into his thirties. Republicans are already treating the victory as illegitimate; on the night of Jones’s win, they issued a press release urging him, in so many words, to join their caucus. Or else.

After John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, absolutely clobbered the most powerful member of the Louisiana Republican Party, David Vitter, in the 2015 gubernatorial election, winning by 12.2 points, conservatives here similarly consoled themselves by calling Edwards “the accidental governor” and blaming their candidate’s humiliating defeat on his personal failures, not on his policy positions. The truth is that it was a combination of both.

John Bel Edwards’s victory wasn’t an accident, and Doug Jones’s wasn’t a glitch.

The American South has always been winnable for Democrats, and if there is anything to learn from the recent resurgence of Democrats in the South, it is that the national party should no longer relegate us to the bottom tier.

Here in the South, more than any other region in the country, we live with and suffer from the consequences and failures of Republican leadership and policies.

In Louisiana, specifically, we incarcerate more people than anywhere else on the planet; we’re the “prison capital of the world.” As a direct consequence of political corruption, lack of oversight, and regulatory capture, we’ve allowed the oil and gas industry to poison our water and air and to threaten the ecosystem of the entire Gulf Coast.

Our education system continues to be ranked at or near the very bottom, while our infant mortality rate is among the highest.

For nearly a decade, hard-line “fiscal conservatives” have cut their way into two bond rating downgrades and a structural deficit, all while insisting the state continue rewarding unaccountable, private businesses massive exemptions, forcing the poor and the middle class to pay for the difference through increased sales taxes.

Here in the South, more than any other region in the country, we live with and suffer from the legacies of slavery, Jim Crow, and the Ku Klux Klan.

The three states with the highest per capita population of African-Americans: Mississippi, Louisiana, and Georgia.

The “most unequal place” in America isn’t Los Angeles or Detroit or New York or Baltimore; it is a small town in East Carroll Parish in northeast Louisiana named Lake Providence, situated in a part of the state where the private prison industry is a dominant economic engine.

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The notion of the “New South” first percolated during the aftermath of the Civil War, in the midst of Reconstruction, but the concerns that animated those championing the movement were more about reconciling business relationships with the North than they were about solving social and civil injustices or confronting racism.

In 1951, Louisiana State University Press published what is perhaps the most definitive history of that era, Origins of the New South by the Pulitizer Prize-winning historian C. Vann Woodward. Twenty years later, at a conference in New Orleans, one of his former students, Princeton University professor Sheldon Hackney, spoke about the book and the demise of the first iteration of the New South:

Of one thing we may be certain at the outset. The durability of Origins of the New South is not a result of its ennobling and uplifting message. It is the story of the decay and decline of the aristocracy, the suffering and betrayal of the poor whites, and the rise and transformation of a middle class. It is not a happy story. The Redeemers are revealed to be as venal as the carpetbaggers. The declining aristocracy are ineffectual and money hungry, and in the last analysis they subordinated the values of their political and social heritage in order to maintain control over the black population. The poor whites suffered from strange malignancies of racism and conspiracy-mindedness, and the rising middle class was timid and self-interested even in its reform movement. The most sympathetic characters in the whole sordid affair are simply those who are too powerless to be blamed for their actions.

“History does not repeat itself,” Mark Twain famously quipped, “but it often rhymes.” Hackney’s description in 1971 of the South at the turn of the century still resonates today.

But so too does the short-lived second era of the New South, when white civic leaders started realizing that a reputation for violent racism wasn’t good for business and began demolishing or relocating Confederate monuments and building new, modern-looking court houses, post offices, and city halls to replace buildings that had once belonged to the Confederacy.

Since then, southern Democratic politicians have occasionally used the term “New South” in the context of social and racial equality, civil rights, and progressive fiscal policy, which seems more appropriate but also underscores something else: 152 years after the Civil War, we’re still trying to figure out what the New South even means.

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Three days before Jones won in Alabama, federal Judge Jim Brady passed away in Baton Rouge at the age of 73. Brady is most remembered in his hometown for finally settling East Baton Rouge Parish’s school desegregation case, which had been in limbo for nearly a half a century. But, nationally, Judge Brady was much more consequential than he ever claimed to be. As chairman of the Louisiana Democratic Party in the early 90s, Brady was only the second state chair, after Arkansas, to endorse Bill Clinton, and his endorsement proved to be a game-changer for the man from Hope.

Brady worked relentlessly behind the scenes to lobby other state chairs to follow his lead, and it worked. For his efforts, during the 1992 Democratic National Convention, Clinton named Brady as the national chairman of all 50 states (not to be confused with DNC chairman) and gave him a speaking role on stage at Madison Square Garden. This isn’t mentioned in his poignant obituary, but it’s worth noting for the history books.

It it also worth noting this: Jim Brady was instrumental in delivering Louisiana to Bill Clinton in 1992. A year after the state nearly elected a former grand wizard of the KKK as its governor, a man who was only defeated due to the massive turnout of African-American voters, Louisiana turned blue in the electoral college. So did Georgia.

Louisiana remained blue in 1996, even after electing a Republican as governor the previous year. We vacillate between parties more than we admit. We may have voted for a Republican president in 2000 and 2004, but we elected a Democratic woman as our governor in 2003. Obama didn’t carry the state in 2008, but Mary Landrieu, a Democrat, beat John Kennedy, a Republican, by four points that year in a race for the U.S. Senate. And although she lost six years later to Republican Bill Cassidy, the year after that, we sent John Bel Edwards to the Governor’s Mansion.

After Doug Jones’s election, national pundits expressed genuine surprise at the voting power of African-Americans in the state. Those of us in the Deep South have recognized this all along; it is why we live in the worst gerrymandered congressional districts in the country and why white conservatives here are so obsessed with voter fraud. They’re terrified of the math, because they are and have always been outnumbered.

Per capita, Mississippi is home to 10% more African-Americans than Alabama.

There are Democratic mayors, sheriffs, and councilpersons in almost every major city and major county in the Deep South, many of whom are women and people of color.

The South is a gold mine for the national Democratic Party, but more importantly, the South is where the Democratic Party needs to invest, way before it ever considers the 77,000 or so white people from the Rust Belt that are conveniently blamed for Donald Trump’s victory.

If the Democratic Party truly cares about improving education, reducing poverty, reforming the criminal justice system, confronting racism, saving the environment, protecting against institutionalized discrimination, guaranteeing the First Amendment, and eliminating the scourge of political corruption, then it needs to put its money where its mouth is.

Solve the big problems.

Reclaim the New South.

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