Southern Distractions Divert Attention From Real Progress

OK, OK. You’ve all had a good time with Paula Deen and Wendy Davis–though those two southern women couldn’t be any more different than a fat, slobbering bulldog and a sleek Bengal tiger.

Now, I have spent all but two years of my life in Mississippi. In a pinch, I can make some damn good fried chicken or biscuits, and yes, even grits although Mitt Romney has forever spoiled them for me. I drank Budweiser and Jim Beam back when it was cool to be young and stupid. And much to the chagrin of my high school English teacher, Ms “Iron Jaw” Aarons, I can say things like, “Y’all fixin’ to head out?” with a straight face. So I’m going to forego my propensity to avoid the stereotypical southern speak for a minute and say one thing that needs saying.

Y’all Democrats need to stop talking about Paula Deen’s racial slurs and Wendy Davis’ courageous display of in-your-face politics—even though it was great fun to watch her decimate old white men from her slim age-defying hotness while standing up against the onslaught of good ole boy dirty tricks and hypocrisy from white, male, Texas blowhards– and pay some damn attention to what’s actually “goin’ on” in the grassroots of the South besides these two big personalities.

Look, I’ll be the first to admit that Paula Deen is a fairly typical, big-haired southern bigot who’d rather eat fried possum guts than a delicate helping of pan-seared rainbow trout . And I stayed up half the night watching Wendy Davis standing up to a bunch of old, bullying, used-to-getting-their-own-way white men who wanted to tell her what she could and couldn’t do with her body. She’s awesome. And I get that heroes—and villains—can serve as powerful catalysts for change.

But there’s a whole lot of skullduggery that can take place when progressives lose focus or get distracted by big personalities and we end up paying the consequences for a long, long time. Want to know just how bad those consequences can be? Try the hole we dug for ourselves in 2010 by being so swept up in the “Barack Obama experience” that we allowed the Tea Party extremists to almost pull off a nearly complete coup of our legislative and judicial branches.

The 2010 Debacle From The Democrats

How bad was 2010?

  1. Republicans netted 721 seats in the 2010 election cycle (since January of 2009).
  2.  Republicans now control almost exactly 54 percent of the nation’s 7382 legislative seats that are partisan, excluding Nebraska’s nonpartisan, unicameral legislature.

What really matters, though, is getting enough seats to claim the majority in a particular legislative body. In the nation’s 98 partisan state legislative chambers:

  1. Republicans almost completely reversed their standing. Headed into the election, Democrats had a 60-36 advantage with two chambers, the Alaska Senate and Montana House, tied. When most legislatures convene new sessions in early January, Republicans will control 57 chambers, Democrats 39, and again, two will be tied, the Alaska Senate and the Oregon House.
  2. Republicans now control the entire legislature in 25 states, 11 more than they had going in to the 2010 elections.
  3. The last time Republicans controlled this many legislatures was after the 1952 election, when they had 26.

That’s how bad it was.

Getting back to Ms Deen and State Senator Davis, my fear is that our obsession with these two Big Southern Female Personalities is distracting us from the fact there are some amazing things happening down South right now that desperately need our attention if we are to have any hope of righting this Ship O’ Democrats that is listing badly and taking on water faster than New Orleans during Katrina.

Don’t get me wrong, Davis has certainly proved herself a rallying point for Texas progressives. But let’s not forget that when Davis’ filibuster fell short, Texas Republicans were ultimately stymied by ordinary citizens who packed the Senate chamber and quite literally shouted down the bill that Davis couldn’t quite defeat on her own.

And Texas progressives haven’t eased up. After Governor Rick Perry called a new legislative session to take up the just-defeated bill to restrict abortion, protesters flocked back to Austin to protest. Most political pundits are saying that it is a fight that the Democrats in general and Senator Davis in particular, cannot win and shouldn’t be fooling themselves that they can.

Of course, Mitt Romney was a shoo-in to win the Presidential race according to pundits across the country too. And Dewey was undoubtedly going to defeat Truman.

In neighboring Arkansas, citizens are gathering in huge numbers in support of a different progressive cause: Worker rights. Employees of the nation’s largest retailer have staged multiple rallies, strikes, and work protests since the fall of 2012 against the quintessential David vs Goliath showdown against WalMart.

The same WalMart that has the GDP of some countries.

Last month, protesters descended on the company’s Bentonville, Arkansas headquarters to protest low wages and to call attention to Walmart’s refusal to improve working conditions in the overseas factories that supply the retailer’s clothing.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Old Confederacy, North Carolina is seeing a similar uprising against a radical Republican agenda. Faced with a legislature that is intent on turning the Tar Heel state into the only one in the U.S. to refuse federal unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed, progressives in North Carolina have staged a series of “Moral Monday protests.” Thousands of demonstrators have gathered each Monday since April to protest state cuts to unemployment insurance, health care, and education.

Wake The Hell Up National Democratic Leaders

That’s three different grassroots progressive movements in the Old Confederacy. And, yes, I realize that these are exceptions to the general rule in the South.But this is all the more reason for the pushed-around NATIONAL Democrats to pay not only attention to these instances, but to get involved with money, manpower and a sense of urgency.

Trends have begun to suggest that the South in general is purpling. But according to Douglas Williams,  rumors of the Old South’s demise are exaggerated. As Williams says:

Until the Democratic Party in the South (with assistance from a Democratic National Committee that has long neglected party building in the South) begins the long, hard work of building an infrastructure of progressive power, organizing, and messaging, they will continue to find themselves losing to Republicans that are very beatable. And if we want Democratic-leaning communities to turn out in midterm elections, we have to give them a reason to do so by fielding candidates who aren’t just a lighter shade of red.

Building infrastructure, organizing, and messaging don’t make for a sexy story. But you don’t get progressive ideas enacted unless the ground game is stuck on full throttle. There are, in fact, very real dangers in putting all of the Democrats’ eggs in successful progressive individual politicians (see Obama, Barack; and any of Gitmo, drones, or the NSA damage that has been done in the last few weeks. So stop simply talking about the biggest heroes or villains of the moment, and start looking at stories about how this consensus on progressive values can be funneled into results.

The emerging movements starting to take shape in Texas and North Carolina present a real opportunity for progressives to do the messy organizational work needed to take states from red to purple—and maybe even to blue. It remains an open question whether progressives will be too distracted, or simply to content to sit back and bemoan the dirty tricks, dirty money and lack of media coverage, to actually get off of their duffs and do the dirty work needed to take back our country.

Harvey A. Gold

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