Although discussing him may seem “so two months ago,” controversial Georgia Democrat Zell Miller draws attention to a major development in American politics: his party’s divorce from the South. I just finished his most recent book, "A National Party No More: the Conscience of a Conservative Democrat,"
published late last year. It is a slight but thoughtful memoir of Southern politics from the New Deal to the present. Both Miller’s growling speech at the Republican National Convention
and most of his public comments
in the last year offer a shorter and less eloquent account of the same ideas.
Miller’s narrative ranges from firsthand anecdotes to historical comparisons and electoral analysis, all written in a quaint mixture of back-country folksy phrasing and hard-headed political insight. Far from being an unlettered hick, the Senator has now written seven books
, including a musicological study. The fact that his Madison Square Garden address left progressives cold underscores the accuracy of the Senator and the importance of the larger phenomena in national politics that he represents. The book and speeches themselves are not likely to become classics, but they are fine reminders of a continuing realignment on a grand scale. This year’s election has seemed too close for me to call, and the deeper reasons for this near-total polarization will remain forceful whichever party wins.
Miller has made left-liberals like author Ruy Teixeira
thankful that the aged, angry hillbilly no longer liked their party. Many found the Senator’s recent about face regarding the Democrats in general and John Kerry in particular
latently opportunistic. No one, however, can deny Zell Miller’s following comment from early in the book:
Once upon a time, the most successful Democratic
leader of them all, FDR, looked south and said,
“I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad
and ill-nourished.” Today our national Democratic
leaders look south and say, “I see one-third of a
nation and it can go to hell.”
Whatever one’s opinion of the matter, the Democrats were once based in the American South and have now all but lost the region. Even John Edwards was given the party’s nomination for Vice-President so that he might appeal to swing voters up North; the Carolinian would have been vulnerable had he run for re-election as Senator.
The Sun Belt has the most rapid population and economic growth in the country: at last, the former Confederacy and the Mountain Time Zone are being built up and filled in. A generation or two ago, these regions were more thinly-peopled and essentially underdeveloped at their most remote spots. As the Southeast slips through the Democrats’ fingers, they are losing an enormous swath of the rising economy while inheriting a great deal of rust-belt urban decay in the Midwest, the Northeast and even in Northern California’s East Bay. As one of many cities that shed inhabitants, Cleveland’s population is half of what it was in the 1970s and its suburbs have stagnated. The Bay Area grows, but has shed its large-scale industry and suffers a regional recession in the wake of the dot-com bust. Southern and Southwestern sprawl, by contrast, is now advancing despite the national economic setbacks, and taking a soaring portion of the census in the process.
It is bad enough that a regional deadlock has become so pronounced. It is even worse for the Democrats that they have inherited regions in comparative decline. In their 2002 book "The Emerging Democratic Majority"
, Ruy Teixeira and his co-author John B. Judis have made the astute, cheery observation that the Democrats new East Coast-West Coast-“Third Coast” bloc is built on “ideopolises.”
These cities and suburbs are buoyed by the information economy, and are plentiful enough that they see a potential progressive renaissance on a large scale. The open-ended possibility of technological growth gives the ideopolis its biggest chances for economic, and therefore demographic and electoral, preeminence.
Last spring in "The American Prospect," the same Teixeira, however, co-wrote a rejoinder to ex-Republican Kevin Phillips’ worry that Democrats will not have sufficient centrist credentials in 2004 to appeal to the moderate South and thus key conservative swing voters in other regions. Phillips, the author of 1969’s "The Emerging Republican Majority" and architect of Nixon’s “Southern Strategy,” now advocated a mostly “Northern Strategy” for the Democrats, but with a qualifier
. Both priority-region strategies required sufficient moderation to capture additional states in the secondary region as well: as his Republicans once carried several Northern states, now the Democrats would need to carry some of the more modernized Southern ones. Whatever chances for future growth might be, the party now needs to win back social conservatives with modest incomes and not just moderate “ideopolitans” below the Mason-Dixon Line.
No worry, Teixeira answered, the Democrats should eschew the South and target depressed postindustrial states like Ohio.
Focusing on rotting regions rather than rising ones, as it were, is the exact opposite of the allied "ideopolitan" strategy. Teixeira had failed to see the South as early as his analysis of the 1994 Congressional GOP landslide
, which for all its demographic acumen had no comments on regionalism; likewise his analysis of the 1996 elections
. Yet it is he, along with Judis, who argues that there is an “emerging Democratic majority.” Their central thesis forecasts the growth of Democratic constituencies (ideopolitans and ethnic minorities), and the demographic decline of Republican ones (rustic whites) by sometime in the middle twenty-first century. The prevailing present just delays the inevitable reversal.
In the last decade, however, the Republican Congressional majority has become all but unbreakable. The bicameral Democratic hegemony of the early Clinton administration was propped up considerably by Southern conservatives in the party. A large share of the GOP’s captured seats in 1994 overturned these “Yellow Dog” Democrats
, continuing a trend dating back to mid-century. Teixeira had made the same emerging Left predictions prior to the 2000 census and subsequent redistricting: but Republicans still hold the majority anchored in the rising South and West. Their rule is intact and their strongest regions are projected to keep growing and hold ever more seats in the House of Representatives. It may be a long time until the Sun Belt becomes incrementally “Yankified” from within by one ideopolis or another. What’s more, the near-future South may claim an ever larger share of the national wealth generated by the “ideopolitan” economy, a crucial point made by Miller’s "A National Party No More."
Much of Zell Miller’s book recounts his solid credentials as liberal Democrat at the state level, both before and after his admittedly reactionary, allegedly insincere and failed 1964 campaign for office on a platform against desegregation. Born to a loyal partisan family and raised under the developmental wonders of the New Deal, reconciled to civil rights after his mid-1960s defeat, as a state politician Miller partnered with black Democrats by the early 1970s and fought the Georgia’s slide to the Republicans. He served in the state legislature, several bureaucracies, as longtime lieutenant governor and eventually successful governor. Over thirty years, the state’s population and economy throve, a transformation made largely without the GOP in charge. In the process, Miller and the party kept their power intact through a combination of modest social programs and a reluctance to tilt particularly far to the Left with the national Democrats. Indeed, Miller makes the striking point that only the party’s Southerners have won the White House since 1964: Texan populist Lyndon Johnson, his evangelical former state government colleague Jimmy Carter, and Democratic Leadership Council champion Bill Clinton.
Despite charges that the all-but-retired Miller
—-his terms ends this year and he is not seeking re-election—-is an opportunist hoping for an appointment should Bush win this year, I judge the story differently. When the Democratic Governor Roy Barnes called Miller out of retirement to fill the late Republican U.S. Senator Paul Coverdell’s term, there was no premeditation of a partisan crossover. The stalwart Miller had proven that he was securely part of the Center-Left in a conservative state, but upon arriving in Washington, D.C. as a Senator found himself on the right-wing of the nation’s progressive party. Considering the near-complete takeover of the South by the Republicans, Miller is only a representative of a massive regional trend. Even his “conservative conscience” turning against abortion, allegedly upon seeing his great-grandchildren, can be explained through crude demographics. He is not only a former U.S. Marine drill sergeant from Georgia's mountains but also seventy-two years old.
With exceptions, however, I would argue that Zell Miller’s defection does not just represent a cranky upcountry geriatric who feels out of place in the urbanizing present and yearns nostalgically for a rural past. He was once a part of "the Vital Center,"
which is now split somewhat more severely to the Left and Right. This is not, however, exclusively a Southern predicament. A corollary to Miller is that the Republican Party has lost its former base in the Northeast; Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords and Rhode Island’s Lincoln Chafee could offer mirror-image disenchantment about the GOP as their colleague from Georgia. White collar moderates and blue collar conservatives are adrift without their former Rockefeller Republican and Roosevelt Democrat champions.
The conservative commentator Christopher Caldwell captured this problem more tellingly than Zell Miller and even more damningly than Ruy Teixeira in a 1998 "Atlantic Monthly" article called “The Southern Captivity of the GOP.”
Whatever your opinion, I urge you to read this prescient and overlooked piece. Caldwell argues that the two major parties spent the 20th century trading constituencies. Almost to a state, the Republicans dominate the old Southern and Western Democrat (and Populist) strongholds and the anti-urban resentment politics therein. Likewise, the Democrats now have the Pacific, Great Lakes and Northeastern advantage once held by Teddy Roosevelt’s progressive Republicans. In Caldwell’s emphasis, the change came in the 1960s, but others have pointed out that the New Deal coalition was in danger of losing the South long before. Strom Thurmond’s Dixiecrat and Henry Wallace’s Progressive splinter candidacies, after all, were in the 1948 presidential race. In any event, it has happened. In a more recent column, Caldwell also pondered
if Miller’s RNC speech would energize supererogatory majorities in the right-wing Sun Belt. That is entirely possible; what is striking is that many of these same states had remained conservative Democrat cantons until very recently. Now the bottom has fallen out of not just the FDR coalition, but even the William Jennings Bryan one the preceded it from the 1890s to the 1910s.
The reason that Massachusetts progressive Kerry and Texan right-winger Bush are fighting so bitterly over the centrists now is that both parties have abandoned them for so long. Counting entire regions as safe districts, the 2004 campaign focused on at first one-third, and now one-fifth or fewer of the states: the only ones where neither Democrats nor Republicans have easy dominance. Drunk on the support of the militant New Rich, the left-liberals and religious capitalists lost their focus on the socioeconomic and ideological middle. Despite being the wrong leaders for the job, both candidates are now attempting to over-compensate for their respective lack of centrism.
Only the return of conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans would bring nationwide moderation. Otherwise, region by region, state by state, district by gerrymandered district, the country is perched for a near future of uncompetitive elections won by candidates who are polarized on everything except a generic commitment to the Third Way.
Micro-targeting swing voters in swing states with wedge issues will pass for “centrism” on a national scale. Worse still, both the indignantly right-wing South and West and the elitist “Tri-Coastal” ideopolises are becoming large enough to keep a firm hold on their respective parties. The suburban Midwest might be the only places left for them to compete.
If the more conservative regions of the country are growing the most rapidly precisely because they are the most conservative (attracting the disillusioned from elsewhere, inviting new business developments, etc.), then the Republicans who gave Miller the podium can give themselves a round of applause. If nothing else, they have captured the demographic zeitgeist. The Democrats have become too snobbish regarding “flyover country,” and the GOP can reap a bountiful harvest in the booming interior. They can only do so, however, up to a point. If Christopher Caldwell is correct, the Republicans are in peril of becoming too immoderate, too rustic and too resentful of the cosmopolitan “Tri-Coast.” The only hope for the Center-Right is if the continued growth of the South and West brings a diversity that tempers the rural and evangelical streak in party. From Phoenix to Atlanta, we will see if the ideopolis can flourish in a moderate Republican manner.
Against this grain, I hope for the return of liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats. Considering the successes of Schwarzenegger and Giuliani, I see some prospect for the former: GOP moderates who are still distinct from the party fugitives Jeffords and Chafee. Despite Bill Clinton’s successes, however, I feel that Southern Democrats may be losing their chances in the short term. Gore could not even win his home state of Tennessee in 2000. Prolonged and unchecked Republican hegemony in the Sun Belt could provoke an eventual conservative Democrat backlash, making the region bipartisan again. In the same manner, the liberal Republicans have won against the odds in “Tri-Coastal” states when voters have rejected generational Democratic dominance. Only this fighting spirit can make our states and localities competitively bipartisan. Otherwise, whichever side has the majority, the nation will be bipartisan through inert regional blocs. I do not look fondly on a long future of choosing between snide Bostonians and hard-headed West Texans for president. Under those circumstances, it is anybody’s guess which party’s worst elitism can find an emerging majority.
What a shame. Moderation and competition are what keep the parties honest, not polarization and emerging generation-long majorities. Beneath the cerebral hillbilly rage, Zell Miller knows the same thing. What a shame also that he comes across better toward his book’s small audience than the masses watching his RNC address.