As Southern Democrats paw through the wreckage of the 2004 election -- no electoral votes for John Kerry, zero-for-five in open races for the US Senate -- increasingly the question arises, "Do Democrats and liberals have a future in the South?"
Unfortunately that conversation seems to be stuck inside the same old box, failing once again to grasp the nature of the problem, much less the solution.
This was the topic of a recent conference, "New Strategies for Southern Progress," a gathering of some 200 Democratic Party leaders, academics, journalists and assorted progressives in Chapel Hill, N.C., to "identify pragmatic and innovative solutions to the region's toughest problems" and to "chart a new progressive vision for the region."
Predictably, the conference degenerated into the usual conflicts and tensions that have plagued the Democratic Party in recent years -- centrist wing versus the progressive wing, the usual "sides" emerging like the sons of Cain and Abel.
The progressive Democrats argued for rallying white, working class voters around economic populist themes against the "corporate elite." But stay away from race, counseled one class warfare proponent. And don't talk about taxing the wealthy or get caught up in "cultural" issues, argued another leading Democratic strategist.
And of course, in a now-familiar bout of losers' self recrimination, Jesus and NASCAR Dads and Security Moms emerged as the elephants in the living room as some rushed to embrace those on the right -- including the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
Not so fast, said one state representative from Arkansas. "Are you aware of the tension that's developing when, in your attempt to reach out to NASCAR people, you move away from progressive issues?"
And a minister from Auburn First Baptist Church in Alabama noted that "not talking about race won't make it go away. We have to deal with it."
Not surprisingly, attendees left visibly conflicted over fundamental questions that could not get resolved. Nor will they get resolved. Because in a sense, both sides are right. If the Democrats bend too far toward conservative whites, they will lose the enthusiasm of racial minorities that handed John Kerry and Al Gore 30% of their overall vote. And if the Democrats are too vocal in pushing race-based or liberal-appearing policies, they will alienate even more of the white swing vote, especially males.
This is a real dilemma for the Democrats, especially because in our winner-take-all electoral system, one side wins and all the other sides lose. You can get out your polls and focus groups, you can consult George Lakoff's crystal ball, but on Election Day if you have misread the tea leaves by being either too centrist or too progressive, you lose everything. Each winner-take-all district race for Congress, or each winner-take-all state in the presidential battle for electoral college votes, is crowned either Republican red or Democrat blue, with no shades of purple allowed.
And this is precisely what has been vexing Democrats in the South, and most of the West too, since the early 1990s. Winner-take-all districts and winner-take-all states, which used to be Democratic strongholds in the South, are being colored in red. It's not that there aren't Democrats living in these places, and plenty of them -- particularly African-Americans in the South. It's just that they usually can't convert their votes into representation due to the winner-take-all nature of our elections.
The best solution for Democrats lies in joining with those frustrated with the status quo, like term limits backers, women's advocates, third-party supporters and political reformers, to get rid of winner-take-all elections. And yet Democrats seem to be mostly clueless about this option.
For instance, even so modest a change as combining three adjoining single-seat districts into one three-seat district elected by full representation (where any candidate with more than 25% of the vote wins one of the three seats) will advance fair racial representation at the same time that it allows the Democratic Party to broaden its base. Such full representation plans, already in use in places like Peoria, Illinois, and Amarillo, Texas, likely would increase the number of African Americans elected to the US House in Virginia, North and South Carolina, Alabama, and Louisiana, and open new opportunities in states like Arkansas, even as it allows the two opposing Democratic wings to complement rather than backstab each other.
A typical Peoria-style three-seat district in the south with a 25% victory threshold likely would elect a black liberal Democrat, a white conservative Republican and, of great significance, a relatively centrist Democrat or Republican. The previous Democratic Party "majority coalition" has been mortally wounded by the near-disappearance of an endangered species -- moderate southern Democrats. Of the 37 US House members in the Deep South, formerly a Democratic stronghold, today only six are white Democrats, with 23 heavily conservative white Republicans and eight generally liberal African American Democrats. It's quite possible that every one of the white Democrats will be replaced by white Republicans by 2010.
But a full representation plan in southern states can reverse this tide. Besides electing more black Democrats and white moderate Democrats, such a plan almost certainly would elect more women (of 37 Deep South seats, women only hold one). A black Republican or two might even get elected. Such results would more accurately reflect a typical southern electorate, and the demographics of the New South as it evolves in the new century, that now are obscured by single-seat, winner-take-all districts.
If three-seat districts elected by full representation methods were used in other regions of the country, similar results would be seen: In New England, moderate-to-liberal Rockefeller Republicans, once a granitic mainstay of Yankee politics, could be more electorally viable; in the Mountain and Prairie states, which have experienced a virtual avalanche of Republican-dominated legislatures (though Democrats reversed the tide in Montana and Colorado in 2004), Democrats would have more electoral opportunities. The resulting cross-fertilization in Democratic and Republican caucuses certainly would lessen some of the ideological polarization and harsh partisan division that now infects the US House.
There is much to gain from the use of full representation electoral systems in the South and elsewhere -- from more minority voters actually helping to elect their favorite candidate, to preserving voting rights gains, to centrist Democrats and progressive Democrats no longer being pitted against each other, to "orphaned" Democrats currently living in heavily Republican districts suddenly having a vote that counts again.
Nothing in the US Constitution requires single-seat districts for the US House or the 50 state legislatures, and support is building for trying proportional options. Leading Congressional Black Caucus members like James Clyburn, Cynthia McKinney, Alcee Hastings, Jesse Jackson Jr. and Mel Watt have suggested that the time has come to look at proportional voting methods. During this time of deep-seated confusion and anxiety within the Democratic Party, a Peoria-style system offers tantalizing prospects that should not be ignored.
Steven Hill is an Irvine senior fellow with the New America Foundation and author of Fixing Elections: The Failure of America's Winner Take All Politics (www.FixingElections.com). Rob Richie is executive director of FairVote: The Center for Voting and Democracy (www.fairvote.org). Email info@FairVote.org or phone 301-270-4616.