I mentioned yesterday that I was going to spend some time in Alabama at a training event for state legislators, and aside from the practical work these solons did in pursuing the DLC's values-based messaging and agenda-setting methodology, they reminded me why I'm proud to be a red-state, southern Democrat.
You have to appreciate how embattled Alabama Democrats feel right now. Yes, they still control both Houses in the state legislature, and yes, in Lieutenant Governor Lucy Baxley, they have a potentially successful 2006 gubernatorial candidate. But aside from John Kerry's dismal performance this year, Democrats got clobbered in statewide contests on November 2, and Republicans have generally dominated the issue landscape in the state in recent years, as reflected by the popular obsession with former Judge Roy Moore's campaign to defy the U.S. Constitution by displaying the Ten Commandments on public property, and by the vociferous anti-tax, anti-government views of a majority of Alabama voters. According to exit polls, nearly half of this state's electorate self-identifies as conservative.
But precisely because Alabama Republicans have made cultural issues and low- or no-government themes central to their political message, Democrats here have the painful but honorable burden of being the only people who actually talk about the challenges facing their state. Alabama remains a relatively poor state, with a regressive tax system, struggling public schools, and an corporate-welfare-based economic development strategy straight out of the 1950s. And every political issue in Alabama remains colored by the legacy of slavery and segregation; Republicans continue to indirectly but unmistakably tell white voters that decent public services are a "black thing" that they should not understand or support.
And that's the ultimate handicap and opportunity that Alabama Democrats, like their counterparts all over the South, live with: their status as a biracial coalition in a biracial society.
Southern Democrats stand alone in their willingness to project a message and agenda that unites their people, as my experience in Birmingham confirmed. Even the most conservative Alabama Democrats are extraordinarily proud of their party's civil rights and equal opportunity heritage. And African-Americans in this state are extraordinarily pragmatic about the need for a broad party message that appeals to white moderate and moderately conservative voters. They also tend to share the culturally conservative views that seem so alien to a blue-state-dominated national party.
What you really learn by spending time with southern Democrats is the importance of projecting a party message that unites people across racial, class, and cultural lines, instead of competing with Republicans in an effort to build a coalition of selfish interest and identity groups. The more the GOP abandons its heritage as a party of national unity, the more this common ground is open to Democrats.
Alabama Democrats understand this implicitly, and that's why this year's, and this decade's, political misfortunes down here are not some demographically determined permanent realignment, but a new challenge to a party that has consistently found ways to build new broad coalitions based on ideas that unite people rather than dividing them.
Ultimately, the theme song for Southern Democrats is the familiar and optimistic refrain:
Black and white together
We shall overcome some day.
Deep in my heart
I do believe
We shall overcome some day.