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the blog

Tuesday Oct 24, 2006

Interview With Tom Schaller, Author of "Whistling Past Dixie"

The sharp and insightful Tom Schaller, executive editor of The Gadflyer, recently published Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without The South, which was praised by Publishers Weekly as a "much-needed shot of realpolitik in the arm of the modern Democratic Party."

Prof. Schaller and I agreed to ask five questions of each other via email about our respective books. His responses to my questions are below. His interview of me can be found here.

1. You articulate a "non-Southern platform" based on the following principles: "strong defense, but a smart offense," "a culture of investment," and "the exercise of inalienable liberties." Don't those ideals appeal to both southerners and non-southerners alike?

TOM SCHALLER: For some voters in every region, sure, those ideals are equally appealing. But overall, there are striking differences in the attitudes of southerners and non-southerners, especially among white voters.

Support for Bush's war in Iraq is weakening across the country, but the pockets where it is still strong are in the South and a few Plains and Mountain West states.

And although it is a myth that native southerners account for a disproportionate share of our fatalities in Iraq (they don't), the South is the temporary home to larger shares of active-duty military and veterans because of the disproportionate location of military bases there. In the literal sense of the term, the most belligerent region of the country is the South.

White southerners talk about the need for limited government, but the fact is that most southern states get back anywhere from $1.10 or $1.35 for every dollar they send to Washington. It is the northeastern states that get back less than what they contribute, and it is liberals who are happy to investment their monies in programs that will pay off in the medium to long term, because they understand that investing in education and early-life health care actually saves the country in the long run.

The culture of investment theme steals the language conservatives love to invoke when it comes to markets and apply it to governmental commitments to infrastructure and human development. If you look at southern states, however, their per-capita state expenditures rank near the bottom.

If they believed in investment, instead of redistribution of monies contributed by others, they'd spend more at home -- especially since they benefit so greatly from the federal redistribution game. But they don't.

As for civil liberties, must I even make the case?

A quick look at American history through the lens of its constitutional amendments, which for 150 years have extended suffrage and safeguarded our most cherished civil rights and liberties, should suffice. And what does that history show?

That at every key struggle in American history -- abolition, women's suffrage, the end of child labor, the integration of the military, to de-segregation of our schools and public facilities -- it was mostly southern states blocking and opposing these amendments. History is what history does.

2. Whistling Past Dixie lays out a strategy to win without the South in the short-term, but it also argues that Democrats should work to win back the South by 2028. Howard Dean argues that we can't win in places where we don't "show up," and is rebuilding the party infrastructure to enhance its presence in all 50 states. Are your strategies at all in conflict?

TS: Nope, because Dean is right. What Dean is calling for is a minimum investment in each state so that Democrats there don't have to reinvent the wheel every two or four years.

As one of the few scholars in the country who has actually worked on a field campaign (and thus understands how poorly ideas and contacts and voting data get transferred from one cycle to the next), I know that Dean's approach is actually quite efficient.

So that means [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chair] Rahm Emanuel is wrong? Nope. Dean is doing electoral defense, and you defend at a minimum level everywhere. But offense requires targeting, and that means not spending capriciously in places where, during the late stages of an election, you can't win.

If Ike had invaded Europe in 1944 by spreading our Allied troops evenly across the French coast, the Germans might have repelled the invasion. So, Emanuel is right, too: Concentrate resources at points of weakness.

It's great to have staff in every state, and to encourage local Democrats to do the best they can on a local level. And it never hurts to recruit the best possible candidates in every seat at every level.

But when it comes down to crunch time, you target resources where they will matter most. Politics is economics, and we're not trying to build a "unanimity party," but a majority party. And that means figuring out how to get to 51% before aiming for 61% or 71% and, in my view, targeting Arizona or even Alaska before thinking about Alabama.

3. The "low-hanging fruit" for Democrats, in your analysis, is the Midwest and Interior West. Are those regions proving to be low-hanging fruit in this midterm election?

TS: Absolutely, but don't take it from me.

Chuck Todd, esteemed editor of the Hotline, ranks 60 House seats as in play: 53 held by Republicans, just seven by Democrats. Of those 53 seats, just seven are in the former 11 Confederate states. Put another way, although the House GOP gets 39% of its membership from the South, only 13% of our targets are there.

The fact is, the Democratic targets this cycle are largely contained within what I call the "4D Rectangle" of states formed by connecting Dover (NH), Dover (DE), Des Moines and Duluth. Of the 59 Republican-held seats which were either carried by Gore or Kerry, or narrowly by Bush (less than 3 points), during the past two presidential cycles, 44 of them are in this box.

If there's a Speaker Pelosi on January 3, she will owe her new majority to the conversion (finally!) of the old Rockefeller/Ford wing of the Republican Party into the Democratic column. Indeed, there are at least 3 seats in play in CT, NY, PA, OH, and even IN. Just winning those and breaking even everywhere else would be enough to convert the House.

As for the Senate, same story: Though TN has been made competitive because of a great Democratic nominee and VA has been made competitive because of a terrible Republican nominee, even if Dems win both of those and win only four of the non-South seats where they presently lead (OH, PA, RI, MT and MO), Harry Reid's new 50-plus-Sanders (VT) majority will be comprised of 44 non-southern Democratic senators and just six southern senators.

And that's in the best-case scenario for southern Democrats. If Clair McCaskill holds off Talent in MO and either Ford (TN) or Webb (VA) lose, the split will be 45-5. That means 90% of Reid's caucus will be non-southern.

I could go on, but the fact is that the Midwest is and has been the most "purple" region of the country for 70 years. It is home to five of the nine closest states in the last presidential election, and the Southwest is far more competitive today than it was when Bush's father won in 1988.

The windfallen fruit is at Democrats' feet in the Northeast/Pacific Coast, where they need to fully "blue-ify" their strongholds; the Midwest is the low-hanging fruit reachable without so much as a step-ladder; the Interior West, particularly the Southwest, is the mid-tree target; and only at the top is the (non-FL) southern states, particularly the Deep South states at the apex.

Again, politics is economics, and since all the apples are the same size, the fastest and most efficient way to 51% (or 61%, for that matter) is to fill with the fruits closest at hand.

4. You instruct Democrats to explicitly run against the "conservative South." Is it necessary to criticize a region of the country when standing up to conservatism? Is there a risk of being seen as divisive?

TS: This is the most infuriating criticism of my book, and one that shows how the same liberals who complain about Fox News and media bias have fallen victim to the very national discourse they decry and which holds liberals/Democrats and conservatives/Republicans to different standards.

Note, for starters, that the GOP brazenly, and with impunity, mocks "northeastern liberals," and people like John Kerry and Ted Kennedy and Barney Frank, as "out of touch" wackos from "Taxachusetts."

I could run you through the respective histories of Massachusetts and, say, South Carolina, but suffice to say that the Palmetto State has been defying, opposing, ignoring or rejecting every beneficent governmental change since before the Republic was founded.

Lindsey Graham claims he represents one of the most patriotic states, but he won't tell you that many white southerners refused to celebrate the 4th of July until the 1950s. If it were the other way around, do you think Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly would fall silent about the lack of patriotism among northeastern liberals?

Democrats vilify Ken Lay, Jack Abramoff, or Mark Foley, and that's fine. But these are fleeting foes. So why is it that they cannot criticize the southern conservatives who stand so directly in opposition to almost everything liberals and Democrats support?

I find it gallingly ironic that the same national media talking heads who are the first to say the Democrats are gutless and afraid to fight are the same folks who lecture Democrats for daring to criticize anyone except Antonin Scalia, unnamed corporate fat-cats and "special interests."

It's time to call a spade a spade, and the southern wing of the Republican Party runs the GOP and thus, by extension, the country. If you think the kind of government they're giving us is not to be criticized by name, then you're just another spineless Democrat.

A final point: You know why Republicans use divide-and-conquer politics to attack the "northeastern liberals"? Because at least it offers "conquer" as a payout.

"Pander-to-unify," the mollycoddling crap we hear from the "Kum Bay Yah" centrist Democrats only results in pandering that fails to unify anybody. It's important to be for something, no doubt; but sometimes being for something also means showing the courage to be against something.

We should stop trying to hand-hold whiny southern conservatives who talk tough but can't govern, and whose ideas and values on everything from affirmative action to Iraq are taking our country in the wrong direction. They're the last people likely to vote Democratic anyway, and if you don't have the stomach to call them out, you should go do something else.

5. You also counsel Democrats to move away from support of gun control in order to reach Midwest and Western voters. Can they do that and still win support from those in their base who remain concerned about fatal gun violence?

TS: This is the perfect example of the supposed problem you raised in the previous question, Bill.

Look at where support for the 2nd Amendment is strongest: In the South and the Mountain West. Are you gonna tell southerners they're out of touch and don't share real American values? To borrow language from your last two questions, how you can "maintain support from the fatal-gun-violence base" without picking a Second Amendment fight, and by picking it, risk being "seen as divisive" and "criticizing a region" of the country?

This is the double-standard trap of which I just spoke, and this question falls right into the pit.

My view on the Second Amendment is simple, if even a bit simplistic: I don't keep a gun in my house and would probably sign a petition to clarify the ambiguous language of the amendment itself.

But I'm also an ACLU-style libertarian and that means I don't get to say the First, Fourth and Fifth Amendments all count but the Second doesn't.

Clinton, Gore and Kerry all tried to take guns off the table so they could get a hearing on their economic platform, and that's exactly what people like MT Gov. Brian Schweitzer does.

Remember what Paul Hackett said: I don't think the government should be telling me what to keep in my gun safe, but it also shouldn't tell me what my wife and her doctor can talk about.

What's he saying, in a less professorial and thus more powerful way, is this: Let's put the other nine Amendments of the Bill of Rights behind the ramparts of the Second Amendment and protect them all with equal vigor. That's smart politics.

Now, here's why the gun issue demonstrates the difficulty in attracting white southerners to the Democratic Party:

White westerners in red states support gun rights to the same degree that white southerners do, but on the non-gun social issues they are less conservative. This is not my opinion, by the way; it is an empirical fact, based on self-reported attitudes of voters interviewed for National Annenberg Election survey.

On reproductive choice, affirmative action, gay rights, prayer in school and the death penalty, midwestern and interior western white voters hold less conservative positions that white southerners. And that means there are fewer cultural hurdles to clear with midwestern and interior western swing voters before they'll hear your pitch on foreign policy and economics. The hurdles are higher and more numerous in the South, and the data back me up.

So take guns of the table and the West and Midwest are in play; take guns off the table in the South, and you lose by 12 points on Election Day instead of 14. Whoopee!

Thanks Bill, to you and your great readers. This was fun. Your readers should go to to read my five questions for Bill about Wait! Don't Move to Canada! and his compelling replies.

Posted by Bill Scher on Oct 24, 2006 email post email Spotlight / / You are in Democratic Party/ Interviews
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