Make no mistake. Politics in the South over the last century and a half has been dominated and driven by one thing: race. From the time federal troops left Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina in 1877—12 years after the end of the war—until today, race, to varying degrees, has been a political constant. From the establishment of Jim Crow laws through Plessy v. Ferguson, Strom Thurmond’s explicitly segregationist run for president, Brown v. Board of Education, Little Rock, Montgomery, Selma, desegregation and George Wallace, the thread is long and clear. Race. It is the subject of our great literature, from To Kill a Mockingbird to Faulkner to Friday Night Lights. It is the real topic of our everyday debates over everything from public schools and mass transit to health care and the minimum wage. And this Reconstruction hangover, this domination of a single, tormenting issue, has had a unique political consequence: one-party domination.
First, of course, it was one-party domination by Democrats, the party of resistance, of the anti-carpetbaggers. In fact, no other region of the country has ever been so completely dominated by one political party for so long—almost 100 years, so long that generations passed in which some Southern folks never even met a Republican. But all of that changed following the final implementation of Brown, the Voting Rights Act of 1964 and the Civil Rights Act of 1965. Those momentous steps toward racial equality birthed the modern GOP in the South. This was the new resistance: The modern Republican Party in the South, once again, was built on race and the anti-Washington Democratic backlash brought about by civil rights. Republicans now freely admit that the intent of Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” was to harness and stoke that backlash for electoral gain. And even if the party’s Southern wing has transcended some of this obsessive single-issue focus on fighting civil rights, it has never strayed too far from the principles laid out in Ronald Reagan’s seminal August 1980 speech at Mississippi’s Neshoba County Fair in support of “states’ rights.”
This is where the road back to power starts for Southern Democrats. Populism and economic inequality will be the battleground of the 21st century, and while it’s true that in the South these issues are still inextricably tied to race, it’s a different conversation than the one our parents had. It is more honest and more open, both about race and about its economic and social implications for our society. We are the only party that can have that frank discussion. Racial equality leads to economic opportunity. We should own this issue, whether we are talking to African Americans, Hispanics or whites.
This is something the Republicans—trapped by their base and their history—simply cannot do. And it is the core not only of their utter lack of support within the black community but also of their problem with Hispanic voters, the South’s fastest-growing demographic. Of the 10 states with the fastest-growing Hispanic populations from 2000 to 2011, all but two are in the South, with Alabama, South Carolina and Tennessee topping the list, and Hispanics are more than twice as likely to identify as Democrats than Republicans.And
To win, Southern Democrats must seize the true populist message: Government must work, it must work for you, not the special interests, and it should work in the most effective and efficient way. Voters can trust us with their tax dollars, and we need to tell them why. James Carville, another Louisiana native son, said it best more than 20 years ago: It’s the economy, stupid. In other words, it’s the money. If you can’t talk about it in a way that makes voters comfortable, you can’t win.It's as about as spot-on as I could imagine. Great, great work by Mr. Arceneaux.