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What’s Next for the U.S. South: Politics and Prospects for the Left

U.S. politics are being continually redefined. What are the implications of a changing South for building the Left?

Renato Flores

December 4, 2018
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The post-midterm 2018 news cycle is dominated by two types of stories about the rising Democratic superstars. The first are insurgent campaigns like those of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar which seek to revitalize the Democratic Party by making its platform more progressive. These are a reflection of the discontent in urban areas of the northern states with a system that is failing them. The second type are the campaigns by Robert “Beto” O’Rourke, Stacy Abrams and Andrew Gillum, who are breaking new ground for the Democrats south of the Mason-Dixon line and are turning red states purple. While much socialist analysis has been written on the former, the consequences of the latter in redefining U.S. politics have not been meaningfully explored.

The Changing South and the Changing Democrats

O’Rourke, Abrams and Gillum have managed to close the bipartisan gap in ‘red’ states. Their campaigns achieved this with the votes from the rapidly growing diverse cities of the South. An example of the forces fueling the change can be seen in Atlanta between the years of 2000 and 2017. Atlanta’s metro area grew by 1.75 million inhabitants, representing the lion’s share (78%) of Georgia’s total population growth of 2.24 million. Today, Georgia’s total population is estimated at 10.5 million, and Atlanta’s new inhabitants have completely changed the map of the state. The Democratic Party is gaining a new foothold via the diverse underemployed class that is moving in. In rapidly-growing regions, statewide races and Electoral College votes can flip.

New Mexico and Virginia are now solidly blue. The re-enfranchisement of felons in Florida, combined with the Puerto Rican exodus to South Florida after Hurricane Maria, makes the chance of a Democratic victory in the state very real. And Georgia and Texas will be added to the list of swing states for 2020.

The reality of any north-south divide is becoming outdated, and the divisions on the new electoral map will be urban-rural. This is not only due to this transformation of the South but also to the erosion of workers’ rights in northern states in recent decades which has decreased divisions between skilled and “unskilled” workers. This comes as a consequence of the Democratic Party’s trajectory over the past few years. Democrats have in the best of cases done nothing to prevent—or, in the worst of cases actively aided in—the destruction of unions and union jobs, especially in the Midwest. The absolute failure of the Democrats to defend working-class interests in the Rust Belt cost Hillary Clinton the election. To regain those regions, Democrats would need to commit themselves to economic job-creating programs, which is especially unlikely given the recent history of the Democrats and the inability of Keynesian policies to improve the economy, due to declining profit rates and offshoring of jobs.

Another, easier road to the White House in 2020 has opened: Democrats will be able to withstand the loss of working-class union votes in the Rust Belt if they manage to turn a few southern states blue—by mobilizing the young and diverse urban vote using lesser evilism. Indeed, the 2018 swing in the house was mainly due to the votes of People of Color. Even if the Democrats manage to find the road back to the White House via votes in southern cities, they will have to deal with the unequal representation in the Senate, which naturally favors rural areas and limits this strategy.

Using lesser-evilism to mobilize racially diverse urban voters can never be a permanently winning strategy as illustrated by the majority of the Black working class in Michigan and Wisconsin who refused to vote for Clinton in 2016. Urban populations in the South have lived under the Democratic apparatus for a shorter time and currently respond enthusiastically to centrist Democrats, but this will not last. Despite the enthusiasm about Stacy Abrams—and the increasingly radical calls from progressive activists to fight voter suppression and refuse to concede—she ended up accepting her loss in an attempt to dissolve the anger. This illustrates that the Democratic Party is one deeply entrenched in the United States government; it will never significantly challenge the system. Despite calling the elections “neither free nor fair”, Abrams has said she will be committed to ensuring fairness in future elections through legal means.

The southern lifeline for centrist politicians in the Democratic Party is bound to break after cycles of disappointment in southern cities as the politicians fail to significantly improve the material conditions of the new urban classes. It is unclear which political direction will fill the void. Some sections of urban southern youth are already responding in the same way their northern counterparts do: strengthening lower-level insurgent candidacies in the Democratic Party either directly or through organizations like the Democratic Socialists of America. Andrew Gillum’s run is a notable example of this; despite his pivot to the center during the general election, his primary campaign embraced Medicare for All and other progressive demands outside the usual centrism. Another example is Houston DSA’s Franklin Bynum’s victorious “end cash bail” campaign for district judge.

However, electoralism in the South is inherently limited due to vast voter disenfranchisement, low urban population densities, and the presence of increasingly reactionary courts and state congresses which block legislation at the faintest whiff of progressivism. The Texan experience in the fight for paid sick leave is an instructive example of this practice: the City of Austin passed an ordinance which mandated paid sick leave, but the Texas Third Court of Appeals blocked it.

Whiteness versus a working class program

As the Democratic Party has lost the last cosmetic vestiges of a working class program, rural America has appeared to descend into a spiral of racist reactionary politics, where white supremacy is the main mobilizing force. After the Janus and EPIC Supreme Court decisions, union bosses stand defeated on top of a crumbling bureaucracy which, in many regions, is barely able to reliably turn out blue votes. In this year’s midterms, incumbent Democratic senators lost their seats after making statements that were sympathetic to Trump’s racist policies. Specifically, Claire McCaskill of Missouri said she “wasn’t one of those crazy Democrats” and promised heightened border security, while Joe Donnelly of Indiana said he was open to removing birthright citizenship. But this wasn’t enough; when faced with a choice between Trumpism and Trumpism-lite, voters prefer the real brand, giving the impression that outright racism as a prime vote earner is here to stay.

This should not be read as a definite surrender to reactionary politics on the part of abandoned populations. When working-class organizing is made to retreat, the forces of racism are bound to strengthen. As illustrated by the teachers strikes , red states can become hot battle grounds for labor, in part because while entrenched union bureaucracies exist there, their power is much weaker. The West Virginia grassroots teachers struggle eventually forced the hand of the union bosses into more action than they had initially hoped for. The plans changed from “rolling strikes”, where a few schools would walk out every day into an “all in or nothing” strike once the teachers realized the seriousness of the struggle. Statewide walkouts were organized within a private Facebook group, instead of through the usual channels, decreasing the ability of the Democratic Party-bound union leadership to control the situation. Explicit working class organizing can take place in these regions with a smaller risk of co-option into electoral means.

An example of the contradictions in the politics of rural America is visible in the case of Richard Ojeda, a pro-coal Democrat from West Virginia, home of the teacher strikes. Ojeda is the first declared candidate for the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries. He embraced white supremacy despite being the grandson of undocumented migrants; he voted for Trump in 2016 in the hopes of returning coal jobs to the state. In the 2018 midterms, Ojeda ran for West Virginia’s 3rd Congressional seat, deep in the land of Trump supporters and teacher strikes. His campaign is full of contradictions, but demonstrates an understanding of the need to emphasize working-class issues, defending legal abortion and Planned Parenthood and supporting the striking teachers. Although the campaign lost, Ojeda massively outperformed expectations, achieving a 36 point reduction in the voting gap between Republicans and Democrats from 2016 to 2018, the single biggest swing in the election.

As lesser evilism can only mobilize for a limited period of time, the mobilizing effect of whiteness alone also slowly peels away. In rural America, working class people will respond to Democrats like Ojeda who put forth working-class demands and not to centrists. The false impression that racism cannot be broken is only true if one looks only at lesser evil campaigns. Socialists propagandizing and organizing around working class demands combined with explicitly feminist and anti-racist causes can achieve slow progress in defeating white patriarchy. But we should not forget that Ojeda’s campaign was only possible because the teachers had popularized a working-class struggle.

Plan B: Direct ballot initiatives

A possible electoral battleground for socialists in red states is that of direct ballot propositions in which proposals are directly presented to voters, skipping over local and/or statewide legislative branches. In 2018, this method led to victories that benefited the working class, but this occurred more in areas where the Democrats don’t have a stronghold. Idaho voted for expanded Medicaid, Louisiana repealed its jury rules (which had originated in the era of Jim Crow), and Arkansas and Missouri passed ordinances raising the minimum wage. This last is especially notable because despite narrowly electing a GOP Trumpian senator, Missouri voters passed Proposition B to raise the minimum wage by a 24-point margin. This is compounded with the fact that earlier in the year, Missouri voters also passed a popular referendum, SB19, which repealed a ‘right-to-work’ law by a 34 point spread. Despite voting for Trumpism, Missourians have shown a glimmer of understanding of their class interests.

The same cannot be said about Democratic Party strongholds, especially where a significant amount of votes for Democrats are provided by wealthy suburbs. If a strong apparatus run by the Democrats opposes a ballot initiative, it is very unlikely to pass, even if it is supported by insurgent local campaigns. Massachusetts, for example, failed to pass a proposition that would improve the nurse-to-patient ratio. While more “progressive” Democrats such as Sanders and Warren endorsed it, other prominent Democrats such as Boston mayor Marty Walsh did not, and prominent liberal newspapers such as the Bay State Banner and the Boston Globe actively opposed it. A second example is California failing to pass Proposition 10, which would have removed a statewide ban on rent control, by a large margin. Prop 10 was supported by more progressive elements such as Barbara Lee and insurgent candidates such as Jovanka Beckles, but was opposed by the Party apparatus, including the current Governor Gavin Newsome, and was ultimately defeated.

Where the Party machine is weaker, these ballot measures can pass despite establishment opposition. The City of Austin passed Proposition A which will issue $250 million to build affordable housing, and the City of Houston passed Proposition B—a firefighter union-led initiative meant to raise salaries—over the strong opposition of the Democratic mayor Sylvester Turner. Turner waged a multimillion dollar campaign against it and has promised to further battle the initiative in court. The City of Houston can definitely afford the raise despite Turner’s crocodile tears.

Through the use of direct ballot initiatives, working class organizations can gain direct and tangible victories in red and purple states where the “progressive” opposition calls for caution and against radical demands but is powerless. Ballot initiatives have the advantages of avoiding personified electoralism and the issue of lesser evilism, and working class issues can be presented very clearly and used as a springboard to rebuild multi-racial working-class power.However, gains made by way of the ballot box are always inherently limited by the capitalist framework, are constantly under attack, and need a movement to sustain them. The courts could easily reverse Proposition B in Houston, and the firefighters would need to follow up with strike action to defend it.

The rise of Base Building and the future of socialist movements

Due to these conditions, newly energized activists are more likely to participate in small-scale “base-building”, which has been relatively successful. The Black Panthers’ food distribution program is the most commonly-known example of base-building, and socialist food distribution programs are becoming a common sight; DSA Atlanta’s tail-light fixing campaign is another example of community engagement.

Activists can attempt to revitalize or even create civic infrastructure, and many see this as a step towards “extra-parliamentary power”. While these new civic infrastructures would avoid the problem of entrenched NGOs that depend on the Democrats in the North, they would still remain heavily localized. To become something beyond red charities , networks beyond local influence areas are needed. Only by having a coherent national organization can delocalized structures become actual working-class power.

In the United States, the weakest links in the capitalist chain are currently in southern and rural areas. Without the Democratic Party machine, the role of the state is more transparent and the temptations for electoralism and reformism are reduced. Socialists have a potentially large space and they confront sexism and white supremacy head on. The fight against white supremacy is the fight for a socialist United States, as it is the solid pillar on which American society was built. As long as the ruling class can rely on whiteness, it can keep on appropriating the fruits of workers’ labor by pitting workers against each other.

For now, the material conditions will favor the growth of local decentralized organizations with a focus on base-building. Most of these organizations will be racially diverse, and will devote significant energy to self-defense to oppose the violence of the state and paramilitary groups. If political power is to be achieved, these groups must evolve into organizations in which workers can operate with class independence, and engage in wider political campaigns, using the ballot as an offensive tool to get their message out. For this to happen, they must make connections with each other on a clear class basis. Efforts like the Marxist Center point in this direction but their potential for success is still unclear.

Socialism or barbarism

Whatever lies ahead in the future, the South can no longer be dismissed as a backwards reactionary region forbidden for socialists. As more of the population concentrates in southern cities, the Democratic Party machines will start strengthening itself in places where it has historically been weak. Voters who still do not feel abandoned by the Democrats will provide a new lifeline to the decaying party. This was seen with the enthusiasm for the campaigns of Andrew Gillum, Stacy Abrams and Robert “Beto” O’Rourke. Had these runs taken place in the North, they would have rightfully been seen as more of the same, but they seemed like a breath of fresh air to voters elsewhere. But this new Democratic machine is bound to be stillborn, and the tasks for socialists in southern cities must include opposing it before it grows.

The inability of the Democrats to enact real change to the material conditions will reveal itself very soon, and a clear alternative must be proposed. In some minds, ethnically and racially diverse populations are a vaccine against racism and white supremacy. According to this theory, we simply have to wait for the coming demographic time-bomb; when whites become a minority in the South, white supremacy will be automatically defeated. But this is a chimera, as the recent Brazilian election showed, in which a population made up of a majority of black and brown people voted for a white supremacist.

In the United States, the same can happen. The failure of reformism can easily bring about a turn towards reactionary politics, as these recent global political developments have illustrated. The Proud Boys, a far-right gang, present themselves as “western chauvinists” instead of explicit white supremacists, and this places them well to pick up spoils in the South, especially as they have gained significant Latinx membership..

But another way is possible, the socialist way. Victories in the South are possible through struggle, as shown by the firefighters of Houston and the teachers of Oklahoma and West Virginia. Material conditions are quickly advancing, but it will require a revolutionary party to coalesce. Building this party is the current challenge of our movement.

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