Finding our Democratic Voice in the South

I've been involved as a Democratic activist in Mississippi since the 1980's, an opportunity that has afforded me a front row seat to some of the most remarkable changes in American politics. So please pardon me if the most recent round of pundit obituaries for the Democratic Party in the South leave me unconvinced. While we Democrats in the South took some tough losses in last year's elections, and our state party organization in Mississippi has fallen upon hard times, extinction is hardly our inevitable lot.

The Democrats of the South were already at a disadvantage before the 2010 mid-term tsunami, so the "cold" caught by Democrats in the North became "pneumonia" for their colleagues below the Mason Dixon line. As we pick up the debris, though, we must look to the future to rebuild, and we must let the dead past serve as a cautionary tale rather than as a blueprint for rebuilding.

First, let us consider the past. The one-party conservative Democratic dominance of the eleven states of the old Confederacy was a historical anomaly rooted in white reaction to the War and Radical Republican Reconstruction and maintained for nearly ninety years by Jim Crow segregation. The most remarkable phenomenon of the last fifty years of history of the Democratic Party in the South is not the steady decline of Democratic dominance, but rather the fact that the peculiar coalition of convenience between the first two generations of newly-enfranchised African American Democrats and the last two generations of socially conservative rural white Democrats (the political heirs of the old lily-white Democrats) was able to totter along, albeit an emaciated ghost of its former self, well into the first decade of the twenty-first century.

But now, Fox "News" brings its peculiar view of Washington down every country lane, and all politics is no longer local. The tired old grey jenny drowned last November in a sea of TEA.

The Democratic Party has not died in the South. We are simply nearing the end of the fifty-year, multi-generational transition to true two-party democratic competition in a region of the country where it must be remembered that the concept of universal suffrage is only a few decades old. Bear in mind that the politics of the South in many ways has more in common with that of former European colonies that gained their independence in the 1960's than it does with the New England town meeting.

Democracy is still new to the South, and the Democratic Party is going through a metamorphosis as new social dynamics continue to challenge the old order. The rickety old coalition of mistrustful folks who saw the world so differently, and who were frankly united only in a quest for power, has faded into history. We who remain largely share a broad common vision for progress, and as soon as we learn to trust, respect and support each other, we will become a powerful force to be reckoned with. That process is farther along than most observers may believe, and our recently difficulties may actually speed that development. We Democrats in the South will find our way, in our own way and in our own time.

The fact is that the younger Southerners who have come of age in the technology era see politics and society quite differently than do their forebears. As this generation comes into its own, genuine two-party competition will be a natural outcome. There is no doubt that we Democrats have our work cut out for us in the South, but we will find our voice among the coming generations. Democrats always do best when looking toward the future.

Rickey Cole, a farmer and consultant from Ovett, MS has been a Democratic activist in Mississippi since 1982. He was Chairman of the Mississippi Democratic Party 2001-04, and was the 2007 Democratic nominee for state Commissioner of Agriculture and Commerce.