Democrats Can Do Better in the South—But They Have to Try

Nixon’s Southern Strategy reached its apotheosis in Trump. The Democrats can fight back, but they have to show up—and stick around.

Jim Watson/Getty Images

Since Richard Nixon’s presidency, Republicans have focused on a Southern Strategy, which has steadily chipped away at white working-class support for Democratic policies. The goal was to provoke white resentment toward the federal government, where blacks have been successful in pushing for reform in education, housing, voting, and employment discrimination.

Yet until Donald Trump’s success using blunt, racist discourse, the Southern Strategy had won by generating antipathy toward people of color, foreigners, and others with coded terms like “states’ rights,” “border control,” and “government overreach.” How can the Democrats counter this? The only way they’re going to win is to play the “states’ rights game” by competing consistently and personalizing politics by connecting individuals to issues in which they have a stake and can make a difference.

Trump’s victory is all the more frustrating because demographically, Democrats should be leading in far more states than they are. Instead, Democratic missteps have presented us with a disproportionate electoral map favoring Republicans. Republicans have long been sanguine about controlling state legislatures, and they have concocted voting and redistricting laws to maintain their primacy. With their successes in the 2010 midterm elections, the Republicans got to work solidifying their grip on state power. By the 2016 election, the party of liberty and states’ rights had enacted strict new voting laws in time to suppress the vote in 14 states (and 20 in total since 2010).

There are numerous ways to channel your energy to help Democratic Party regain its footing, including a few outlined below. Find out who represents you at the local, state, and federal levels. Learn about races in your area and how you can help. Democrats tend to flock to urban areas, even in conservative states, so it should not be difficult for most to find affinity organizations to direct your efforts.


Redistricting is certain to receive plenty of attention, because it factors explicitly in Democratic woes. Texas, like many national political issues, is endemic of the problem. There, some congressional districts are so awkwardly drawn to dilute the voting power of Democrats so that 25 of the state’s 36 representatives are Republicans. To address this, President Obama and Eric Holder will lead redistricting efforts through National Democratic Redistricting Committee (still in formation) to prepare for the 2020 census to address the electoral map imbalance. Such action is crucial to Democratic chances at the state and national levels.

Addressing Voting Restrictions

To understand why Democrats lose electorally, again, look no further than Texas. In a majority-minority state where Democrats should be winning (or as least coming much closer), they lose consistently, in part because of Republican-led restrictive voter registration requirements. Texas legislators got to work within hours after the Supreme Court weakened the Voting Rights Act in 2013. To establish the “need” for a new law, Texas had prosecuted one case of voter fraud out of 46 million ballots cast over an eight-year period. (Even more frustrating, the case involved a man who shared the exact name as his deceased father.) The new law requires government-issued ID the poor are less likely to have and threatens anyone voting illegally with imprisonment. Its effect discourages many from even bothering to vote. Many states enacted similar restrictions.

The Brennan Center at NYU Law School researches voting restrictions nationally and serves as an excellent resource to learn more about the issues. As it notes, Oregon should serve as a national model that voter registration should and can be automatic, obviating the need for time-consuming voter drives. (New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced last week a move to make early voting and automatic registration available in New York.) Democrats must persist in fighting for reforms.

Think voter restrictions aren’t about race? Think again. Pasadena, Texas, a Houston suburb, is 62 percent Hispanic, but whites outnumber Hispanics 5-3 on the city council because of gerrymandering. (Until recently, it was 7-1, before organizing efforts.) Fundamental services like roads, medians, parks, and Christmas lights make Pasadena look literally like two different cities between the Hispanic north side and the white south side of town. Grassroots efforts that included discussing personal issues (like how bleak the north side of the city looked compared to the south side) convinced residents voting has a direct effect on their lives.

Electoral College Reform

If you’re like many Democrats, you are probably deeply disturbed that Hillary Clinton was overwhelmingly popularly elected but is not president. This was the fifth occasion of such an outcome. The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact seeks to circumvent a constitutional amendment to abolish the Electoral College. The goal is to get enough states (equal to 270 electoral votes) to sign the binding compact whereby the presidential candidate who wins the national popular vote would win the state’s electoral votes. Currently, 11 Democratic-leaning states with 165 electoral votes have ratified the agreement. Optimistically, Republican-led states like Arizona and Oklahoma are in agreement in principle and working to approve it as well.

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Spend Time in Working-Class Communities

Working-class Americans of all backgrounds feel low political efficacy and consequently do not vote. Such apathy has implications for who represents a city or state. Republicans recognize this and take active measures to suppress voter participation. In San Antonio, for example, where there are nearly 700,000 registered voters, fewer than 100,000 voted in the 2015 mayoral race. Translate this dismal turnout to the state level and it’s easy to see why Republicans win. If everyone currently registered in Texas had voted based on voting patterns, Hillary Clinton could have won the state. As Pasadena, Texas, demonstrates, Democrats must sustain community engagement efforts, talking to constituents about roads, safety, wages, college affordability, and issues of basic equity that affect voters personally.

Our federalist system of government is complicated--just the way many obstructionists want it. As a result, it is easy to feel overwhelmed about how to get involved. By focusing on one or two issues you care about, you can help raise our prospects in future elections. As we brace for a Trump presidency, we must organize. One-day marches raise visibility, but success requires sustained advocacy. Those of us who are dismayed the political landscape must get involved in local and state efforts to reverse these fortunes. It’s the only way we can compete. These are states’ rights and a Southern strategy many of us could support.