The Last Southern Democrat

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“Daddy was a veteran, a southern democrat,

They oughta get a rich man to vote like that.”

Bob McDill, “Song of the South”

The presidential candidacy of Jim Webb marks, perhaps, the last gasp of that nearly extinct species of politician populus austrinalus, the southern democrat. Webb, a native Missourian, has an impressive record of public service: a marine officer decorated for heroism, the Secretary of the Navy, and Senator from Virginia. His positions are typical of one who is descended from the Scots-Irish: suspicion of overreaching government regulation, a streak of populism, support for military funding coupled with a restraint upon military deployment, and passionate support of the second amendment. Typical too is Webb’s surrender to the progressive social policies of the day; he is after all a politician. But as a politician he is a rare bird indeed in the Democratic Party and finds himself very much on the outside looking in. His complaints regarding the “rigging” of the recent Democratic Party presidential debate may well be true, but it is fundamentally irrelevant. Mr. Webb has almost nothing to say to his party that they would wish to hear.

Webb’s predicament underscores the completion of an ominous trend in American politics. The old southern democrats played vital role in federal politics as the last representatives of anything that resembled Jeffersonian democracy. The group was a much more diverse lot than most believe. People such as Senators Carter Glass, Henry Steagall, James Eastland, Richard Russell, Representatives Millard Tydings and Estes Kefauver, Governor George Wallace, the Dixiecrats, some of the Blue Dog Democrats, and a host of other federal, state and local politicians could all be plausibly grouped under the banner of southern democrat. This is to say that to one degree or another, these people were fiscally conservative, suspicious of Wall Street, favorably inclined toward the military while being somewhat more reserved about using it as an instrument of policy, and at the same time willing to use the power of the federal government to achieve a particular pet end. On desegregation most southern democrats favored a “slow if at all” process, but not all (Kefauver is a notable exception). States’ rights and local governance were certainly rallying cries for many of the southern democrats, but being politicians these principles were often used to serve certain public policy ends rather than to determine the ends of public policy.

A crucial role played by the southern democrats in American politics was one of restraint. Glass, Steagall, and Kefauver all shared a deep suspicion of big capital and its influence on politics and society. All three authored important legislation that attempted to restrain that influence. Senator Richard Russell was a penultimate hawk, yet he was critical of Lyndon Johnson’s intervention in Vietnam and urged caution. Later southern democrats successfully restrained the more radical impulses of their fellow Democrats: Sam Nunn served this role in admirable ways, and even President Bill Clinton, for a brief time, ran a budget surplus and “ended welfare as we know it.” Mr. Clinton, however, also did much to destroy some of the more populist and restraining impulses associated with southern democrats. Clinton’s signed into law the repeal of Glass-Steagall, he welcomed Goldman-Sachs with open arms into the party’s counsels, and he signed NAFTA into law which heralded the age of the global labor market, and the beginning of the end of the blue collar worker, south and north. There is now not one member of the Democratic Party who understands the meaning of the word restraint: fiscally, socially, or militarily. The only exception is Mr. Webb.

Therein lay the problem for Mr. Webb’s candidacy. The southern democrat officeholder is gone; they are now Republicans (who often feel mighty uncomfortable in the party of War and Wall Street), or they are chic and trendy progressives. The loss of the southern democrat meant that the Democratic Party has turned hard left, and it has left Mr. Webb in its wake. This is a pity. While I have many disagreements with Mr. Webb on social policy, I do believe the Democratic Party would be much better off with more folks like him than the strange hybrids of Alexander Hamilton and Saul Alinsky in drag we too often see. Too bad, but when it comes to the old southern democrat impulse I am afraid for Mr. Webb that Bob McDill’s lyrics are prophetic,

“Gone, gone with the wind

There ain’t nobody looking back again.”

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3 thoughts on “The Last Southern Democrat

  1. Mr. Devanny,

    My father remember the struggle within his own family as they tried to rationalize what they thought were the historical positions of the Democratic Party with the emerging progressivism within the party in the era of Wilson, an era which began just before my father’s birth and which continued into and through the New Deal with many but certainly not all impoverished Southerners buying into the promises. The year before my birth in 1948, daddy became a Dixiecrat. He reluctantly voted for Eisenhower in 52 and Ike again in 56. In 60, he voted reluctantly for Nixon. In 64 for Goldwater. In 68, he voted for Wallace. After 68, he reluctantly bought into the “Southern Strategy” of Nixon. By 1972, with the nomination of McGovern, daddy concluded that the Democrats had totally abandoned the South. So did many other Southerners. Daddy always held that the South should have broken with both parties in 1948 with a new Southern oriented party based on the old Democratic infrastructure. This may not have been possible, but he saw the error in supporting the Party of Lincoln.

  2. Dear Mr. Peters,
    A similar situation to the one you describe confronted many of the old “God and Country” Democrats from Catholic backgrounds in the North. Together with Southern Democrats, many of these folks were Wallace supporters, and later turned toward the Republicans in 1980. This species, like the Southern Democrat, is all but extinct–my own father was one of them. Who, by the way, always had an admiration for things southern and by the end of his life had come around to the southern view of things. Like most border state folk, I saw the whole War Between the States play out at supper time on occasion–my father teasing my mother with a short rendition of “Marching through Georgia” and she calling him a “damn yankee.” The old alliance between Southern Democrats and God and Country Democrats was, on the whole, a good one. T’is a pity it is no more.

  3. I’ve been reading obituaries for the Southern Democrat for nearly thirty years now, and almost always someone like Webb comes along to prove the Jeffersonian impulse is still alive in the party he – Jefferson – founded.

    What goes around comes around.

    But, Lord, don’t we love a good eulogy down South?

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