Monday, March 10, 2008

Why Democrats Should Never Neglect the South

By Cody Lyon

Over the past few generations or so, the deep southern states of Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi have engaged in a sort of pecking order amongst themselves. Georgia people sometimes claim to be more sophisticated and worldly than the folks in Alabama while Alabamians have been known to say, well, at least we’ve got Mississippi.

But, those little put downs are the result of a shared regional psychology that extends back over the years as the South dealt with its many curses including a sense of defeat, the horrific sins of racism, along with a shared sense of defiance and pride in the face of a nation that made no secret of what part of the country was most looked down on.

And, despite dramatic social change over the past few decades and a greater integration into the economic national fold, there are still reasons for southern insecurity that are evidenced through inexcusable and dramatic social ills that should bother the conscience of every American who calls themselves progressive, and there is no place those ills are more evident than Mississippi.

Still, during national elections, the more progressive party, the Democrats, basically write off the South as un-winnable during national elections which in turn, further fuels a sense that parts of this nation have been truly left behind.

It’s as if Democrats gave up on the South after the successful Southern strategy by Republican candidates who first latched onto racism and later pedaled hot button right wing social topics that played well in the Bible Belt, while the truly immoral injustices of economic, health and educational equity continued to fester in many parts of the region.

In truth, it’s almost sad to watch horse race pundit powered Mississippi Democratic political primary coverage as Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton come calling for votes knowing full well that if the past is any indication, once November roles around, Barack and or Hillary probably won’t spend much time in Mississippi, Alabama or Georgia.

National Democratic leaders, inhibited by political strategy have proven lazy, almost timid in their approach to the vast swath of Southern voters who were hijacked by an empty right wing Republican social agenda. Perhaps now the time is right to repackage and aggressively sell a message that embodies the spirit of FDR, or perhaps more recently, John Edwards, a superior inclusive message that trumps the divisive, fear based tactics that have basically prayed upon deeply held beliefs while conveniently serving as political smokescreens that were used to further the economic interests of a few who end up doing more harm in Dixie than polluted dew.

There is no place that could benefit more from a confident progressive agenda than the Magnolia State, Mississippi, a state that year after year finds itself on the receiving end of one bad statistic after another.

For example, according to the American Community Survey, 21.6 percent of Mississippi citizens live below the poverty line.

A July 2007 “Washington Post” article titled “Poverty Tightens Grip on Mississippi Delta” said Fifty-Five percent of households in the tiny community of Coahoma Mississippi earn less than $15,000 a year.

The “Washington Post” article spoke to misperceptions many Americans have about rural areas saying “a lot of people believe it’s got to be cheap to live there (in rural areas) and food has got to be more available. But cheap is relative to income. Your ability to get yourself around is limited. There is no public transportation.”

Adding to the negative news, a June 2007 journal study titled “Preventing Chronic Disease” by Leonard Jack Jr. PhD said 51 percent of rural residents experience poverty levels that are hard for most Americans to imagine. That same report noted that from 2000 to 2003, the number of poor people in Mississippi increased by 38,000 to 456,000.

The 2004 “Kids Count Data Book” found that among the 50 states, Mississippi had the second highest level of children living in poverty with 13 percent living in “extreme” poverty compared to 8 percent nationally.

That sort of poverty translates into a sad report card on the general health of many of the state’s citizens.

In Morgan Quinto’s 2004 State Health Care Rankings that among other factors, looks at access to health care providers, affordable health care services and general health of a state’s population, Mississippi ranked last among all the states.

Adding to that, another report from the U.S. Census Bureau, from 2005 to 2006 found the number of uninsured Mississippi residents rose by 24 percent from 483,000 to 600,000. The number of un-insured children rose by 72 percent from 85,000 to 146,000 placing at the top of the list in the nation for that category.

As it stands today, around 17 percent of Mississippi’s citizens have no health insurance at all.

Another cruel symptom of poverty shows up in dietary choices since eating healthy costs more than high calorie junk food evidenced in Mississippi’s ranking as America’s most obese state with Alabama and Georgia not far behind on the scales.

And despite the hope that the 1954 Brown V Board decision would somehow equalize educational opportunities in the South and elsewhere, de-facto segregation and incredible funding disparities became the norm throughout the south.

Truth be told, this nation has yet to offer any sort of aggressive national public school education policy that seeks to address the epidemic of educational inequity so prevalent and obvious in the deep-south where a few wealthier districts funded by local tax dollars do exceptionally well, while a vast portion do poor in test scores, funding per pupil, drop out rates and other measurable factors. Mississippi education statistics, like much of the south are mind numbing, almost always at or near the bottom, all coupled with the fact that the state is home to one of the nation’s lowest literacy rates.

Still, according to 2004 Manhattan Institute report, Mississippi saw a 62 percent high school graduation rate which tied with Alabama and beat Georgia with its 54 percent rate of successful graduates.

But, that compares to a national average of 71 percent.

Proactive solutions are scarce if teacher pay is an indicator since Mississippi ranks 50th out of the 51 states including the District of Columbia in average teacher salaries.

Of course, a litany of statistics has the potential to bore people or perhaps ignite the usual dismissive, disparaging remarks about the South that are fueled by simplistic and ignorant stereotypes. And that sort of dismissive attitude is precisely when the ugly head of hypocrisy within the Democratic Party political strategy rears its ugly head.

Just miles away from the glass towers and majestic suburbs of places like Atlanta, Birmingham and Jackson are the real and living examples of Southern socio-economic injustice. They are found in countless isolated communities along back roads or in the poor often violent cities. These stories offer up evidence that we operate under a failed system run by a government that has in essence, relegated millions to cultures of poverty that continues to breed psyches of hopelessness and isolation. It is a system sorely lacking a national beacon of hope, direction and real solutions.

It would appear that ambitious programs like the New Deal, the Great Society are long gone, not even any sort of national education policy task force that seeks to target those desperate areas that need it most. Where and when did the Party and America lose its way and become such a fractious divided land where power grabs became the goal of politicians and where the collective goal to elevate all our people seemed to slide to a backburner of national indifference and individual greed.

Shrill tactics by Republicans created a pattern that neutered what should have been an aggressive plan to win Southern voters by offering policy solutions in a region where hope is a distant land that far too many can’t afford to visit. In the South, Democrats long ago failed to call the Republican bluff, and for that they should be ashamed. Perhaps it’s time to once again, explain and actively sell a progressive agenda that tells Southern voters what Democrats can do for them.

Otherwise, if national Democratic leaders continue the pattern of neglect, they are complacent in allowing its problems to fester since much of this region is a living laboratory filled with the ills the Party has long claimed it wanted to cure.

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