Why Democrats Have Trouble in the South (or why we have red states)

[This is more of an op-ed piece than regular blog post]

John Kerry said a Democrat can win the Presidency without winning a single southern state. That prompted a friend of mine to call me and ask me why the Democrats had such a tough time in the south.

After much thought I think I have the answer and I think it might even help explain the blue state / red state divide.

Southern folks are far more impressed by deeds than words. I had a life-long friend from Oklahoma who had a saying when a planning session ran long. He would say, “Let’s do something, even if it’s wrong.” It was his humorous, chiding way to move things along. His point was that the task at hand would never get done without taking action and to a man who woke up at 5 am to milk the cows before going to elementary school, getting things done was vitally important.

This is part of the core ethic that separates both groups. Generically speaking, people in the blue states get paid to talk. People in the red states get paid to do.

That subtle difference pervades all parts of politics.

On national security it might be a fair criticism of southerners to say they often want to “Shoot first and ask questions later.” Conversely, too many northerners can be criticized for failing to accept that sometimes the time for words has ended and the time for military action is upon us.

Businesspeople in the north produce things like “proposals” and “meetings.” In short, they produce words. Many of these purveyors of words are educated and knowledgeable but at the end of the day, not too capable in the real world. Presented with a leaky faucet or a ill mannered automobile they turn to the telephone not the toolbox.

Business in the fly-over states is different. For many it involves producing a product not a sentence. These people tend to be more self-sufficient and more action oriented. If the kids at a local school can’t read, the solution is not to throw more money at it and set up a “program” to help the kids, The solution is to fire the damn teacher and get one who can teach. If someone commits a murder, skip the social worker telling us what a hard life he had, throw him in jail.

These differences help explain how modern Presidents have been treated by people from both regions.

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Reagan was routinely bashed because he had not said the word “AIDS” in public. As if the President of the United States could cure a disease with a simple utterance.

Clinton was wildly popular to many because he spoke so well about lofty goals. For many, just speaking about something was akin to action. Clinton understood the south and it was obvious every time he spoke. Every speech he gave (and it is true to this day) he told people what he had done. He was the “first President to blah blah blah etc”. In his first address from the oval office, he broke his promise of a middle class tax cut by saying “I’ve worked harder than I’ve ever worked in my life to meet that goal…” He was going to raise taxes on the middle class but he wanted to stress his action.

Bush is more popular to southerners because, love him or hate him, he is a man of deeds not words. The immigration issue has been a problem for decades and the answer from all the previous administrations was to ignore it. Whether you agree with his policy or not, Bush does get credit for doing something about it.

People in the north mock the way Bush speaks. People in the south will tell you what he has done.

Indeed, one of the things that most infuriates Bush’s critics is that he DOES things. They call it cocky, arrogant or accuse him of having a “swagger” but the real problem is that he does things without talking them to death. Indeed the favorite charge that he acted “unilaterally” defines the fact that he is blamed for acting and not talking.

All this adds up to problems for a party whose solutions generally revolve around increased bureaucracy. To be sure, the world needs both talkers and doers. I’m not here to say one is better than the other. Certainly there are plumbers in New York city and paper pushers in the south but overall there is a geographical separation large enough to swing elections.

If you want to know why John Kerry and other liberals selling bureaucracy in the south have a hard time of it, never discount that the doers of the world are more interested in the deeds than the words. As long as Democrats are perceived as talkers and not doers they will have a tougher time in the south.


As John Lennon said: “On behalf of the band and myself, I hope we passed the audition.”

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  1. Jim January 30, 2004
  2. Kevin January 30, 2004
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