Both parties are battling for the South — but the South wants something in return

Donald Trump at the Freedom Summit, a right-wing conference in Greenville, South Carolina, in May 2015. Photo courtesy Michael Vadon.

For what is arguably the first time in 50 years, the American South is poised to play an unpredictable and decisive role in this presidential election. The region has already shaped the general election: Both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton solidified primary victories there. Last month, Scalawag and The Nation co-hosted a panel discussion addressing the politics of the South, its history, and its role this year’s election.

The panel included Elizabeth Bruenig, a Texas native and editor covering politics and religion at The Washington Post; Kareem Crayton, a scholar and political consultant who teaches law at Vanderbilt University; Josie Duffy, an Atlanta-native trained attorney turned staff writer at The Daily Kos; and Jake McGraw, public-policy coordinator at the William Winter Institute at the University of Mississippi. Moderating the conversation was Jesse Williams, co-founder and editor in chief of Scalawag.

How the GOP Lost Its Grip

JESSE WILLIAMS: Kareem, I was going to start with you, actually. This primary cycle, people talked about the South as the place where Sanders needed—and failed—to beat Hillary, and where Cruz needed and largely failed to beat Donald Trump. Is that saying the South was decisive in these primaries overstating its role?

KAREEM CRAYTON: The South has been crucial for two different reasons, but the narratives on both the Democratic and Republican side are pretty accurate. On the Democratic side, the winner of the nomination contest is usually the person who can get traction in the South, often in the Deep South. That’s heavily dependent on appeal to African-American voters.

For Republicans, the South is one of, if not the, bedrock location, Trump surprised a lot of people there. I often think back to the moment in August of 2015 where Trump visited Mobile, in southern Alabama. Trump was able to fill a football stadium located 30 minutes from the panhandle of Florida—which is right in the heart of what most social conservatives would say is the epicenter of their support. It seemed to me that Trump's strong showing there was a big warning sign, for Jeb and Senator Rubio as much as for Senator Cruz, all of whom I think were basing their strategies on capturing some share of southern Republican voters.

So in both those respects I think you can establish the South as being crucial to outcomes in both parties.

JW: Jake, you’re in Mississippi, not all that far from Mobile. How does that resonate for you?

JAKE MCGRAW: I’ve been trying to figure out the best way to wrap my head around it. In the Mississippi primary, Trump won what was almost his largest share of the vote up to that point. He hadn’t yet eclipsed 50 percent, but he got 47 percent in Mississippi. What was interesting was that we had a very clear divide between the Republican “establishment” in this state and the actual outcome of the primary. Kasich was very successful in locking up a lot of the most prominent members of the Mississippi Republican Party. Kasich spent a lot of time here; he actually came down the week before the primary and showed up at a Republican Party fundraiser here for the state party, whereas Trump had maybe one or two rallies.

Yet Trump beat Kasich by an enormous margin. To understand this, it’s interesting to take a wider sort of historical lens. About 88 percent of white voters have voted for the Republican candidate in the last two presidential elections. That’s almost exactly the same share of the vote that Barry Goldwater got here in 1964, campaigning largely on his opposition to the Civil Rights Act. Goldwater was the first Republican to carry the state since Reconstruction. So, in an extreme way, white identity is bound up in the formation and perpetuation of the state GOP, and there is still a sizable constituency willing to back the candidate who most directly appeals to white resentment—even if the party’s public figures choose to steer clear.

There have been a lot of comparisons to George Wallace, the Alabama segregationist who won Mississippi in 1968 as an independent candidate, but it’s Goldwater and Ronald Reagan who really wrote the modern white resentment playbook. Reagan famously came to the Neshoba County Fair in 1980, just miles from where the Mississippi Burning murders took place in 1964, to kick off his general-election campaign with a states’ rights speech. So I think Trump, despite feeling new, actually falls into a very old pattern in Mississippi political history. On the other side, Clinton has regional ties, and she clearly did very well with the African-American vote in this state, which makes up three-quarters of the Democratic Party in the state.

JW: I would love to zoom in on this point about white resentment. People have talked about the link between Donald Trump and the Southern strategy—the race-baiting strategy that built Republican dominance in the South and seems to predict Trump’s success there. But some of Trump’s largest wins in Republican primaries have been in Northeastern states. Is the South no longer the stronghold of white resentment in America?

ELIZABETH BRUENIG: Trump has a sort of multifarious appeal to white voters who feel disenfranchised. On one hand you have the population in the Northeast responding to Trump’s rhetoric about immigrants’ having taken jobs or jobs have been outsourced. All these places have gone through major shifts in industry.

In the South, people have not been as affected by shifts in the economy. Constituencies in the South [and Midwestern] white voters have different complaints. There are more evangelicals [in the Midwest] responding to Trump’s rhetoric about political correctness and about a former version of America: a kind of nostalgia vote. It’s true that white evangelicals have a history of racism, and there is a racialized component to white evangelicals and their unity with the GOP. The historian Randall Balmer lays that out really well in a piece he just did for The Washington Post about the genesis of the religious right at Bob Jones University, which has been fighting the government on immigration. So it’s possible that these evangelical voters (who turned away from kind of evangelical favorites like Ted Cruz, toward Donald Trump) are responding to slightly different things than some of the disenfranchised white working-class voters in the Midwest and Northeast, but it all comes together to form one picture of white voters who feel they’ve lost their grip on the America they want.

KC: I’d also point out that some of this effect is frustration with the Republican Party as an institution, much in the same fashion that Bernie Sanders has articulated frustration with the Democratic Party. Trump has made the clearest argument for the failure of the Republican Party to make good on many of the promises that its candidates have made. On one level his rhetoric builds on the foundation of the Reagan formula of joining social conservatism with economic conservatism. But I think what Trump has also pointed out is that Republican candidates have basically sold out the Reagan Republican voters. There are real and tangible ways in which the Republican Party is not delivering the kind of improvement and progress that its supporters had expected.

JM: Something I find interesting to think about particularly is Trump’s support in rural areas. His method of campaigning seems to be able to get the most direct engagement with rural dispersed voters. He found a way to reach voters that other campaigns cannot. The traditional organizing we saw with the Cruz campaign was not going to be effective in really dispersed turf. But neither will the sort of 21st-century digital campaigning—I speak with sort of specific knowledge about Mississippi, which in addition to being the fourth-most-rural state in the country is also the least connected in terms of the Internet. But everyone has a TV. If you’re a candidate and you want talk to voters that live outside of the cities and suburbs, one of your most effective tools of communication is going to be cable news.

KC: One of the fascinating parts of the Trump strategy has been that in some ways it actually reaches back to the 1800s style of campaigning. By that I mean—in addition to all the things Jake rightly mentioned—what Trump has figured out how to do (in ways that I don’t know if anyone else on the Republican side figured out) is put rallies together in very rural areas, and make his rallies the point of his message. Those moments are performances, and are appealing in that old Southern way. You can almost imagine the candidate taking the whistle-stop train tour from small town to small town revving people up. Trump has done that in ways even George W. Bush at his height didn’t do. Bush certainly had big rallies, but it was not the kind of performance you see out of Trump. From just a stagecraft perspective, there is an interesting symmetry between the kind of showmanship you see in person at these big Trump rallies and his use of multimedia. I don’t see anyone working both at the high and low levels of technology like that.

JW: This is fascinating, and I would love to talk with you guys about Trump and the South all day. I want to move onto the Democratic primary. Before I do, I just want to come back to one thing, Liz, that you raised earlier, which has been talked about as the key factor in the decisiveness of the South in the Republican primary, which is Trump beating Cruz with evangelical voters. Did he? Is the South not as religious as people say it is anymore?

EB: At the end of the day Donald Trump did beat Cruz with evangelicals, but never with absurd margins. Religious leaders didn’t feel: We’ve lost control of the flock. In those early southern primaries and a lot of cases, he would win 35, 36 percent of evangelicals and Cruz would come in pretty close. That was more than anyone thought Trump should have been able to win. Cruz’s campaign from the very beginning was counting on the groundswell of evangelical support, not only to kind of carry him to the nomination, but to give him momentum in those early Southern primaries. South Carolina and then moving through Super Tuesday, he was really hoping to get evangelical voters out. A lot of his early campaign rhetoric focused on encouraging evangelicals to come to the polls and they did. Voter turnout was very high. The difficulty for Cruz was they just didn’t vote for him.

Prior to this campaign season there was a certain way that you had to reach voters: through pastors that ran big networks. So people like Billy Graham or Jerry Falwell who had large networks of churches and church leaders who listened to them, Southern Baptist conventions, and Trump didn’t bother with any of that. He reached them through right-wing television and talk radio. And that’s a monster that the right wing has been making for a while by calling mainstream media liars and generally sowing institutional distrust. We saw the apotheosis of that with evangelicals saying, I don’t need to listen to the big pastors, I don’t need to listen to the big names, I can just listen to the radio networks and television networks I already listen to. And a lot of them were supportive of Trump. People like Sean Hannity. I don’t know if the Republican Party will ever snap back from that. They don’t have evangelicals at their beck and call like they thought they would.

JW: I said we’d move on but this just leads me to another question. The last several comments have been about electoral mechanics—the way that campaigns reach voters procedurally—but we’ve also talked some about Trump’s messaging and the way that that resonated with people. There has been conversation that suggests that Cruz’s appeals to evangelical issues just don’t resonate in the same way that they used to. Do you buy that? How much is this about mechanics versus actual messaging?

KC: The folks at Team Cruz were as good as you could find on either side of the aisle in terms of utilizing the traditional campaign structure. It’s just that they were playing analog in a digital world. It turns out that this is an election that was substantially anti-institutional. And for all of Cruz’s efforts, he was a member of the US Senate, and it turns out there was an option on the ballot that was even more anti-institutional than he was. So in that respect I think it really was maybe as much about the messenger as the message.

EB: Trump had this story—so appealing to evangelicals—that went “yeah, I give money to all the campaigns, but I’m here to pull back the curtain and show you how it works.” I think that appealed to evangelicals in the South because they have voiced frustration with the GOP for a while now. You look at the issues that are important to evangelicals—same sex-marriage and abortion—and despite a couple terms of George W. Bush, they haven’t had the success they wanted on the national level, successes like permanently restricting same-sex marriage or overturning Roe v. Wade. And you can hear evangelical leaders talking about their frustration. They come out to vote, they give money, and they don’t get what they want from their presidential candidates. And Trump was willing to say, “I’ll tell you exactly why that is. I’ll tell you why nothing gets done. I’ll tell you why your politicians lie to you. It’s because people like me are buying you off.” And he was able to implicate Cruz, just as Kareem was saying, in the same Washington cartel that Cruz himself routinely criticized. So he was at least able to represent himself as the person who understood and was telling the truth about why things weren’t changing.

KC: And Liz in some ways—Trump could situate himself in the same position as that evangelical voter that you describe who has given their vote, given their money, for stock in Washington that they don’t think they’re getting dividends from. That message in some ways is saying, "I’m just like you guys," which again, stretches logic in a number of ways, but you can see the appeal behind it if you’re frustrated with Washington and you see a candidate who says, not only have I been where you are, I think I have an answer to solve this problem.

EB: It strains credulity that it would be someone like Trump who would manage to pull the evangelical vote, given his past. He’s been many times divorced, remarried, profits off of strip joints, is just about the least evangelical-acting person you can imagine, but like you said, he was able to capitalize on that frustration, by taking that position himself.

JM: I think that when he got the Jerry Falwell Jr. endorsement, his quote that we’re not electing a Sunday school teacher, we’re electing a president, sort of gave the vocabulary, and gave a bit of license to support Trump if you’re evangelical. If you start with the assumption that government power is corrupting, then sending the most pure person into the system, the person that shares your faith the most, is not the most effective way to achieve the outcomes that you want.

EB: And that’s a major departure from the way we’ve seen Republicans campaign in the past. It’s very different than Cruz, who positions himself as a true believer. And I believe that about Ted Cruz. I think he’s really genuine about his religious beliefs and his moral commitment. So is Ben Carson and even going back to Bush—but I’m not sure that’s going to be the strategy in the South moving forward for Republicans. I don’t know if anyone will come back to the South with that kind of pastorly cadence in their speech and a message about their own personal character, because this time it was just so obviously not the way that it was going. So this might represent a permanent shift in how the South vets its candidates.

Bernie’s Revolution Stalls in the South

JW: An analogue of this does seem to translate to the Democratic primary, where in some conversations Clinton has been billed as perhaps less than a true believer, but nonetheless a skilled and potent pragmatist. Let’s talk a little bit about the Democratic primary in the South. If we were going to be making analogies, the group that Clinton won with that Sanders really needed would be Southern blacks. Do you all think that that assertion that Sanders both needed and failed to win among Southern blacks is borne out by polling data?

KC: The polling data definitely confirms that. There are other groups that have a part in the Clinton coalition, but within the South essentially African Americans gave to Clinton what African Americans gave to Obama in 2008—and that was a set of lopsided wins, creating a lead in convention delegates that would be ultimately insurmountable. You can’t play catch up if you can't similarly win lopsided votes in other states. And that was not something available to Sanders, whose biggest wins were mostly caucus states.

JW: Why did Sanders drop the ball? Was this Sanders dropping the ball? Or was it Clinton’s latent strength?

EB: Part of it might have been a failure on Sanders’s part to reach black voters. Then on the other hand you just have the positive interest in the Clintons. And you know one of the theories that has been advanced is that the Clintons have spent years building relationships with black voters in the South, and when the time came they put the time and effort into those states and talking with those communities and it showed.

JM: What also showed is the extent to which she’s repaired her relationship with President Obama, at least in the eyes of President Obama’s supporters, being a sort of loyal and faithful partner and member of the cabinet. It went a long way toward healing wounds from 2008, to even making her the heir apparent to the organization. Again, I speak with specific knowledge of Mississippi. Every sort of leading elected official lined up behind Hillary Clinton very early on and never wavered, so even though Sanders did have surrogates working in Mississippi, they were national surrogates. There weren’t people with local ties and the political machinery here, where the black institutional machinery is still pretty powerful. Hillary’s ability to take the keys to that organization made it almost insurmountable for Sanders.

JW: I’m going take advantage of this pause to call in Josie Duffy.

JOSIE DUFFY: I was circling Atlanta for the last two hours, but I’m glad to be here! Thank you, guys.

JW: Welcome to Atlanta. We were just talking about the Democratic primary in the South and why Bernie Sanders failed to win among black voters. Kareem, I was going to direct another question to you, and Josie, this might be something you can speak to as well. Sanders won a larger share of the black vote in the Midwest than he did in the South: more than 30 percent of black Democratic primary voters in Wisconsin, compared to less than 15 percent in South Carolina. What’s going on there?

KC: One big difference between the South and the Midwest is the different set of institutions that drive politics or political organization. In the South, it’s a far more traditional church-focused organization that’s the core of the Democratic Party. In the Midwest, you get a very different institutional setup. The party itself does a lot of organizing, and it’s a much different and more urbanized crowd that Sanders was able to play into better. There’s also more relative discontent with the Democratic establishment in cities of the Midwest like Detroit and Milwaukee—in ways that it just didn’t match in the South.

The difference also has to do with that point about surrogates, which I think Jake mentioned earlier. Bernie Sanders didn’t really have a lot of surrogates in the South who had the kind of bona fides that would appeal to long-time black voters. Again, the Democratic power brokers you find in the South include a lot of local elected politicians, ministers—those are folks who were with Hillary Clinton and have been with her for a long time. But in the cities of the Midwest, with more varied centers of power and influence, the ideas that Sanders pitched about economic opportunity and finding new ways of making government more responsive—in particular his attention to [organized] labor—were arguments that tended to find more traction.

JD: There’s another thing in play here; there is a view of people in the South as “lesser than.” I don’t think Sanders has espoused this himself, but I do think that it has come from a lot of his close supporters, and it didn’t play well. Hillary Clinton actually does a pretty good job of explaining things in a way that sounds like you could figure it out yourself. That’s something that Obama has too. Whereas with Sanders, a lot of voters I know here (I’m from Georgia) really feel like they were being talked down to. It’s hard to articulate exactly how that transpired, I think that has a big influence. Sanders didn’t really try in the South. So even though a lot of black voters probably prefer Bernie Sanders’s policies, she’s the devil we know. After the past eight years of Obama, a lot of people here are pretty disillusioned; they now think that the presidency has less potential than they thought—and they may be unwilling to get their hopes up again as well.

JM: Based on conversations I’ve had, it seems like Southern people on the left, particularly African-American voters, put primary importance on retaining the White House. Southern statehouses and governor’s mansions have been taken over by Republicans, such that the administration is basically the last line of defense—having the Justice Department there to try to block as best they can, for example, the rollbacks in voting rights. So there’s a real premium on electability, and not only are people sort of familiar with the Clintons, but they know that they’re politically competent enough to get elected. They’ve seen it before.

EB: I think electability is very important, and then I also think President Obama’s legacy specifically matters quite a bit in the South. There was a real question in the media as to whether or not a black candidate could make it to the White House. He did. He has gone through a tremendously difficult time during his administration, but even so he’s introduced a lot of reforms which, if perfected and expanded, could constitute a really, really strong legacy for our first black president. And I can understand how Sanders rhetoric about the failures of the Affordable Care Act, you know, for instance some of the problems of Obama’s administration might come off as an attack on that legacy. Clinton’s rhetoric, by contrast, has done well with voters who say they want to preserve the reforms that President Obama was pushing for.

KC: It’s not every day that you can come into the South as a Senator from a Northeastern state, a largely white state, and in front a group of people who don’t know you make an argument largely about class. That has really been Sanders’s point throughout this election and he hasn’t really modulated it much to his different audiences. But this is traditionally one of the challenging parts of Southern politics, especially for newcomers. There clearly is a connection between race and class in the South, but our politics are not usually treated with a language that appreciates that complex relationship. You know, poverty here has both a white and a black component to it, and I don’t think that Sanders ever really figured out how to articulate that in a manner that appealed to African Americans.

One of the elements of race that makes it such a potent feature of our politics is of course that for African Americans it doesn’t matter what your class is in certain settings—particularly engagement with the police. When you’re pulled over and harassed unnecessarily, it’s not to say there aren’t class features relevant to that, but that’s primarily viewed through the lens of a racial concern, and I don’t think that Sanders ever figured out how to talk that way. Again, he enlisted surrogates that try to do that, but I don’t think they were surrogates that actually had bona fides in the South. That’s for me the most crucial piece that was the impediment, aside from all the organizing which he certainly didn’t might have done more of. He just wasn’t operating with a language that was effective in a lot of these communities.

JW: I’m very interested in this question of tone as it relates to race and Josie, as you mentioned, it’s also more than that in the sense that it’s about speaking down to Southern Democratic voters perhaps across the board. Josie, do you think that this issue of speaking to the South correctly does transcend the question of race?

JD: The short answer is no. Sanders just didn’t seem to know; he didn’t seem to do his research; he didn’t seem to have a good idea of the South. Just basic things: that the South is a complicated place; it’s a changing place; 55 percent of black people live in the South—it just didn’t seem like Sanders’s rhetoric reflected an understanding of these things. Sanders has gotten a not-negligible amount of black support, especially among younger generations, even in the South. But a lot of Sanders supporters are part of a demographic that is totally ignorant about what it’s like to be black and be over 30 in the South.

But another problem I think that Sanders has with black voters—especially in the South—is that sometimes his rhetoric can get really close to a kind of white entitlement. It’s a reason that people couldn’t always relate to Occupy Wall Street, too: it sort of sounded like, we (i.e., white people) deserve this. It’s not that the policies themselves are entitled. I align with those policies more than with those of any other candidate, but there’s something about the way it’s framed and phrased and sold that is really off-putting to people who have spent their entire lives handling similar kinds of white entitlement. No one has done more of that than black voters in the South.

JW: In the past 40 years of national politics, national presidential elections at least, the South’s role has mostly alternated between predictable and trivial—or both. Is this going to be different in election 2016? Is the South a contested space?

KC:: One answer to that is “define the South.” Depending on how broadly you define it, the region certainly could be contested. The “peripheral” South—places like North Carolina and Virginia, central Florida if you count it—those places are usually in play. But whether deeper parts of the South—say, Tennessee or perhaps Arkansas—might be more in play than before? I’m doubtful that those red states will turn, but the margins may be closer. I think that Trump will figure out quickly how to consolidate the same core voters that have been necessary to secure a Republican majority in the previous contests. It’s in those sort of more peripheral areas—you can add Missouri to the list—that Clinton may be able to win in a very tight contest.

EB: Part of the issue will also just be the turnout rate in the general election. In the primaries, there has been sort of extraordinary GOP turnout. It’s hard to know if that was people struggling against Trump, or if that was people invigorated by Trump, or if it was a little bit by both. But turnout on the Democratic side is pretty disappointing. So while there has been some aspirational talk about Texas maybe going blue, that seems far-fetched even on the most optimistic bets. I don’t see it happening this time around.

JW: Kareem, when you were talking about defining the South, you said that so-called “peripheral” Southern states like Virginia and North Carolina might be in play—it’s interesting to me that even in the language there, states become less Southern as they become more available to Democrats. In the future, of course, much of the South will become more Democratic as demographics change. So what do you think does define the South in this particular context? Is North Carolina or Georgia meaningfully less Southern?

KC: Well, that’s a complex question. The South is defined by both history and geography. A number of these states have had tremendous booms lately, both economically and in terms of the number of people coming from other parts of the country. In North Carolina, where I used to live, you’d see counties that doubled in size due in part to people moving from places like New Jersey and New York. Northern Virginia looks like a far more cosmopolitan area than it was even 10 years ago it was. And there are many people coming from Central America and settling as well, further changing the composition in many parts of these states. The Research Triangle in North Carolina is another site of a lot of this kind of growth.

Changing demographics change not just the demands on state government, but also the set of interests that go into statewide elections. So in that respect I think these states are becoming—I don’t know if I would say less Southern—but the definition of “Southern” has definitely required adjustment and transformation. These days you’ll see Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s in places where you didn’t used to expect them—and you’ll also see a carniceria and soccer fields. In that respect much of the old South is becoming more representative of what an emergent majority looks like in the rest of the country—as compared to a stable, largely black and white population that exists elsewhere in the Deep South.

But as much as these changes offer the possibility for a transformation, it’s important to note that in all of these states, as was hinted earlier by Jake, there are a number of efforts in state legislatures, which are currently controlled by Republicans, to maintain the Republican control. That’s being done not just through redistricting, but also through the passage of laws to change the election system. So it becomes harder for new voters to register, there are fewer places to cast ballots, or there are fewer days on which you can register, or there are new requirements about what you bring to the ballot box to get a ballot. There’s ample evidence to show that these changes affect certain populations—particularly people of color, but younger voters as well—more than others.

JW: Josie, I wonder what you think about the historical parallels that have been made between the activity of some of those legislatures, the way they seek confrontation with federal courts on civil rights, the refusal to expand Medicaid, the opposition to federal authority in general—and older doctrines of massive resistance or even nullification. Do those parallels seem legitimate? Is there a direct lineage?

JD: I think there are huge parallels there. A lot of the work I was doing up until now was about the ways that folks were kept from the ballot box. When you talk to people who are fighting for these voting restrictions in the courtroom, the most you can get them to do is admit it’s politics. There are a lot of people on the right who want to electorally erase those communities, and know that they can win races if they keep black people home. What that translates to obviously is racism and racist policy.

One project I’m working on right now is gerrymandering (especially when it comes to DA elections), and how 90 percent of districts in America are drawn to be mostly white, even though that doesn’t obviously reflect the actual demographic. Voting restrictions become more extreme in cycles that align with redistricting, and this process repeats itself. And a lot of these court cases challenging gerrymandering are heard by state judges who also have their own and often very vocal right-wing politics. It’s kind of inescapable. It’s hard to find a safe space to address voter disenfranchisement with some reasonableness.

JW: What’s the path forward for the Democratic Party in the South? I mean that both in terms of addressing the voter suppression that’s moving through state legislatures, and as you said, Josie, is insidious in the way that it’s become difficult to address in courts—and in more general terms of winning state legislatures back from the Republican party? Is there a path forward in 2016 or is this a longer game?

EB: I think it’s a long game. Part of the key for the Democratic Party after 2016 will be making sure that the young people, the millennials that Bernie Sanders picked up, stay engaged. The party needs to make sure those young voters who’ve come to Democratic politics or have voted for the first time are able to stay energized and feel like there’s at least some chance of their vision getting integrated with the party platform. Maybe some of that will happen at the convention, but if it doesn’t I think that there will have to be a lot of state-level grassroots organizing to keep those young people coming out to midterms and voting.

JM: Yeah, here in Mississippi, our state elections are a year prior to the presidential election, which is very convenient for the Republican Party, because it generally produces a whiter and more affluent electorate. I think that the change that’s going to happen here is going to be top-down. I think we’re going to be in play on the presidential level long before we are on the state level, especially if the Republicans continue to consolidate their hold on who gets to vote, how they get to vote, where they get to vote. There is not a single black office holder in statewide office. We have three regional public service commissioners and three transportation commissioners; none of them are black. One of nine elected Supreme Court justices is black, and earlier this year the Republican super-majority just so happened to try to tinker with his district—to put a majority white county in there to dilute the slim black majority that existed. This almost enhances the importance for Democrats in this state to think about who the most electable Democratic presidential candidate is—to make sure that federal government of actively enforcing the voting-rights laws that we have, and hopefully passing stronger voting-rights protections.

But I think there’s an interesting generational gap in Mississippi politics and I think it’s probably present in a lot of Southern states, but Mississippi sort of forms the extreme. Romney carried Mississippi by more than 11 points in 2012, but if you look at the exit polling, you see that most of his margin came from voters over the age of 65, who gave him 78 percent of the vote. Only 52 percent of the rest of the electorate voted for Romney, and Obama actually won 55 percent of the voters under 30. So you have this extremely conservative and over-leveraged part of the electorate that is for maintaining the white Republican hegemony. That’s clearly going to change and it’s going change much more quickly than people expect—there’s a generational cliff. I think the open question is just who’s going set the ground rules for how political power is decided and shared in the years to come.

JW: I realize we’re coming up on time here. I just want to tie a bow on the last segment of this conversation just by returning to you, Josie, to ask about the path forward on voting rights in the South.

JD: One step forward will be confronting laws that disenfranchise the formerly incarcerated. The way that we pathologize people who have been convicted of criminal offenses is reflected in the fact that we tell them that they can never vote ever again in many states. This is really outrageous when you think about it.

Now if you look at Maryland and Virginia [both of which recently passed laws enfranchising convicted felons], I have a lot of hope for voting rights in those states, because huge groups of people now have the capacity to vote again. More than that, I think these victories help the momentum of the cause of enfranchisement generally. They indicate that it’s possible to get something accomplished.

When it comes to voting restrictions it’s just—it’s really tough. I don’t know that we have a good platform right now. The fights in our courts are really important, but they’re a crapshoot, and we often don’t win. A big part of the strategy ought to be to play offense on voting instead of defense. We’ve been playing defense a long time on the left. Instead of trying to stop the onslaught of regressive policies, we should be pursuing any number of really good, proactive policies that open up opportunity for a lot of people who as it stands don’t really have the right to vote, because the sort of the barriers that we place in front of them. That includes voter registration. That includes same-day voting. That includes expanded early voting. There are just a lot of opportunities for voting to become not only an important part of our civic duty, but an easier part of our civic duty. The more that we find our own path forward, the easier it will be to fight back against bad policies.