First, you have to show up. If you don’t, we’ll get the idea you don’t like us (the white majority) and if you don’t, we’ll stick with the party that does. Second, you must walk gingerly across a minefield of cultural symbols. If you make it, you could detoxify barriers to understanding between the South and the nation.
Obama has made some timid gestures to the South in his choice of Charlotte for the Democratic convention and by sending wreaths for a Confederate memorial. Perhaps unwittingly, he struck a balance between culture and demography.
The demographics of North Carolina and Virginia make those states competitive for Democrats, but it will be a long time before Montgomery, has the same mix of education and income as those states of the “Upper South. ”
But culture is important, too; we like it when outsiders recognize the distinctive, nonracial qualities of the region. The president rebuffed a petition of liberal academics in 2009 to continue the tradition of sending a wreath to the Confederate Memorial at Arlington Cemetery. We liked that. Nevertheless, he is still a stranger to us. He has made the ritual visit to Selma, but he hasn’t traveled widely in the region. The rare mentions of the South in his book “Audacity of Hope” are troubled ones.
Today’s South is different. The civil rights movement and the flickering moment of the New South are dimly lit memories to middle-aged Southerners, and to young adults, racial differences have all but disappeared. However, there is a lingering strain of resentment at “Yankee” politicians and press — exporters of moral concern — who look down on us, and the totems of the Lost Cause are still holy relics to many.
Origins of the solid GOP South date back to passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, when Sen. Barry Goldwater carried the white South by 70 percent. Ever since, the GOP has told us, “We are your friends; your values are our values.”
Both parties subsequently ignored the region — the GOP saw it as safe, Democrats saw it as hopeless while the region drew an ironical circle around itself. It went from one-party, white, anti-integration Democrats to one-party, white, anti-immigration Republicans.
Obama would need the training of a cultural astronaut to undertake a long voyage South. But he would carry with him the aura of the Great Seal. If he came with an attitude of respect for its people and their history, he could also detoxify symbols that have been cultural barriers between the South and nation.
Those Confederate wreaths needn’t embarrass him, for instance.
The spare language of that monument speaks not of division but of universal values:
Not for fame or reward/ Not for place or for rank/ Not lured by ambition/ Or goaded by necessity/ But in simple/ obedience to duty/ as they understood it/ These men suffered all, sacrificed all/ Dared all — and died.
President McKinley proposed the memorial in a speech to the Georgia Legislature on Dec. 14, 1898, as a gesture of reconciliation. The New York Times reported “a cheer echoed and reached through the chamber until it was taken up by the crowds outside” at his mention of care for the graves of Confederate soldiers.
Inevitably, if Obama made a McKinley-like appeal to the South, he would encounter explosive symbols such as the Confederate flag. He could disarm combustible symbols; wrapping them in his one-nation theme, he might say: “I am reminded again that we are one undivided America, that the honored dead at Gettysburg wore blue AND gray; they fought under different flags that deserve honor and respect but we are one America, indivisible, because in their fighting and in their dying they made a nation.
“Cultural symbols speak to people of important events that happened to them along the way; they deserve respect — and must never be dishonored by being used as symbols of hate.”
Such a statement would have a lightning effect on Southerners who feel culturally suppressed or scorned. Critics would accuse Obama of endorsing a Ku Klux Klan symbol, an accusation unlikely to stick on a black president.
With the curtain of alienation swept away, whites, too, would be more willing to listen to a Democratic president.
Politically, an earnest and continuous appeal to the South would force the GOP to spend and defend its base, but there is a larger value, and Democrats in the region aren’t waiting to prepare the ground for building a truly national party.
An insurgency was launched Feb. 8-9 at an Atlanta Summit of party leaders (I was one) from every Southern state, which launched the Blue South Project, a long-term strategy to build a competitive Democratic Party in the South.
Even before its national rollout set for May, Blue South has attracted experienced national fund-raisers, union support and a virtual GPS template in Project New West, which made inroads into the formerly Republican West.
A nonracial two-party South, whose cultural symbols are seen as merely colorful, could discount emotive fringe topics such as same-sex marriage, focus on real, kitchen-table issues and contribute to a more serious national dialogue.
It has been a personal dream for 50 years in a region I love and despair of that one day it would shed its defensiveness and become a self-confident, distinctive participant in the nation’s important work.
H. Brandt Ayers is the publisher of The Star and chairman of Consolidated Publishing Co.