Our Strength Is Us: Starting the conversation on building progressive power in the South.

This article was written with the assistance of Sarah.

If the media acted in a way similar to Twitter, one would say that Southern politics has been trending as of late.

It was the subject of a series by The American Prospect, and an article by Molly Ball of The Atlantic. It has been a frequent topic on MSNBC. National Public Radio has a series called Texas 2020 that is currently running on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. State Sen. Wendy Davis (D-Fort Worth), who filibustered an anti-abortion bill in the Texas Senate and provided a spark to Southern progressivism that had not been seen in a long time, has made the media rounds, getting the most exposure of any Texas Democrat since Gov. Ann Richards (D-TX). All in all, the visibility of Southern politics on the national stage is as high as its been since an unknown Governor from Arkansas came from nowhere to emerge as the preeminent Democratic politician in the 20th century (even if his progressivism was, and is, far from preeminent).

But with all of the talk about the emergence of a new South, there has been something missing: a discussion about building progressive power in the South.

Getting to any progressive governing coalition in the South will require a drawing together of somewhat disparate communities: Blacks, Latinos, working-class and low-income people, progressive transplants from the North and West, rural folks, and many more. There are, of course, positive signs that allow for Southern progressives to dream big: communities of color are steadily growing in the South, more progressives are moving to the South to work (especially in areas like Northern Virginia, North Carolina’s Research Triangle, and Atlanta), and dynamic progressive political leaders and activists are popping up across the South.

But it takes more than the simple existence of these elements in order to bring together a coalition of progressives who will be able to have an impact on the policymaking process. You must be able to identify these people and their communities, connect them to organizers who will be able to give them the tools that they need to get their neighbors involved, schedule and plan events for people to make voices heard, and much more. Anyone who has ever done field work for political campaigns knows that any one of these tasks is a full time job in and of itself, to say nothing of doing all these things simultaneously.

Unfortunately, the only organization that could reasonably do all of these things, the Democratic Party, is in absolute disarray across the South. They are broke. They are divided. The communities that should be involved in rebuilding the progressive infrastructure are not being sought out to do the work. The candidates who run under the Democratic Party banner find progressives in the party to be useless to them outside of Get Out The Vote (GOTV) time. And there is the question of whether the Democratic Party in the South even wants to activate these various communities because of the fear that doing so will drive the party to the left, and purportedly make Democrats “unelectable” in places like the Deep South.

(The argument can be made that Democrats running middle-of-the-road, “pro-business”, anti-worker, polished, say-anything-and-stand-for-nothing candidates has also been unsuccessful in the South. I should know; I make that argument constantly.)

The only way to combat all of this is to engage in progressive institution-building in the South. The discussion of a “new South” or a “blue South” is meaningless when there is very little that is progressive down here, even at the local level. While that makes this a daunting task for sure, it also gives progressives the opportunity to build infrastructure and capacities from whole cloth in our image. Here are some ways that we can get there:

  1. Stop looking at 2014. Listen up y’all, because this is really important. The South is not going blue in 2014. It is likely not going blue outside of Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida in 2016, either. If we are going to be engaged in the work of building a more progressive South, then we have to stop being concerned about the next election and start being more concerned about the next generation. It might take that long before our vision is realized.
  2. Southern progressive organizations need to be as strong and effective as possible. This gets a bit technical, but it is every bit as important as any other point in this list. When I first moved to Alabama, I wanted to get involved in progressive movements down here. I contacted the Arise Citizens’ Policy Project, which is an anti-poverty non-profit here in Alabama, about getting involved. I contacted them by email and phone, and no one ever got back to me. This pattern repeats itself across the South an innumerable amount of times, and it can create the sort of hard feelings that can make it difficult to organize even our putative allies. These things happen because progressive organizations down here are by-in-large overworked and underfunded. We need to make sure that progressive organizations are doing the “little stuff” right to ensure that they are building relationships (something vital in the South especially) and not burning bridges. This can include responding to inquiries from potential volunteers and donors in a timely way, starting meetings relatively on time (‘cause we do like our catch up chats at the beginning, y’all), having a staff person around to answer phones if possible, and having an up-to-date website. In addition, we must work to build our fundraising capacities so that more donor money stays in the communities that need the help the most. Doing all of this can put progressive organizations in the South in the position to build coalitions and be more effective at bringing out activists and community members to protest the sort of policies that are hurting our region. An example of an organization that engages in building capacities for progressive activists and organizations is Southerners on New Ground (SONG). While SONG is good at what they do, it cannot be just them; we need more people working on increasing efficiencies in progressive organizations in the South.
  3. Train progressive activists who are indigenous to their communities. Southern politics is very relational, meaning that the best way for people to be convinced of another position is by having their neighbor, friend, or family member lead the conversation. As such, we must identify and train the next generation of progressive leaders from our communities. This is where progressive organizations in the South should be spending the most time, because our ideas are nothing without the people to go out and have those mini-conversations that can move ideological mountains. In fact, we should conduct the trainings in the same way that we would engage in praxis: with activists coming in from across the region and sharing their stories and experiences. There is no need to bring in non-Southerners for high-priced activist conferences when we can be our neighbor’s best teacher.
  4. Get those activists involved in the Democratic Party in their community/city/county/state. There will be many who will not like this idea. I understand that; there is more than one way to be involved in progressive activism in the South. But if we truly are concerned about getting to a point where progressives begin to govern communities, cities, counties, and states in the South, then we have to not just get involved in the Democratic Party; we must remake it in our image. We must recruit our friends, families, and neighbors to become a part of the Democratic Party, and then progressives must run for offices within the party. We can then use our party machinery to recruit the sort of progressive candidates for local, county, and statewide offices that will begin changing the conversation down here. Too many Democratic organizations think that the qualities of a good candidate lies in their family, their looks, or their bank account; we will not see a progressive governing coalition in the South until we start seeing that it is the values and the ideology of a candidate that matters the most.  We can be the catalyst for change in this regard.

All of this will not be easy, and it will not happen quickly. Southern progressives should be prepared to lose quite a bit, and no one hates losing more than me. We must steel ourselves for an ongoing assault on voting rights, reproductive health, and immigrants’ rights by conservatives who have decided that democracy is a one-way conversation. But even more than I want to have a “blue South”, I want to have a progressive South; a South that is all-inclusive and amplifies the dignity and worth of all its people.

In order to get there, we must engage in power-building, and we must do it for the long haul.