Oh, Mississippi.

The Democratic Party in the South is absolutely irrelevant. Tuesday’s results in Mississippi’s Democratic gubernatorial primary is proof positive of that.

In case you have been living under a rock, here’s what happened:

Terry truck driver and first-time candidate Robert Gray, who goes by “Silent Knight” as his CB handle, carried 79 of 82 counties in the Democratic gubernatorial primary. He pulled more than 147,000 votes, or 51 percent, to presumed frontrunner Vicki Slater’s 87,000 votes, or 30 percent, in a three-way race.

Slater, a politically active attorney, raised more than $235,000 for her campaign and pumped in thousands of her own money. Gray raised and spent zero. He bought no advertising. No yard signs. He made only a couple of public appearances. His own family didn’t know he was running, and he didn’t vote for himself.

It seems shocking….until you take a look at recent Democratic Party primaries for the U.S. Senate in South Carolina and Tennessee. Perhaps Mississippians should be happy, as it has not emerged that their candidate for governor is an alleged sexual harasser or a confirmed homophobe. Yet.

But this should speak volumes to the value of attaining a Democratic Party nomination for office in the Deep South. People care so little about the party’s nomination for statewide office that they simply vote for the first name on the ballot, which benefitted the winners of the aforementioned primaries. Of course the widespread disorganization and factional fighting in Southern state parties does not help things, as evidenced in Alabama. If you go to the Mississippi Democratic Party’s website, you will find that the party’s constitution, the document that sets out how people can be elected to their local, county, and state executive committees, is unable to be downloaded due to a broken link. When something as easily fixable as a broken link to an important governing document seems to escape the attention of state party organizations, then I suppose it makes sense that people would be shocked by Tuesday’s events.

But unlike State Rep. Patricia Todd (D-Birmingham), I do not believe that the answer to these issues lies in a simple leadership change in these party organizations. Does anyone really believe that the only thing keeping the Democratic National Committee from pouring hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars into a state like Alabama is state party leadership? The DNC has written off anything below Kentucky, Virginia, and North Carolina as unwinnable for the foreseeable future, and is unlikely to invest in the sort of organizing that will see Republicans dislodged from their dominant perch in Southern politics.

So what is the answer? Nothing easy, of course. But:

  1. Begin with the realization that there are worse things that can happen to Southern progressives than losing an election. If the last eight years of broken promises from this White House has taught progressives anything, it is that you can lose big time even while winning on Election Night. Just ask labor unions or the children of the Middle East.
  2. Think local, organize local, vote local. There are thousands of seats that go uncontested for any number of local offices across the South. School boards, soil and water conservation districts, mosquito control boards, city council seats, you name it. These are elections that are, many times, nonpartisan and can be won with just a few hundred votes. The fact that socialists have not come to this realization and poured resources into these races en masse is pretty damn disheartening, but nevertheless it is a path forward for those who are interested in change.
  3. Once a power base has been built, lay the groundwork for a challenge to the two-party system across the South. The result of having a hollowed-out and dysfunctional Democratic Party in the South is that, in order to secure the votes of those who will likely never vote for them in the first place, many candidates ape the rhetoric of their Republican counterparts. The only people who win in that situation are banks, agribusinesses, and other stakeholders in the status quo. There needs to be a political voice for those who believe in health care and labor organizing as a human right, who believe that a quality education system is something that should be protected and gifted for future generations of Southerners, and who believe in equality and justice as more than a talking point, but rather as a guiding principle propelling us towards a more progressive South. But it has to be built from the ground-up; attempts to form new parties and immediately get involved in statewide races will end just as they have before: in defeat and failure.

You only have situations like the one faced by Mississippi Democrats when everyday voters no longer feel that you represent anything that they stand for. It is a crisis that is faced by progressives across the South, and, unfortunately, it is not one that can be fixed within the confines of the Democratic Party. We will see if Southern progressives have the stomach for undertaking a transformation of the political arena, because nothing less than that will be necessary for the task that we face.