By Ben Saul, special to Statehouse Report | In 2008, Southern Democrats played an outsized role in electing our nation’s first African-American president. In fact, the election of Barack Obama influenced me, a white male Southerner, to become a Democrat.
That election taught me that politics is about values: Who cares about us and empathizes with others? Yet since 2008, Southern Democrats have not succeeded in branding our policy ideas around a core set of values.
As a proud Southern Democrat, I wish to offer three core values for the Democratic Party to regain trust and legitimacy in the South: Economic security, educational opportunity and social inclusion.
First, Southern Democrats need to listen to voters about their economic struggles, especially those displaced due to technology and trade. After hearing from urban workers now relying on “gig” jobs such as Uber and rural workers traveling multiple hours for available work, Southern Democrats must put forth a fairness agenda that offers all workers economic security.
Economic security means improving the standard of living for Southern families through higher wages, better benefits, and lower costs. For example, new mothers should not have to choose between spending a disproportionate amount of their income on childcare or not working altogether to avoid high childcare costs.
In addition, economic security requires forward thinking to build upon emerging regional industries, such as Greenville County (SC) transforming itself from a 20th century textile capital into a 21st century engineering hub. By leveraging new technologies with public sector activism, Southern Democrats can pursue similar economic transformations across the South to achieve economic security for working families.
In terms of educational opportunity, former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has rightly argued, “Success in today’s world requires…skills that go beyond the basics for which schools were designed in the past.”
As a result, Southern Democrats need to work with educators and employers on innovative ways to align K-12 education with economic shifts. As evidenced by Greenville, South Carolina’s school of engineering, project-based learning can help to build students’ creativity and problem solving skills by organizing rigorous content knowledge around authentic projects.
For the South’s next generation of workers, entrepreneurs, and public servants to be successful, Southern Democrats must also go bold on college affordability and career training. Indeed, working families deserve a much better bargain on rising tuition costs at four-year universities, which have led to more debt and less wealth for college graduates. And technical colleges can be utilized in offering currently displaced workers accelerated paths into new careers through apprenticeships and online education.
Equally important, Southern Democrats must be vigorous defenders of civil rights, immigrant rights, and voting rights to achieve a socially inclusive climate that attracts all those who wish to live, work, and learn within the South.
As shown by the loss of jobs in North Carolina due to HB2, an anti-LGBT agenda is bad for Southern workers. In addition, when we choose to limit the talent of a child who has earned admission into college, solely because of his or her documentation status, we weaken the South’s economic potential. And rather than limiting a person’s right to vote, we need to remove unnecessary burdens and protect voting access, so we can get back to a real jobs agenda.
By speaking loudly against all forms of discrimination, including anti-LGBT laws and unfair restrictions on immigration and voting, Southern Democrats can show a strong commitment to creating better jobs for all Southerners. And the South can be well positioned for building a stronger and more vibrant economy.
The path forward
Since our outsized role in electing President Obama, Southern Democrats have lacked a coherent message for our core set of values. Southern voters, like all voters, want to know that you care about them and empathize with others before hearing the specifics of your policy ideas.
If Southern Democrats begin to offer our policy ideas under the core values of Economic Security, Educational Opportunity, and Social Inclusion, we can start to regain the trust of voters and compete once again on the state and local level.
Ben Saul , a Greenville public school teacher, is a Truman Scholar and past president of Young Democrats of Greenville County, S.C. He holds a master’s degree in education from Harvard University and bachelor’s degree from Furman University.
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