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Seven Southern Democratic leaders have written Bernie Sanders, chiding him for downplaying Hillary Clinton’s Southern sweep “as a symptom of a region that, as you put it, ‘distorts reality.’”

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Southern Democrats Feel the Burn—Berry Craig

They feel the burn.

“You argue that the South is ‘the most conservative part’ of America, implying states that traditionally vote Republican in a general election are not worth contesting in a Democratic Primary,” challenged a former South Carolina governor, an ex-Democratic National Committee member and five state party chairs.

“The greatest asset we have as a party is our diversity—a diversity of cultures, religions, ethnicities, experiences, and backgrounds.”

It’s hardly headline-grabbing news that the white South is conservative, if not reactionary. But Sanders ought to know better than to insinuate that the Democrats are shoving the region ever rightward.

It’s hardly headline-grabbing news that the white South is conservative, if not reactionary. But Sanders ought to know better than to insinuate that the Democrats are shoving the region ever rightward.

It’s the GOP.

The Republicans long ago supplanted the Democrats as the right-wing, union-hating, Dixie-whistling, states’ rights, white folks party in the old Confederacy.

Long gone are Theodore Bilbo, Orval Faubus, Lester Maddox, George Wallace, Big Jim Eastland and other white supremacist Democrats of the race-baiting, right-to-work, screw-the-Yankee-liberals persuasion.

Long gone, too, is the Republican party of “Lincoln and Liberty” that attracted African Americans en masse for about a century after the Civil War.

White Dixie started going Republican in the 1960s, when the Democrats became what the Republicans used to be: the party of federal civil rights activism. Strom Thurmond, Jesse Helms and other Democratic politicians who were sorry to see Jim Crow segregation go helped lead the white exodus into the GOP.

The Republicans’ “Southern Strategy” of pandering to white prejudice turned the white, Democratic “Solid South” Republican Red and made Democrats of most African Americans.

“The African American community has been the most reliable and consistent vote for the Democratic Party for a generation, and in this year’s primaries, in the Southern states of South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, and North Carolina, African Americans represented between 31-71% of the Democratic electorate,” the letter schooled Sanders.

“To dismiss the importance of this region is to minimize the importance of the voices of a core constituency for our party.”

Indeed, and Sanders’ crack about the South left him wider open to the sour grapes charge. Clinton is beating Sanders soundly among African Americans--and Hispanics--nationwide. The Congressional Black and Hispanic Caucus political action committees endorsed Clinton.

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Anyway, the liberal PoliticusUSA website jumped into the fray, noting that “some of the most committed Democrats in the country reside in states where every election at every level of government is an uphill struggle for Democratic candidates.”

Amen. This union-card carrying Hubert Humphrey Democrat who doesn’t think “socialism” is a dirty word is ever-reminding my liberal friends up North and out West that it’s a heck of a lot easier being a stick-to-your guns, left-leaning Democrat in Blue States like California, or New York or Sanders’ Vermont than it is in my home state and even redder states to the south of me.

“Southern Democrats already have to deal with Republicans refusing to expand Medicaid, deteriorating infrastructure, and the lack of adequate funding for our public schools,” the letter explained.

That’s also true in Kentucky. The Republican governor and lieutenant governor are far-right-wing, union-hating, tea party Republicans. The state senate is dominated by like-minded members of the GOP. (The house is 53-47 Democratic.)

Admittedly, my neck of the woods is also home to more than a few conservative Democrats, some of whom are all but indistinguishable from Republicans, notably on the so-called “social issues.” Many of them have switched to the GOP. I wish the rest Godspeed to the other party.

Even so, the letter writers are on the money when they urged, “Democrats ought to embrace the South and all regions to build an organization that can compete in all 50 states.

“We must continue winning states like Virginia and North Carolina, and we can’t write off states like Tennessee and Georgia. Even Texas could turn blue in less than a generation. And beyond the presidential race, there are important statewide and other federal races happening every cycle.

“Boosting Democrats’ chances in those states is vital to enacting a progressive agenda at the local level and in General Assemblies. This can only happen if we show up, speak to the region’s needs, and compete for every vote, even in the face of long odds. That’s how change really happens."

Of course, Sanders is not the first left-leaning, non-Southerner to write off Dixie.

On the eve of the Civil War, Boston abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison argued that the free state North was better off without the slave state South. He welcomed secession, but later changed his mind and endorsed the war.

All along, though, other foes of Dixie’s peculiar institution—including Abraham Lincoln--begged to differ with Garrison. They posited that the Union was indivisible and that in an independent Confederacy, whose constitution unambiguously guaranteed slavery, millions of enslaved African Americans would be left the tender mercies of the slave drivers.

Today, African Americans are among the most loyal Democrats anywhere in the country—just as their ancestors were some of the staunchest Republicans from the post-Civil War Reconstruction era to the 1960s.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t for a second believe Sanders is for deep sixing the Democratic party in Dixie. (Sanders is still my choice for president, but Clinton gets my vote if, okay when, she wins the nomination.)

But his remarks are anything but helpful. They are deeply hurtful to Democrats who are struggling to keep the faith against all odds in the most deeply red of the Republican Red States, where the old party of the Great Emancipator looks more like the party of Jeff Davis.

Berry Craig

Berry Craig