Longing again for a two-party state

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Published: March 13,2011

Tags: Marty Wiseman, MBJ Columns

During my college days I well remember that a common theme among guest lecturers and political dignitaries alike was the need to have a balanced two-party system in the State of Mississippi. Admittedly this opinion would often be delivered with no small amount of smugness on the part of the faux benevolent Democratic Party-oriented speaker.

Much has been written over the past few days about the startling reversal of fortune in party politics in Mississippi that is signified by the paucity of Democratic Party candidates meeting the qualifying deadline for this year’s statewide elections. Indeed, in three of the eight statewide contests there are no Democratic candidates at all. Furthermore, only the governor’s race will necessitate an August Democratic Party primary. On the other hand, Republicans are standing in line for the opportunity to latch onto these statewide offices. The days of a gentlemanly member of the GOP such as Rubel Phillips, Gil Carmichael or Lyles Williams agreeing to offer a degree of opposition in November to the inevitable Democratic winner are long gone. Rather than rehashing the frightening diagnoses or in some cases the obituaries being heaped upon the Democrats I will simply offer some observations.

From whence did the current massive advantage for the Republicans come? The simple answer is that there are two major directions in which to point the finger of credit and blame. First, there is the juggernaut-like leadership that the nation’s undisputed premier Republican strategist, Haley Barbour, has brought to Mississippi as governor and titular head of the Mississippi Republicans. His efforts have maximized, to the Republican advantage, the use of seasoned political acumen, computer-driven technology and massive fund raising. Secondly, and conversely, there is the continuing inability of the Democrats to totally put behind them the divisiveness that has infected the party since the monumental battles over the racial makeup of the Mississippi Democratic party in the 1960s and early 1970s.

Add to this the veritable collapse of the financial base of the Democrats following the tort reform efforts begun under Democratic Gov. Ronnie Musgrove and comprehensively brought to a conclusion in the early days of the Barbour administration.

Given the above conditions, are the predictions of the permanent demise of the Democrats accurate? They don’t necessarily have to be. Gov. Barbour is reaching the end of his final term and no doubt will be moving to a high elective or appointive position on the national scene or back into business as one of Washington’s most prominent lobbyists. Democrats can hope for increased fragmentation on the part of Republicans following Barbour’s departure. Such will not matter, however, if the Democrats cannot remake their organization from the ground up and revamp both the content and the delivery of their message. Currently, it appears that the only role for those who officially speak for the Democratic Party is that of sniping at Republican successes. Instead, what is called for on the part of the Mississippi Democratic Party is a message attractive enough to stem the flow of departures from the party and indeed attract a diverse citizenry to put on the Democratic Party label.

The facts are these. The 2010 Census data for Mississippi reveals a noticeable growth in African-American population and a similar up-tick for Hispanics. Both of these ethnic groups have demonstrated strong Democratic Party leanings in past elections, and they together comprise around 40 percent of the state’s population. That will be of little consequence if the Democrats cannot figure a way to hold onto and build on the significant minority of white voters who remain loyal to the Democratic Party. Mississippians in numerous surveys in the past have stated a preference for voting for the candidate rather than the party.

Armed with that knowledge and that of the numbers of natural Democratic constituencies that exist in abundance in the state, Mississippi Democrats must develop a coherent message that draws growing numbers of potential adherents back into the fold, and this must translate into the financial and technological support that attracts and undergirds the efforts of candidates who share that message. Perhaps a primary season in which an increasing number of voters migrate to the Republican side of the polling place because that’s where the candidates are will serve as the siren in the night for the Mississippi Democratic Party. Such an occurrence would threaten the last bastion of the Democrats — huge voter advantages at the county courthouses.

Regardless, Republicans have previously demonstrated, and continue to do so, that they are more than willing to uphold their side of the fight in the two-party contest. Democrats need to cease whining and do the same. Without a healthy, diverse Democratic Party Mississippi faces a potential worst-case scenario of a virtually all-white Republican Party and a Democratic Party that is a permanent minority and that is virtually all African-American and Hispanic.

In summary, what Mississippi needs now, as it did back then, is a viable two-party system.

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