It takes more than good intentions to transform the South. It takes money.
What the hell is a Scalawag?
Last Thursday night was a series of reaches, much like the convention itself and much like participating in presidential politics as a leftist interested in anything more than harm reduction. In this case, however, the reaches were about finding Southerners at the Washington Post's watch party on the final night of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.
A bit of background and a pair of caveats before this goes any further.
Caveats: I lost my notes from the night, and in my efforts to find Southerners did not do a full canvas of the room, relying instead on varyingly informed strangers who passed my table.
Background: the event itself was a invite-only-ish affair based on RSVPs to a WashPo microsite/email list or, rarely, serious sweet talking the door. It began in the afternoon with conversations among powerful (White) women in government and media. Later, it became a dedicated speech watch party.
The official afternoon event was two panels grouped under the mantle "Women in Power." Finding a Southerner or even a shade of the South took a bit of ambition. The event itself was a reflection of a particular form of contemporary feminism that I'm not qualified to comment on and also implicated ongoing tensions over the representative importance of Hillary Clinton (or, perhaps, Barack Obama) as a boundary-breaking figure.
I was, I confess, mostly mentally absent for a conversation between San Francisco-based House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Washington Post Reporter Kelsey Snell, distracted in conversation with a friend who offered some needed and good advice about a bad joke I'd made earlier in the day. Susie Cagle covered it here, though.
The second panel was more interesting—as things are when you pay attention—and even included panelists who previously worked in the White House of the first President Clinton and on the presidential campaign of former North Carolina Senator John Edwards. Stephanie Cutter, a regarded communications consultant, was active in Clinton White House; Pascagoula, Mississippi-born Jennifer Palmieri was as well, and also worked on Edwards' 2004 bid for the presidency. But we are reaching. The most obvious presence of the South was its absence.
Cutter and Palmieri appeared with Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar in an event moderated by another Post employee, Anne Gearan. The four talked about challenges facing women in power, double standards in the media and in congressional offices, and, oddly, which character, if any, from The West Wing, Veep, or, I think, Parks and Recreation they'd be. Two of the three, when asked, ventured men from The West Wing.
The panel's conversation hit deeply and true when it landed with the crowd, detailing the specific and very real challenges that professional women face in corporate, male-dominated workplaces. The Senate is a crushingly male place—80% of its membership, as opposed to less than 50% of the general population, is comprised of men. Two currently serving women senators are from the South; 0% of the Senate is currently made up of Black women. There has been one, total, Black woman elected to the Senate in United States history.
Gender imbalance, and the mechanisms that enable it—like sexist harassment online, lack of appreciation or compensation for work done by women (in domestic and professional contexts), and generally the toxic, violent masculinity that stalks submerged or brazen throughout US culture on the web and in real life—are constants in the US, regardless of region. Bartenders took breaks and watched from a distance as the panel touched on this dynamic.
At the conclusion of the talk, I found myself at communal table by the bar, asking neighbors and passers-by what percentage of people in the room they'd venture were from the South. It wasn't many; I didn't meet anyone. There were lots of nearlys, though! You better believe if I heard the word "Richmond" I was there in a heartbeat even if the reference did end up being to Richmond, CA.
Remember the caveats: I rarely left my seat. I lost most of my notes (a manageable loss but a loss nonetheless). Names from here on out are dicey and while the survey was incomplete the recollections are faithful!
A note on methodology for my questioning. When asking people to estimate how many Southerners were present, sometimes I explicitly included Northern Virginia, or NOVA, an area commonly understood as a belt of Washington, DC commuter suburbs that are perceived to be more closely culturally aligned with the Mid-Atlantic than the Southeastern region. Sometimes I did not include NOVA, or did not mention it. Experts call this a "random blind," "double random blind," or "double secret random blind" style test. (The NOVA issue is far from settled, or at least wasn't within certain groups at my alma mater in Charlottesville, VA.)
At some point, I stopped asking people for their own impression, and, if they weren't from the South (no one was), I starting asking them to reach out to Southerners in their lives for third party assessments. This last change wasn't scientifically necessary, but it was sort of fun.
Susan, somebody's mom, grew up in Memphis, and, via text message, placed her estimate of Southerners in the room at 30%. In what I have to fondly assume is Susan's way, she later recalibrated, texting back to move her initial estimate to a range of 20-30%. Like many of the participants in my painstakingly administered poll, Susan was not actually present, but she was a Bernie supporter, at least in the primary; her daughter is With Hillary.
Heartened, I continued my unmoving search for Southerners at #wapodnc by asking the sharply dressed man across the table from Susan's Kid for his and his (absent) Southern friends' opinions. Alex Diaz, I think he was named, was not from the Southeast United States, instead hailing from New Jersey, and not even the Southern part of it, much unlike the man I met on the street the night before who made a spirited argument for South Jersey's appropriateness to Scalawag and then offered me a joint.
Alex's absent but still methodologically appropriate friends offered opinions of their own: dispatches from Mobile, AL and Miami, FL put the numbers of Southerners at the WashPo party at 15%-30% and 20%. Personally, I'd put the number at 20% on the high side. The South—for our purposes, excluding Delaware, Maryland, and Washington, DC, although the census bureau does not do this—is home to between 30 and 35% of the population of the United States as a whole.
Still more rigorous scientific demographic research was yet to take place.
I started a conversation with the man who inexplicably sat in my seat, next to my friends, despite the fact that my notebook sat in front of the stool. After I moved him, he became doggedly invested in talking about a perceived line between the South and Washington, DC that had something to do with rivers and an accent. He spent some time mansplaining answers to questions I didn't ask—did you know that many broadcasters adopt a neutral Midwestern drawl? I did, but I still don't know why he said it—and described himself sadly and mysteriously as "someone who writes speeches for losing candidates." He saw out the night repeatedly examining the same Lyft brochure while sitting too close to Susan's Kid.
It was, truly, a mile a minute for South-seekers at #wapodnc.
As Virginia Representative Bobby Scott introduced Virginia Senator Tim Kaine on the televised feeds, I overheard someone at the bar say "on his Richmond campaign," and pounced like a fucking ace gumshoe to talk with someone who it turned out wasn't from Richmond. The guy's friend wasn't from Richmond either, appropriate because as you may have teased out, there was a lot of "not Richmond" in the house. One of the two offered me an email address of a delegate friend from Virginia, but due to the strict parameters of my scientific study I was unable to contact them.
I don't know enough to say if the relative lack of representation makes sense. In the realm of hardly-new-ground opinions, though: on the one hand, despite that two of the last three Democrat Presidents were from the South, for decades the region has receded as a locus of power for the Democratic Party as most of it has become far from Democratic reach in presidential politics. On the other, this is a convention for Democrats from everywhere, and Southerners hardly seemed absent outside this particular venue. The incomplete data is probably part my fault.
When Kaine spoke, his jaunty hand movements and slick speaking style made clear why he is held by many as a masterful political choice and an ideal partner for Clinton. The masterful part is debatable from a legislative agenda standpoint, as observers like New Yorker Jesse Myerson have pointed out, but the partnership element seems beyond debate. None of this necessarily means Kaine is more tasteful for a leftist now than he was when he was embracing crushing, scientifically unfounded restrictions on abortion rights, overseeing the execution of human beings, or arguing against stricter regulations for banks. Only that, he's, like, listo or some shit.
Both Kaine and billionaire ex-New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg provided ample opportunity for television cameras to swerve towards former President Bill Clinton for reaction shots, though, and there he was, red-faced, grinning mouth impossibly wide, looking like a cross between someone caught in the windup of a joke that concludes "hubba hubba" and a little boy looking at a wall of candy.
It is increasingly hard for me to care.