Ed Kilgore of NewDonkey has a thoughtful post up on how the Dems might regain ground in the South. One tidbit jumped out at me. When listing the tactics used by successful Dems in the South — “Mark Warner of Virginia (elected in 2001), Phil Bredesen of Tennessee (elected in 2002), and Mike Easley of North Carolina (elected in 2000 and re-elected easily in 2004)” — he finishes with this:

…and most important, (d) convinced conservative rural voters that public sector activism and new technologies could create economic opportunity in regions left for dead by conventional Republican economic development strategies.

This is vital to understand clearly. Dems are always going on about “populism,” wondering (a la What’s the Matter With Kansas?) why the very people getting screwed by scorched-earth Republican economic policy keep voting those same Republicans back into office. But what do these pundits offer as an alternative? Too often a return to the early-20th-century populism of trade protectionism and social programs.

What Kilgore’s describing is something else, not a populism of resentment (against “fat cats”) but a populism of hope — the idea that there are ways to revitalize rural areas with cutting edge industries, with helpful partnership (“activism”) rather than hand-outs from government.

What does this have to do with environmentalism?Just this: The innovative new technologies and industries that could revitalize rural America are, or at least could be, green and sustainable. The “angry white men” of devastated rural areas (where manufacturing and agricultural jobs are hemorrhaging) are angry because they’ve been left behind and devalued. They could regain a sense of cultural vitality, relevance, and self-reliance through small-scale, collaborative development of wind and solar energy, sustainable agriculture, clean fuel development, and a concerted push to catch up with the Japanese in the low-emissions vehicle market.

On one hand talk from progressives about how to regain and reinspire the South; on the other hand talk from enviros about how to heal and strengthen ties with the larger progressive movement. Here’s a place where their interests dovetail and a natural alliance — an alliance that need not call itself environmental but which would be, in an integrated and seamless way, focused on sustainability — is waiting to be formed.