Is the Republican “Southern Strategy” Finally Unraveling?

Richard Nixon, the most successful, and ironically,  the most shamed GOP president of all time; Richard Nixon, the architect of the cynical yet brilliantly effective “Southern Strategy” (that formed a voting bloc of racists, evangelical Christians and under-educated poor white under-achievers); Richard Nixon, the cynical strategist that devised a plan that not only catapulted himself but Ronald Reagan into office along with his universally (the European Union just proclaimed thier “austerity experiment” a total failure) de-bunked economic ebola virus known as “supply-side economics” that has decimated the working American middle class; is Richard Nixon, and his decades long planned destruction of the middle class finally starting to unravel?Southern Possibly.

The Frankensteinian monster Nixon created (although the phrase “Southern strategy” is often attributed to Nixon’s political strategist Kevin Phillips, he did not originate it but popularized it–in an interview included in a 1970 New York Times article) is certainly turning on its master but only time will tell if it actually kills the GOP while simultaneously wreaking havoc on the poor “village folk”.

Frankly I’ve never understood how “good christians” could reconcile the obvious hypocricy of being a “good christian” when the writings of the Christian namesake so vociferously condemned a least 75% of what Republicans practice in regard to how the poor are treated vs how the “money-changers” practice their trades….just to name one obvious instance among many more.

But there’s no doubt that the GOP finds itself trapped in a marriage that has not only gone bad but is coming apart in full public view. After five decades of shrewd obfuscation, the Republican coalition Richard Nixon put together in 1968 — welcoming the segregationist white South into the Party of Lincoln — is now devouring itself in ugly, spiteful accusations being played out nightly so loudly that even the right-wing entertainment divisions that run the national “news” (the professional wrestling of journalism) can’t ignore how the GOP has become a haven for bigotry, racism, resentment, dishonesty and hate politics–but they are certainly trying to spin it for the sake of profit.

I don’t know what they’ve offered Paul Ryan in order for him to take on this motley crew of right-wing ne’er do wells, but it must be spectacular for him to throw his away his future in serious politics away. At the heart of this in-house conflict is the fact that the American culture has changed dramatically in recent decades, but the GOP has steadfastly refused to change with it. Americans are rapidly shifting toward more tolerant understandings of personal behavior and social values, but the hard-liners in the Republican Party stick with retrograde social taboos and hard-edged prejudices about race, gender, sexual freedom, immigration, and religion. Apparently “building a bigger wall than the Wall of China!”, or “Make America Great Again”, are what amounts to great political solutions (ostensibly because they will fit onto bumper stickers so that the rank-and-file republican voter can understand the policies) for front-runner Donald Trump, with no concrete plans on how to implement nor pay for such grandiose bullshit; but only if it will shrink government while doing away with big government (at least that’s their assertion) the same way the old Confederacy wanted to do so.

None of this, of course, addresses the hypocricy of building a Great Wall of Mexico while interstate bridges fall on school busses. The party establishment, including business and financial leaders, seems to realize that Republicans need to moderate their outdated posture on social issues. But they can’t persuade their own base — especially Republicans in the white South — to change. The longer the GOP holds out, the more likely it is to be damaged by the nation’s changing demographics — the swelling impact of Latinos and other immigrants, and the growing influence of millennials, the 18-to-30-year-olds who are more liberal and tolerant than their elders.

Nixon’s “Southern strategy” was insincere and cynical, of course, but it was an effective electoral ploy to win over the votes of the “Solid South”. Now, however, it is beginning to look like a deal with the devil. For 2016, the GOP has to cope with very different challenges. The party has to find a broadly appealing nominee who won’t scare off party moderates and independent voters, but who at the same time can pacify rebellious right-wingers and prevent a party crackup. Looking over the list of possible nominees doesn’t reveal an obvious solution.

Trumpish extremism is entertaining, but it could simply boost voter turnout among Democratic constituencies. In the meantime, hard-core tea party types threaten to play Samson and pull down the temple if they don’t get their way.

To grasp the GOP’s dilemma, it helps to understand that the modern Republican Party was founded on some basic contradictions. It has been an odd-couple coalition that unites the East Coast Republican establishment with the hard core segregationists of the white South. Richard Nixon and Barry Goldwater brokered the deal with Dixiecrat leader Strom Thurmond at the ’68 convention in Miami, wherein states of the old slave-holding Confederacy would join the Party of Lincoln. It took two election cycles to convert the “Solid South,” but Nixon and GOP kingpins made it clear with private assurances that Republicans would inconspicuously retire their historic commitment to civil rights.

Scott Lilly, a liberal Democrat who for many years was the erudite staff director of the House Appropriations Committee, explained the GOP’s intra-party fracas in that context. Boehner’s resignation, Lilly wrote in The Washington Spectator, “was, in fact, about the steady unraveling of a coalition that has allowed the Republican Party to hold the White House for 27 of the past 47 years and maintain a seemingly solid base for continuing control of the US House of Representatives.”

Of course with the GOP having their own “News Network”, Fox has been the Tokyo Rose for Republican causes since its inception; feeding lies, inuendo, hatred and hyper-partisanship to thier viewers like a mother’s tit to her baby. But the hardliners have been realizing that “The country clubbers don’t care about prayer in the public schools, gun rights…abortion and immigration.”

Nixon’s reconfiguration brought together “polar opposites among white Americans,” Lilly noted. The traditional wing of the party — “country club” Republicans, who include corporate leaders, financiers and investors — became partners with poor, rural, church-going voters, among them the Southern segregationists who had previously always voted for Democrats. Black Southerners didn’t count in the equation, since they were still mostly being blocked from voting. After Congress enacted the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Lyndon Johnson prophetically confided to a White House aide, “I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come.”

Nixon’s new Republicans became a formidable national party, Lilly explained, but they always straddled the tension between rich and poor whites. “The problem,” Lilly said, “is that this latter group has almost nothing in common with the country club wing.… The country clubbers don’t care about prayer in the public schools, gun rights, stopping birth control, abortion and immigration.” On the other hand, common folks don’t worry over marginal tax rates, capital income subsidies as the government taxes investor gains at a rate the poor or middle class whites could never get, or subsidies for major corporations.

“If they ever fully understood that their more prosperous party brethren were contemplating deep cuts in Medicare and Medicaid to pay for those policies, they would be in open rebellion,” Lilly observed, “because there are more poor white Southerners than poor black Southerners on government assistance, but they don’t pay attention to details so they continue to believe what their richer “cousins” tell them.

Nixon and his successors hid behind ideology and obscured the contradictions by pursuing a strategy that can be called “no-fault bigotry.” Every now and then, especially in election seasons, the Republicans played the race card in dog-whistle fashion to smear Democrats, with savage effect. The GOP never attempted to repeal civil-rights legislation but sought cheap ways to undermine enforcement and remind whites, both Southern and Northern, that the party was on “their” side.

In his first term, Nixon himself made a memorable gesture by supporting federal tax subsidies for the private “segregated academies” springing up across the South. He didn’t prevail, but he won lots of political loyalty among Southern whites — a generation of voters who had been raised to vote Democratic, but who were beginning to switch parties.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan opened his presidential campaign at the Neshoba County Fair in Mississippi — a few miles from where three civil-rights workers had been murdered in the 1960s. Reagan announced his intention “to restore to states and local government the power that properly belongs to them.” That is Dixie’s euphemism for opposing racial integration. In 1988, George H.W. Bush smeared Michael Dukakis with his notoriously racist “Willie Horton” ads.

In 1990 in North Carolina, Senator Jesse Helms ran for reelection against Harvey Gantt, a black former mayor of Charlotte, with a provocative ad called “white hands, black hands” attacking affirmative action. Helms won, and of course so did Bush. It finally dawned on some of the Southern loyal foot soldiers in the odd-couple coalition that they were being taken for suckers.

In 2008, when Americans elected our first black president, most of the heavy smears came after Barack Obama took office. Grassroots conservatives imagined bizarre fears: Obama wasn’t born in America; he was a secret Muslim. He was going to take whites’ guns. Donald Trump demanded to see the birth certificate. GOP leaders like Senator Mitch McConnell — who had been a civil-rights advocate in his youth — could have discouraged the demonizing slurs.

Instead, McConnell launched his own take-no-prisoners strategy to obstruct anything important Obama hoped to accomplish. At least until now, Republicans have gotten away with this bigotry. As a practical matter, there was no political price. Democrats often seemed reluctant to call them out, fearful that it might encourage even greater racial backlash. Indeed, the Dems developed their own modest Southern strategy — electing centrists Jimmy Carter of Georgia and later Bill Clinton of Arkansas to the White House. But the hope that Democrats could make peace with Dixie by moderating their liberalism was a fantasy.

Conservatives upped the ante and embraced additional right-wing social causes. So what caused the current rebellion in the GOP ranks? It finally dawned on loyal foot soldiers in the odd-couple coalition that they were being taken for suckers. They came to realize what so many already knew; their causes always seemed to get the short end of the stick. The GOP made multiple promises and fervent speeches on the social issues, but, for one reason or another, the party establishment always failed to deliver.

This belated realization stirred the anger that has flared across the ranks of the followers — and not just in the South. The financial crisis, the bailout of the banks, and collapsing prosperity because of job transfers overseas and the resulting middle class wage stagnation intensified their sense of betrayal. The tea party protests were aimed at President Obama, of course, but they were also an assault on Republican leaders who had misled and used the party base for so long.

Tea party revenge took down long-comfortable legislators and elected red-hot replacements who share the spirit of rebellion. Republican lobbyists whose corporate clients have been caught in the middle of the political disturbances shared a provocative insight…. “We finally figured it out,” Obama created the tea party.” What seemed ludicrous at first became clear. “We told people that Obama was dangerous and someone who was too liberal and was going to wreck America and he had to be stopped, while the “monied” lobbyists really knew he was a moderate Democrat, not even all that radical,” the lobbyists were saying. “And they believed us. I mean why wouldn’t they? All they cared about was that he was black.”

In other words, the extremist assaults on the black president, combined with the GOP economic failures, were deeply alarming for ordinary people and generated a sense of terminal crisis that was wildly exaggerated and blamed on the wrong party to boot. But it generated popular expectations that Republicans must stand up to this threat with strong countermeasures — to win back political control and save the country. Of course we all know that racial overtones were also at work. The point is, the grassroots, hardcore anxieties were disappointed by the party establishment’s responses.

The GOP kept denouncing Obamacare and predicting Obama’s failure, so it was a great shock to the rank and file when the president won reelection. He proceeded with executive action on immigration that further inflamed defeated conservatives. Tea party patriots observed that once again the GOP had failed to deliver on their social discontents: Abortion was still legal. Gays were getting married. Republicans won control of both the House and Senate, but the leaders declined to shut down government or force the president’s hand in other ways. America was burning, they believed, but Washington didn’t want to disrupt business as usual.

In reality, the Republican establishment brought this crisis on itself by cynically manipulating its own rank and file. The party can’t deal with the real economic distress threatening the nation as long as rebellion is still smoldering in the ranks. Of course, that suits the interests of the country-club and Fortune 500 wing of the party — the last thing they want is significant economic reform. Confusion and stalemate were serving their political uses.

On the other hand, the GOP can’t give the tea party rebels what they want without darkening its electoral prospects for 2016. Chaos had to be the outcome eventually; they just didn’t see it coming so soon. The confusion and feared crackup may actually open a brighter path for future politics, because the country is changing, including among white Southerners.

The most resonant political moment in 2015 may have been what occurred in South Carolina after the church massacre in Charleston. Many politicians fumbled around, not sure what to say, but GOP Governor Nikki Haley stepped forward and took ownership of the shame. She took down the Confederate flag, and burned it, so to speak, by acknowledging that it is a symbol of hate and calling for its removal from conspicuous display, which the state legislature agreed to do. Other Southern states swiftly followed with similar moves, except of course for Mississippi–by far the strongest racially divided state in the country.

As recent events have made clear, the corporate partners who dominate the GOP coalition have their own strong interest in promoting progressive social change — their customers demand it, and their employees and overseas markets expect it. Deep political change cannot reverse history in a single election cycle — it will take many elections — but Democrats have a great opportunity to force the question on the nation in 2016. Instead of playing limp and vague, Dems can launch what Howard Dean called for in 2004: a 50-state strategy that runs on liberating issues, but Debbie Wasserman-Schultz has proven to be as incompetent a leader of theDNC as anyone can remember in recent history and will likely squander this gift laid i her lap.

Instead of ignoring GOP bigotry, the Democratic ticket can promise to challenge it on every front and attack reactionary Republicans who try to impose the past on voters. Above all, Democrats should demand that tea party rebels explain why they are in league with a party that intends to cut Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security in order to finance more tax cuts for billionaires. If common folks ever understand the corrupt nature of the Republican coalition, we will see a popular rebellion that makes the present chaos look like, well, a tea party.

Harvey A. Gold

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