Monday, November 17, 2008

The Rise and Fall of the "Southern Strategy"

In the recent U.S. Presidential election Barak Obama won a majority everywhere in the United States but the South. There, McCain won Southern whites by 38 percentage points. For the first time in 50 years a Democratic Presidential candidate was elected who wasn't from the South.

The fact that Obama was elected President without the American South means the end of the Republican party's forty year old strategy of appealing to a Southern white evangelical base. We saw this in the recent Presidential campaign, where the veiled attacks on Obama, an African American, for being - too different, not a real American, a scary radical – appealed to the Republican base but fell on deaf ears for everyone else. The “Southern strategy” that worked so well to keep the Republican party in power had finally exhausted itself.

The Southern strategy was premised on the South's unique identity: A more rural, less educated, less tolerant, more church going, more racist white population. For almost a hundred years southern whites had voted for the Democratic party because it was the Republican party under Abraham Lincoln that had led the Union to victory against the Confederacy. But in the 1960's Kennedy and Johnson, two successive Democratic Presidents had supported the civil rights movement and enacted civil rights laws that had challenged white supremacy in the South. Because of this association an opportunity arose for the Republican party to get Southern whites to switch their party allegiance.

In 1964, Arizona senator Barry Goldwater campaigned against the civil rights act. He wasn't a racist, he was a libertarian who believed that individual businesses had the right to do business with whomever they chose. But he campaigned for “States Rights” which was a kind of shorthand in the South for continuing the policy of segregation between whites and blacks.

Goldwater lost in 1964 but he carried the South. In 1968 Richard Nixon won the election on the campaign of State's rights and law and order. Nixon was able to appear moderate to most Americans because his campaign referred to integration obliquely through State's rights and busing. Nixon won again in 1972. In 1980 Ronald Reagan started his campaign by giving a speech supporting states rights in Philadelphia, Mississipi, a town who's one claim to fame was the brutal murder of three civil rights workers in 1964. Reagan was not racist himself, what he did was to promote policies that targeted blacks, but without mentioning race.

The South has the highest concentration of white evangelical Christians of any region in the United States. Except for the Quakers, who were driven out of the South, Southern Christians actively supported slavery in the nineteenth century and white supremacy in the twentieth , often citing verses from the Bible in support of their racist views. The US government enforcing school integration coincides with the start of the association between Christian Fundamentalists and the Republican party. The perennial Republican themes of small government and "getting the government off our backs" was seen as code to Southerners for an agenda supportive of segregationism.

Since Reagan, Fundamentalist Christians have been used by the Republican party as dedicated party workers who were key to getting out the vote. Clever operatives like Karl Rove have used hot button issues like abortion, and homosexuality to motivate evangelicals to do the basic footwork for their campaigns. Because Southern Evangelical Christians have such deep abiding prejudices they were especially vulnerable to being manipulated by the Republicans.

Paul Krugman, New York Times Columnist and Noble Prize winner sums it up nicely: “The Republicans above all are concerned with making America safe for the rich. Right wing economic ideology has never been a vote winner. Instead the party's electoral strategy depended largely on exploiting racial fear and animosity. The religious right supplied the passion and the economic right supplied the money.”

A leader like Barak Obama is a great leader precisely because he rises above sectarianism. He seeks that which ties us together, that which we have in common. When we build societies together we benefit from a multiplicity of beliefs and viewpoints. Focusing on what separates us and on emotional dividing lines is ultimately destructive to society. America is changing. A growing Spanish-speaking sector in California and the South-West is making even a covert appeal to racism a non-starter. The Southern strategy has seen it's heyday and the Republican party is about to pay the price for promoting hatred and intolerance.

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