The Demise Of The Southern Strategy

As you may have read, the Republican Party elite is split on whether Chip Saltsman, who's running for the chairmanship of the RNC, was right to send committee members a CD including a song titled "Barack the Magic Negro." Those opposed see the political danger for the Republican Party in continuing to be the party of race baiters; those who think it's perfectly fine are likely to propel Saltsman to chair of the party. But the fact is, as Paul Krugman explores in his latest must-read OpEd, the GOP's reign as the party of racial backlash has led them to the wilderness in which they currently find themselves, it is not the source of their deliverance.

Forty years ago the G.O.P. decided, in effect, to make itself the party of racial backlash. And everything that has happened in recent years, from the choice of Mr. Bush as the party's champion, to the Bush administration's pervasive incompetence, to the party's shrinking base, is a consequence of that decision.

If the Bush administration became a byword for policy bungles, for government by the unqualified, well, it was just following the advice of leading conservative think tanks: after the 2000 election the Heritage Foundation specifically urged the new team to "make appointments based on loyalty first and expertise second."

Contempt for expertise, in turn, rested on contempt for government in general. "Government is not the solution to our problem," declared Ronald Reagan. "Government is the problem." So why worry about governing well?

Where did this hostility to government come from? In 1981 Lee Atwater, the famed Republican political consultant, explained the evolution of the G.O.P.'s "Southern strategy," which originally focused on opposition to the Voting Rights Act but eventually took a more coded form: "You're getting so abstract now you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is blacks get hurt worse than whites." In other words, government is the problem because it takes your money and gives it to Those People.

Krugman warns us not to allow the GOP to excuse away the failures of the Bush administration as bad luck or a result of championing a guy who wasn't truly conservative. The fact is, as Krugman points out:

...despite the claims of some on the right that Mr. Bush betrayed conservatism, the truth is that he faithfully carried out both his party's divisive tactics...and its governing philosophy.

Why is this relevant as we approach the beginning of Barack Obama's historic first term? Because in Barack Obama, Republicans have a Democrat who is not declaring that the era of big government is over. In Barack Obama, Republicans may have their worst fears realized: a president who empowers and funds government and proves that when run well, government can do great things for its citizens. Before the President-elect is even inaugurated, however, Republicans are already raising the spectre of Clinton's first 2 years as a cautionary tale for Obama. Yet Obama and Democrats in Congress should not be deterred. As Krugman rightly points out:

But America in 1993 was a very different country -- not just a country that had yet to see what happens when conservatives control all three branches of government, but also a country in which Democratic control of Congress depended on the votes of Southern conservatives. Today, Republicans have taken away almost all those Southern votes -- and lost the rest of the country. It was a grand ride for a while, but in the end the Southern strategy led the G.O.P. into a cul-de-sac.

Mr. Obama therefore has room to be bold. If Republicans try a 1993-style strategy of attacking him for promoting big government, they'll learn two things: not only has the financial crisis discredited their economic theories, the racial subtext of anti-government rhetoric doesn't play the way it used to.

And bold Mr. Obama must be.

Tags: Barack Obama, George W Bush, Southern Strategy (all tags)



Re: The Demise Of The Southern Strategy

Obama may not have said anything as provocative as "the era of big government is over," but realistically he has plenty of quotes along the same lines.  In reality, what's important is not what he says but what he does.

One of the reasons people like Paul Krugman are pushing arguments like "the New Deal wasn't ambitious ENOUGH" is that while Obama generally gives indications that he is thinking big, it's still not clear whether he is thinking big enough.  The health care issue will probably give us a good early indication.

My opinion is that people right now are simply looking for solutions that work and aren't really hung up on ideology one way or another.  Lately Republicans have gotten bogged down into arguing ideology ("that's socialism!") and until they break out of that mode, I don't think their opposition will be very effective.  They do much better when they're offering practical objections.

by Steve M 2009-01-02 02:17PM | 0 recs
Re: The Demise Of The Southern Strategy
I wholeheartedly agree. This was paramount during one of the debates when Gramps called Obama "The most liberal senator in Congress". Obama just stared at him blankly with a "So?" expression. Obama just continued on with his answer and the moderator went with the next question.
If the Republicans think times are bad for them now, wait until everybody that voted for McCain figures out that Socialism and 'wealth distribution'  means the haves (600K+) have to share with the have-nots. I'm betting that An overwhelming majority of McCains' voters will fall into the 95% that will see tax relief.
by xodus1914 2009-01-02 04:48PM | 0 recs
the politics of resentment

I like that phrase better than "southern strategy," because the Republicans use it even in parts of the country where people don't identify as "southern."

The GOP enjoyed a nice, long ride with the politics of resentment, and I don't expect Republican elites to give it up anytime soon.

Right after the election, two prominent Iowa Republicans were on Iowa Public Tv talking about how to rebuild the party and start winning in Iowa. There was a social conservative and a so-called moderate (who is also social conservative, but is against "litmus tests"). The moderate was Doug Gross, who worked in Republican governors' offices in the 1970s and 1980s and was the GOP's gubernatorial candidate against Vilsack in 2002.

Here's Gross (from the transcript): 7/ip_20081107_3610

But I also believe that to be a success in politics you've got to win elections and you can't win elections if you're a minority party and you only focus on a minority of your coalition.  We have to look broader than that.  What we really have to do is speak to the fundamental issues that Iowans care about which is I'm working hard every day, in many cases a couple of jobs, my wife works as well, we take care of our kids and yet the government is going to increase our taxes, they're going to increase spending and they're going to give that to somebody who is not working.  That kind of message will win for republicans among the people we have and we've gotten away from that.  

Sound familiar? Democrats will take your money and give it to "somebody who is not working." Probably somebody who looks different and talks different from you.

I read that and I thought, this guy thinks they can ride the Reagan-style "welfare queen" talk back to power. I think he's off-base, but I bet a lot of Republican elites will agree with him. They may have to lose another election or two before they wake up.

Alternatively, Democrats will blow it and the Republicans will come back no matter what strategy they use.

by desmoinesdem 2009-01-02 02:26PM | 0 recs
Re: the politics of resentment

The newest version of the politics of resentment involves trying to make the folks who work at places like Wal-Mart resentful of people who have well-paying union jobs with good benefits.

The old American dream was that everyone could get a job like that if they worked hard enough.  The new American dream seems to be that most people can't have that any more, so we need to drag down the lucky few that still do.

The auto bailout was a good example of this, where you saw the Republicans going on and on about the autoworkers with their "gold-plated health plans" and all that, but nary a word about executive compensation.  The union worker has to be the bad guy.

by Steve M 2009-01-02 02:35PM | 0 recs
Re: the politics of resentment

Lets just be thankful that finally the Republican politics of standing up for the big guy, slash and burn, wedge issues seems to be failing them. Its worked for a depressingly long time.

Unfortunate that Republican ideology and policies had to be tested to destruction before their tactics were repudiated. And who knows, maybe they'll be successful once again.

Government by and for rich, white people whilst demonizing blacks, the poor, union workers, gays... I think it'll be a long time before the Republicans give up on that dream.

by liberalj 2009-01-02 03:15PM | 0 recs
Re: The Demise Of The Southern Strategy

Great post. It would make a really welcome diary to see on the rec list! Give Obama and the Democrats a little more time. There is so much room and need to delve way more deeply into what I consider to be the outright crimes committed by Republicans in the last 8 years. Our biggest threat right now is allowing credit agencies to take over billing for health care providers.

And Heads Up: The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality's (AHRQ) Technology Assessment Program will be posting a draft technology assessment for review on January 9, 2009. This draft is entitled "Horizon Scan: To What Extent Do Changes in Third-Party Payment Affect Clinical Trials and the Evidence Base?"  If you are interested in reviewing this document, please visit: The document will be available for review from January 9, 2009 to January 23, 2009.

by Jeter 2009-01-02 02:55PM | 0 recs
The Demise Of The Southern Strategy

Great post. Bold he must be and it's our job to embolden him when he waivers.

by Charles Lemos 2009-01-02 02:58PM | 0 recs
Re: The Demise Of The Southern Strategy

I hope it is dead and buried... nothing has been more frustrating than dealing with people more than willing to cut their nose to spite their own face, i.e. working class republicans, just 'cos they want to stick it to "those people", even though it also meant impoverishing themselves.

I guess now when they think of money being given to people who aren't working, they'll hopefully realize it's their uncle or next door neighbor that's getting a hand up...  So far, the only people who "aren't working" getting benefits are the big bang execs who don't do a dime's bit of work.

by LordMike 2009-01-02 04:04PM | 0 recs
What is Conservatism?

"...despite the claims of some on the right that Mr. Bush betrayed conservatism, the truth is that he faithfully carried out both his party's divisive tactics...and its governing philosophy."

 I'm so happy you highlighted this statement.  When things are great, you are a conservative.  When the sht hits the fan, He wasn't a true conservative.  What BS

 My favorite writer on the Net, Glenn Greenwald, had a great post right after the 2006 elections, when "conservatives" first started throwing King George under the bus.  As Glenn pointed out, conservatism isn't a "static" concept; it is fluid and a lens to what it's practitioners believe at that time in history.

 When Bush told his flock he was one of them, they were more than happy to consider him their alpha-dog and respected his ideas as to the function of government in their lives.  Bush was the head Conservative, as such, and his leadership went unquestioned by fellow conservatives, which meant that the majority of conservatives were agreeing with him on his vision of a "Conservative" Government.

 So, now that King George has been a complete failure, Conservatives are Not allowed to say he wasn't a "True Conservative".  The problem is that King George was a True Conservative of the 2000's, as accepted by his enthusiastic sheep looking for other lands to graze in.

by barkleyg 2009-01-02 04:19PM | 0 recs
Re: The Demise Of The Southern Strategy

Todd, I fail to see how conflating a philosophical belief that government should be extremely limitted with personal racism is helpful to anyone.

Just like the Republicans of 2001-2005 applied the "traitor" label to every dissenter, the Democrats of 2008-2012 are in danger of the people who apply the "racist" label to every dissenter.  The GOP got it's backlash, and if this trend continues, I guarantee we will get ours.

You'll have yourself to thank.


by SuperCameron 2009-01-02 04:29PM | 0 recs
Wrong, Actually...

Read "Deer Hunting with Jesus" to get the real picture of why we lost low information red state voters, and why we won't get some Liberal backlash going by calling our racism AND classism when we see it.

We lost the low information voters because they saw Liberals as gutless punks, afriad of their own shadows.

Obama NEVER backed down from being called a liberal, and neither should we.

The Southern Republican party is the party of Racism, Misyogny and out-right Homophobia.

And, their grip on power is slipping, age and demographics are working against them...

And we should kick them to curb, step on their necks and never let them up.

by WashStateBlue 2009-01-02 06:13PM | 0 recs
Re: Wrong, Actually...

WSB, I never said anyone should shrink from any label he or she chooses to take.

You're free to be a name caller just like anyone else, of course.  I won't be taking part, because it's not productive.

My statement was that the majority people who call themselves conservative or libertarian do so because they have philosophical beliefs in those positions.  It's not because they are racist as Krugman and Todd apparently believe.

Calling people the most insulting pejoratives possible just because they disagree is uproductive.  It also produces a pattern--as more issues are broached, there is more opportunity for disagreement.  The pool of folks being called racists grows.  Soon, you're calling a majority racists.  At that point, you lose elections.

Ask the GOP of 2004 to 2006 about that.

by SuperCameron 2009-01-03 07:47PM | 0 recs
Re: The Demise Of The Southern Strategy

The Republican thing isn't in any danger of resurging in a big way.  They are likely going to wipe out most of the remaining Old Democrat power from Georgia to Kansas and Oklahoma soon.  But there is no solace for them anywhere else.  They are barely hanging on or simply crapping out in the Rust Belt, Virginia, Florida, the Southwest...

Our real problem these next couple of years lies in the Democratic moderate/liberal division and internal bad residues of the pre-2002 Party.  E.g. Blagojevic, Blue Dogs, all the various murky or dubious appointee Senators, Lieberman.  I'm not worried about Republicans finding "issues", more about Democrats simply not getting enough of the right things done and looking pretty bad in not doing it.  Just how solid Obama's real support is is also something we will have to learn.

by killjoy 2009-01-02 06:55PM | 0 recs
Re: The Demise Of The Southern Strategy

Citizens who insist on calling themselves anything but American; i.e., Hyphenated-Americans are asking to be treated uniquely with special privileges and are segregating and dividing the country.  Hyphenated-American is Un-American and will be resisted by Americans.  So African-American Obama is not my President.  There is a new effort under the "Campaign for Liberty" to return to the Constitution and truly promote national security while not totally isolating America.  I support that effort, and it is gaining strength.  Real conservatives are not going to transition to what America has become.

by Sportster2005 2009-01-03 04:51AM | 0 recs
Terrific Sportster...

Really looking forward to your individual diaries on this...

Can't wait to hear how we can return to a true model of the original Constitution?  Hopefully, only allowing rich white men to vote is amongst those "originalist ideas" of yours?

Please spend A LOT OF TIME on it, and we will be sure and comment liberally (opps...hope that word didn't scare you) on it...

by WashStateBlue 2009-01-03 06:45AM | 0 recs


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