November 18, 2008
The future of the Republican Party-2: The Southern strategy takes hold
The coalition of old-style conservatives and social values voters held up because the former pandered to the latter by taking advantage of their relatively lower levels of urbane sophistication, by appealing to their vanity as being 'the real Americans', the people who epitomized the highest values of the country. Sarah Palin's Republican convention speech in which she quoted an unnamed writer who said "We grow good people in our small towns, with honesty, sincerity, and dignity" is an echo of that appeal. What she left out was that the author of that quote was an unreconstructed bigot by the name of Westbrook Pegler (1894-1969) whose other views are appalling.
Their lack of education was exploited by feeding them a diet of anti-intellectual rhetoric, appealing to the virtues of 'common sense' as superior to book learning. Again Palin's convention speech echoed that theme: "I was just your average hockey mom, and signed up for the PTA because I wanted to make my kids' public education better. When I ran for city council, I didn't need focus groups and voter profiles because I knew those voters, and knew their families, too." In other words, we don't need no fancy book learnin' and stuff like them latte-drinking, Volvo-driving, Birkenstock-wearing city slickers who think they are better than us. What we learn from our parents, our community, and the Bible is enough.
The old-style conservative Republican party leaders were largely of this supposedly despised educated urban class and did not, of course, believe any of this rubbish. There was no way that they were going to let these people actually run things. But the strategy required them to pander to this group and so they had to adopt a façade of being 'regular' folk. So one had the spectacle of the patrician, old-money, upper-class, Yale-Harvard educated Bush family from Connecticut adopting Texas and its down-home mannerisms for its own. George H. W. Bush famously declared his love for pork rinds as his favorite food and took to wearing cowboy hats and boots. It is not widely known that George W. Bush, now so closely identified with his rural Crawford ranch, bought it just before he ran for president as part of his campaign strategy, and assiduously cultivated his image of a plain-spoken rancher, a good-old-boy from rural Texas, with a history of drunken and riotous behavior who found Jesus and went straight, a plot line familiar to any lover of country and western songs.
By this means, the Republican party was able to cobble together a winning voting bloc that was divided according to social values rather than economic class. This enabled the wealthy ruling class, who were the leaders of both parties, to remain in power whichever party won.
The Southern strategy that led to Richard Nixon's wins in 1968 and 1972 also led to Ronald Reagan's victories in 1980 and 1984, George H. W. Bush's win in 1988, and George W. Bush's wins in 2000 and 2004.
It is telling that the only Democratic victories in that post-civil rights legislation period, Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996, involved candidates from the south, thus enabling them to partly neutralize the Republican Southern strategy since they could be portrayed in the south as 'one of us'. It should not be forgotten that both of them adopted elements of the Southern strategy, Carter playing up his 'just a simple peanut farmer' country boy image, and Clinton also emphasizing his down home rural small state roots.
Furthermore, there were exceptional circumstances in both those Democratic victories. In 1976 Carter undoubtedly benefited from Nixon having had to resign in disgrace, while in 1992 Bill Clinton became president with only 43% of the votes, since third-party candidate Ross Perot made that presidential election into a really wild race and got 19%.
So what has happened to the Southern strategy? Why did it fail in 2008? While Obama did speak about the Kansas roots of his grandparents (and Biden referred to his working class origins in Scranton, PA) he did not really try to obscure the fact that he was a highly educated product not only of urban America but of fairly exotic Hawaii and even foreign cultures. You did not see much of Obama shucking corn or drinking beers in small town bars or whooping it up at rodeos. The only attempt in that direction (bowling) did not go well and the campaign quickly reverted to showing him playing something he was good at (basketball) even though it is a sport that epitomizes urban living.
How was it that issues of abortion and gay rights and immigration and religion and guns failed to dominate this last election despite efforts to resurrect them as galvanizing issues? Even race was not a major issue even despite the presence of a black candidate. It is tempting to think that there has been a sea change in public sentiment that has made voters realize that all those issues are the distraction they always were. Is it the case that the Southern strategy is exhausted, at least on the national stage?
While it is tempting to think so, I am not so sanguine. I think there were other factors at play in the last election that were dominant which I will discuss in the next post.
POST SCRIPT: Auto industry woes
The state of the US auto industry is a source for some concern. Although the administration and Congress rushed to bail out banks and other financial institutions, they seem to be very reluctant to bail out an industry that employs lots of working class people who actually make things.
This is a tricky issue. The failure of the auto industry will have major repercussions since there is a huge nationwide chain of suppliers and dealers reaching into every corner of the country who will be thrown out of work. This argues for a bail out.
On the other hand, the reason the US auto industry is in such deep trouble is because they are making products that not enough people want to buy and it is not clear how bailing them out is going to do anything other than delay the inevitable. As one analyst said, if a restaurant is in trouble because it sells lousy food at high prices, bailing it out is not going to solve the problem.
One suggestion that appeals to me (although I don't know how feasible it might be) is to use the bailout money to create some sort of health care system for the auto industry employees, taking that huge financial burden off the companies, thus enabling those companies to be more price competitive with foreign manufacturers based in countries which have a government-run single-payer health care system.
Then perhaps people will realize that the present US system of funding and providing health care is insane, and that the country as a whole should switch to a single-payer health care system. If the auto industry can be made to support it, it may have a chance.