New Southern Strategy? Same as the Old

The Trent Lott catastrophe has refocused attention on the Republicans’ infamous “Southern Strategy,” dating from about 1964, when most Southern whites still called themselves Democrats. So successful has been the strategy that judges whose families have been Democrats for generations now routinely run for office as Republicans because “you have to get elected,” as one judge told me in Houston.

Meanwhile, The Democrats, too have had their Southern Strategy, though it is rarely noted except in the pages of CounterPunch. It is often curiously similar to its Republican “opposite.”

Consider some of the manifestations of that strategy since 1964, in no particular order: stand idly by while the great Carl Elliott loses first his seat in Congress and then his race for governor in Alabama; nominate four white Southerners for president, electing two of them; throw Earl Hilliard and Cynthia McKinney overboard; stay quiet while a Republican wrapped in the Confederate battle flag questions Medal of Honor winner Max Cleland’s patriotism; compete with Republicans for corporate funding from the likes of Enron; be second to none in support for “Homeland Security” measures and war in Iraq; bend over backward to avoid alienating white males and corporate masters. Readers may pause to add their own examples before asking whose Southern Strategy has been more consistently disheartening over the past five decades, the Democrats’ or the Republicans’?

Currently, the political world has quickly divided itself among those who find Trent Lott’s Snopesian implosion “unforgivable,” those who find it merely “offensive” and those who find it “stupid.”

Lott’s remarks were “stupid” because they caused “trouble” for his party. Lott’s only defense, that he is not a racist, merely bonehead dumb, was not enough to endear him to those who would most like to kill him with their teeth. He’s been “coma toast” for a week and finally even he figured it out.

The poor Repugnicans. Their favorite word, when they get caught saying something “stupid” (stupid because they got caught), is to label the sentiments expressed in what they got caught saying as “repugnant.” Repugnant as in “it looks bad to be associated with it.” So it is now the party’s turn to declare that “we wouldn’t be having all these problems” if Lott weren’t such a moron and we hadn’t just got done choosing him unanimously as our leader.

Can you count the number of white men who have come forward on television to declare that Lott isn’t a racist? Senator Shelby of Alabama, a politican so covert he waited until he was elected to declare himself a Republican, in one sentence swore that Lott isn’t a racist and that we shouldn’t “lynch” him. (Talk about stupid. God forbid that any of us should use “code words” at this delicate juncture.) But even Senator Shelby would probably rather have a live sex change operation on cable TV than be photographed with Lott right now.

Now that he has embarrassed them, the Senate Majority Leader has become repugnant to his fellow Repugnicans. They don’t want to stand near him lest anyone notice a family resemblance.

Too late. It is unmistakably clear that what Lott said at Thurmond’s birthday party is perfectly emblematic of virtually the entire party’s record on race. (Even Barry Goldwater, whom conservatives love to call the liberals’ favorite conservative, opposed the Civil Rights Act when it mattered.)

It isn’t just Trent Lott who must go. It’s the whole Republican Southern Strategy, all the way back to Strom Thurmond’s 1948 presidential campaign on the Dixiecrat ticket. It was Richard Nixon who first articulated the strategy and exploited it successfully, but it is George W. Bush who owes his presidency to it now.

It’s the conservatism, stupid.

Trent Lott is no anomaly among conservatives. The whole Southern Strategy that brought him into being was a racist ploy. Republican candidates have had 54 years to appeal to Black voters in Southern states. That they still routinely win less than ten percent of the Black vote is itself prima facie evidence of unregenerate racism.

The tone of their political campaigns, from Bush One’s use of Willie Horton in 1988 to Bush Two’s appearance at Bob Jones University in 2000, from Jesse Helms’ notorious “you lost that job to a minority” ad to the waving of the Confederate battle flag in Georgia’s elections, is beyond blatant.

There is no honest remedy that would include the party’s survival in power, if they had an effective opposition. As Robert Johnson said, the stuff they got’ll bust their brains out. Running Trent Lott out of town on a rail won’t remove the stench. Southern candidates are not going to start openly rejecting the support of covertly racist groups. Intellectual honesty, which no one is stupid enough to expect, would require the president to denounce his own party and the movement that elected him.

Lott had hardly kicked off his Global Apology Tour when the White House began efforts to replace him with a Southern Strategist who isn’t “stupid.” Bill (“Rack ’em and Crack ’em”) Frist is next in line, but for what? Will he be the new Bob Dole or the new Bob Livingston, forced to withdraw before he can assume the position? Let the games begin!

Meanwhile, let us celebrate 2002 as the year the national media “discovered” that Trent Lott is a racist. Why did it take so long?

When Ronald Reagan went to Philadelphia, Mississippi to open his presidential campaign by talking about his devotion to “states’ rights,” everybody knew what he was really talking about. Many who went ballistic about his appalling trip to Bitburg were silent about that trip to Philadelphia.

Why were they silent? Might as well ask why Tom Daschle was quick to defend and slow to attack Lott for his segregationist nostalgia. Or why Al Gore didn’t raise holy hell about the civic atrocities committed against Black voters in Florida, where polling places were run as sting operations (a practice that continues unabated across Southern states). The answer is the same: it’s the liberalism, stupid. It’s the Southern Strategy.

If Tom Daschle were Sam Rayburn, he would now invite Trent Lott to change parties and offer him a leadership position.

DAVID VEST writes the Rebel Angel column for CounterPunch.

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DAVID VEST writes the Rebel Angel column for CounterPunch. He and his band, The Willing Victims, have just released a scorching new CD, Serve Me Right to Shuffle. His essay on Tammy Wynette is featured in CounterPunch’s new collection on art, music and sex, Serpents in the Garden.