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Southern Strategy on the Skids

Photo by Jamelle Bouie | CC BY 2.0

The Republican version of hardball racial politics has long shaped the politics of the Deep South. Democrat Doug Jones’s upset win in Alabama over Republican Roy Moore in the special Senate race surprised Democrats and stunned Republicans. For a generation, Alabama’s Senate seats have been regarded by both parties as “safe” for Republicans.  The same has been largely true for the other Southern states. It began when South Carolina’s Senator Strom Thurmond led what he hoped would be a national effort to preserve segregation, running for president as a Dixiecrat in 1948. Sensing the political winds, he switched to the Republican Party in 1964, bringing his commitment to white supremacy with him.

But it was Alabama Governor George Wallace who most personified the effort to resist racial integration. When he ran for President in 1968, he won a majority of the white vote in the Deep South. But Wallace was too roughhewn for country club Republicans. They liked his aims but could not abide his brash style and vulgar rhetoric. They preferred racial code words such as “states rights” to racial epithets which they associated with “white trash.” Being genteel and racist at the same time takes some doing, but is possible when mixed with a heavy dose of hypocrisy.

Racial politics took a new, and significant, turn in 1968; Richard Nixon embraced a race-based southern strategy orchestrated from the White House. The plan was the brainchild of Republican strategist Kevin Phillips. His was a more subtle, but no less effective, racism – designed not to embarrass voters at the country club or at church. Nixon’s racist politics were, in effect, a watered-down version of those extolled by George Wallace. Wallace went for the rural and small-town vote; Nixon went more for the suburbs. His political operatives, Harry Dent and Lee Atwater, generally avoided overt race-baiting as it had become less effective than the nuanced, coded approach.

The Southern Strategy had proved to be a political game changer, one that exceeded expectations of supporters and opponents alike. Lyndon Johnson had seen it coming, remarking after he signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that the South was lost and would go Republican in a big way. What Johnson probably did not foresee was the concentrated effort that non-southernRepublicans would make to exploit racist sentiments for political gain. Racism had never been confined to the South, and national politics proved that time and again.

Racial politics had become part and parcel of the Republican Party when Ronald Reagan rode onto the national scene in 1980. Reagan had no real need to embrace racial politics; he had virtually swept the country in his race against Democrat Jimmy Carter. But conservative Republicans detested government-funded social welfare programs. Reagan spoke contemptuously of “ welfare queens” who drove Cadillacs and used food stamps for groceries. This stereotype defied reality; it was another iteration of coded political speech. Conservative intellectuals in think tanks may have preferred to believe that Reagan was referring to opportunistic poor people, both black and white. But in the Deep South, every segregationist worth his salt knew in his heart that Reagan was speaking of an overweight black woman hooked on Pepsi-Colas and Moon Pies that she bought with food stamps.

To this day, the Republican Party regards Ronald Reagan as a gift from heaven. Oddly, his stature continues to grow despite increasing evidence of his poor health and incompetence. Reagan, more than any other politician, appealed to conservatives and to blue-collar workers. In the Deep South, an unholy alliance rooted in racism brought together Goldwater conservatives, country clubbers, professionals and assorted members of the working class. The color codes were as much black and white as they were blue and red.

Alabama’s Richard Shelby, like Strom Thurmond before him, went with the flow, switching to the Republican Party in 1994, two years after he was elected to the Senate as a Democrat.  Shelby has played a key role in making Alabama one of the reddest of the red states. His decision not to support Roy Moore surprised many constituents at home and colleagues in Washington. Shelby not only broke with Moore, he broke with what had become an ingrained political tradition, leaving his state looking a bit less than solid red.

No region of the country has changed more in the past quarter-century than the Deep South. It has seen migration from rural to urban and an influx of people from other parts of the country, particularly from the north and mid-west. A slow but steady stream of migrants has moved in from south of the border. One result is that voting patterns – despite widespread attempts at voter suppression – are much less predictable. Young white voters are showing clear signs of turning a deaf ear to racist dog whistles.  Blacks, with women in the forefront, are raising their voices and making them heard. Hispanics and Latinos are registering and voting in record numbers. The “great unwashed” are beginning to stir. The South may be, as Jesse Jackson has observed at a turning point. The question is: where will it turn?

Trump, the anti-Reagan, heads a Party that is in disarray and decline. Neither the populist-nationalist wing nor the traditional-conservative wing is positioned to recruit new members into the fold. Everyone except Republicans seems to understand that there is more to governance than cutting taxes for the super-rich and mega-corporations. When the old Republican Party embraced white supremacy, it put its brand on America at its worst. When it embraced corporatism and militarism, it sold its soul. There’s no going back on a Faustian bargain.

The Republican Party seems to be dying a slow death from self-inflicted wounds.  It is corrupt, weak and divided, and attracts the worst sort of political opportunists, some of whom smack of racism and fascism. Party operatives sense that the political winds are shifting around them, hence the push to consolidate as much power as possible and to preserve the status quo.  Amazingly, some would like to roll the clock back to those happy days when white supremacy ruled. But this is a fool’s dream. No amount of political gerrymandering, court-packing, or massive incarceration can stem the tide that is social justice. American democracy may be moribund, but it is not dead.

The Jones-Moore senate race showed that voters in the South will reject racist, reactionary candidates when there is a decent alternative.  It also revealed a crack in the wall of the Solid South, and a real opportunity to begin to change the politics of the region. More and more voters are rejecting racial politics and the corporate rule that exploits it. There is no discernible life support for the party, not in the egregious tax bill or in any of its other policies.  Voters should just let it go. No resuscitation, please.  It has clearly outlived its usefulness and would be doing the country a favor if it left the stage, exit far right.

Sadly, the Democratic Party also is corrupt, weak and divided and is not positioned to take advantage of the new dynamics. There may be some hope (that word again) for the Democrats, but they have to go beyond reform and re-work the Party from the grass roots up. The essential first step must be to break the bonds of neo-liberalism and cut the ties (that bind) with Wall Street.  The party cannot succeed if it clings to its false gods and cash cows. Or to its Old Guard.

Radical reform may be too much to ask of the Democrats; the diehards are still calling the defining shots. A political party that cannot liberate itself certainly cannot effect regional or national “liberation.”  Once again we may witness the all too familiar spectacle of the Democrats snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.  Things are different this time: the stakes are higher than they have ever been because our democracy is at grave risk. It is crucial that we look beyond the Democratic Party for political salvation. The radical change we need in order to restore democracy requires more democrats, not more Democrats. The donkey has morphed into an albatross.

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