After last Tuesday’s creaming in the Virginia governor’s race, and with Tea Party negatives creeping toward 75 percent, the political punditry class has divided itself into one of two camps: those celebrating the demise of the Tea Party versus those forecasting its inevitable end. Who’s right? They're both wrong, because it’s not a movement. It’s a geographical region, and if history has taught us anything, southern folk are a pugnacious bunch.
Despite political feel-good rhetoric, there are two Americas. Not just ideologically, but geographically. That’s what still makes this country unique among other Western democracies. America is two distinct nations with a distinguishable border that runs the breadth of the country from the Mason-Dixon line across the southern border of Pennsylvania, finishing in some Baptist church somewhere in rural Texas.
The Tea Party is overwhelmingly Southern. Michael Lind, author of Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States, writes, “The facts show that the Tea Party in Congress is merely the familiar old neo-Confederate Southern right under a new label.” If you include Texas as a member of the Old South (banning tampons from the state house earns the Lone Star state that honor), nearly 80 percent of the Tea Party’s support comes from the former Confederate states. So, stop calling it a movement.
The Republican Party is not only the party of plutocrats and oligarchs; it’s also the party of the South. The party’s leaders are predominantly southern. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is from Kentucky. House Speaker John Boehner is from Cincinnati, Ohio, but Cincinnati is as close to the South as a northern city can be, given the city’s airport is actually in Kentucky. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor is from Virginia. '
And then there are the likely 2016 presidential hopefuls. With the exception of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, and the pathologically homophobic Rick Santorum, the rest of them are as southern as Colonel Sanders. Rand Paul is from Kentucky. Bobby Jindal is from Louisiana. Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio are from Florida.
While movements and ideas may die, a land mass does not, and while that southern land mass is occupied by a people who are willing to destroy the country in order to get their way, and while the GOP remains dependent on its "Southern strategy," the South’s fixation on everything related to controlling race, sex, religious practice, abortion laws, and dismantling the federal government will remain the revolutionary fervor of not only the Tea Party but also the GOP.
The trend lines in America are moving against the South thanks to increasing urbanization, the "browning of America," and the declining place for religion in American life. These are great challenges to the South’s way of life, and southerners don’t like it. So don’t expect one governor’s race in an off-year election to read as an obituary for the Tea Party. As much as the media and the GOP establishment would like you to believe Chris Christie, a moderate only by Tea Party standards, to be the presumptive nominee, the neo-Confederates are more likely to pick a gay atheist from San Francisco.
The GOP’s most agitated and mobilized voting bloc is its predominantly southern evangelical base. In their minds, they’ve experimented with non-Southern “moderates” in the form of John McCain and Mitt Romney, and they got trounced. The base gets its cues from Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Glenn Beck, and Sean Hannity, all of whom are juicing the base for a “severely conservative” 2016 candidate. Thus a northern governor who supports climate change, evolution, immigration and gun control will likely be sacrificed on the altar of southern radicalism—a fate realized by one former northern mayor in 2008, Rudy Giuliani.
The South, and by association the GOP, sees America increasingly through the prism of race. It’s central to their worldview. In 2012, 92% of the Republican vote came from white people who, within the next three decades, will no longer be in the majority. Despite losing the gubernatorial race, Ken Cuccinelli received more than 70% of the white vote. White southern voters view entitlements and immigration reform as liberal programs to buy votes. They believe food stamps and healthcare are an effort to take money from hard-working white people, and in turn, redistribute it to lazy black people. When Reagan spoke about a “welfare queen,” he didn’t need to mention her race. White southern voters had already painted a picture in their own minds.
In his seminal Better Off Without ‘Em: A Northern Manifesto for Southern Secession, Chuck Thompson writes:
The unified southern resistance to every initiative from any "liberal" administration has deep historic roots. The persistent defiance of every Democratic attempt to deal intelligently with national problems—be they recession, debt, or childhood obesity—has nothing to with political ideology, taxes, healthcare, or acceptable degrees of federal authority. It has everything to do with nullification, disruption, zealotry, and division. It’s part of a time-sharpened effort to debilitate nearly every northern-led government by injecting it with the Seven Deadly Sins of Southern Politics: demagogic dishonesty, religious fanaticism, willful obstructionism, disregard for own self-interest, corporate supplication, disproportionate influence, and military adventurism.
The next Republican Party presidential nominee will need to speak to these white southern fears and attitudes. Given that Civil War hostilities ended more than 150 years ago, and given the GOP is now backed by unprecedented levels of campaign finance thanks to Citizens United, don’t fool yourself into thinking the Tea Party strain of Republicanism is going away anytime soon. It's more likely they've only just arrived.