Death of the Reagan revolution: Why the Southern Strategy is beginning to come undone

For years, the GOP establishment harnessed the power of Southern whites for their own ends. Not any more

Published October 15, 2015 7:29PM (EDT)

  (AP/Bill Haber/Carolyn Kaster/Photo montage by Salon)
(AP/Bill Haber/Carolyn Kaster/Photo montage by Salon)

About 50 years ago, the Republican party made a conscious decision to become the party of white men. It was a smart strategic move that ushered in an era of neoliberalism and GOP dominance throughout the final decades of the 20th century, though it has always been an odd alliance between poor and working class white Southerners and wealthy business and financial elites. This alliance, widely known as the "Southern Strategy," has remained generally stable for nearly half a century, but today, the cracks are starting to widen, and it is seemingly falling apart. As William Greider pointed out in The Nation earlier this week:

“The party establishment, including business and financial leaders, seems to realize that Republicans need to moderate their outdated posture on social issues. But they can’t persuade their own base—especially Republicans in the white South—to change. The longer the GOP holds out, the more likely it is to be damaged by the nation’s changing demographics—the swelling impact of Latinos and other immigrants, and the flowering influence of millennials, the 18-to-30-year-olds who are more liberal and tolerant than their elders.”

While the country at large is moving past the social intolerance that has long plagued our political discourse, a significant part of the GOP has refused to budge when it comes to issues like gay marriage, immigration, and reproductive rights. Leading candidates in the GOP primary -- like Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Carly Fiorina, who are all doing their best to rile up social conservatives -- reveal this stubbornness.

However, America’s changing demographics -- or as Ann Coulter calls it, the “browning of America” -- is the most damning change for the Republican party. The fact that America is becoming more and more diverse, while the GOP is seemingly doubling down on its white identity politics, does not bode well for its future.

The Southern Strategy came about during the Civil Rights era, particularly after the President Lyndon Johnson, a Democrat from Texas, signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964. “I think we just delivered the South to the Republican party for a long time to come,” Johnson presciently said to a White House aide.

Richard Nixon was the first Republican candidate to run on the Southern Strategy, with the backing of the nation's foremost “Dixiecrat,” Strom Thurmond, who had sustained the longest filibuster in history in order to delay a vote on the 1957 Civil Rights Act. In 1972, Nixon swept the historically Democratic South, and, except for a hiccup in the form of Georgia native Jimmy Carter, the region has been a Republican stronghold ever since.

But it was Ronald Reagan who was the first truly neoliberal president to ran on the Southern Strategy, using dog-whistle terms like "welfare queen" and promoting states rights’ issues in the deep South, where civil rights demonstrators had been terrorized a decade earlier. The late Republican strategist, Lee Atwater, notoriously described the southern strategy in an off-the-record interview:

“You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘N***er, n***er, n***er.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘n***er’—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and 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.”

No wonder the Republican party is so hostile towards immigrants with darker skin. According to a Pew Research Center poll, the most Republican segments of the population are white evangelicals, white southerners, white men with some college or less, and Mormons (a church that had banned black people up until 1978).

However, internal dissension, which has become quite clear with the lingering search for the next House Speaker, is casting in sharp relief a party that is self-destructing before our very eyes. A minority of extremists are holding the GOP hostage, and even Ayn Rand’s greatest admirer, Paul Ryan, is now considered too left-wing by certain congressional conservatives. The establishment Republicans, i.e. big business conservatives and neocons, can no longer control the social conservatives, or the right-wing populists -- particularly those from the South -- and the contradictory alliance that helped the GOP dominate for so many years is dissolving. The chief defender of the Republican establishment, David Brooks, has called the Republican party “ungovernable,” while 2008 Republican presidential candidate John McCain has said: “People do expect us to govern. I think it’s a degree of unrest and dissatisfaction amongst our base that we have not seen before.”

For many decades, the business and financial elite of the GOP were able to keep their Southern cohorts in line, but today, a kind of right-wing populism has taken over much of the party. This style of populism has historically been anti-immigrant, anti-elitist, nationalist, and prone to white-supremacist views. It is not a surprise that it has become fashionable again; we are living in a time of social progress, and America is rapidly becoming more diverse. The enormous increase in inequality and the corruption of Washington have also contributed to the distrust of government and the rise of an authoritarian demagogue like Donald Trump.

It is reactionary populism at its core, and it has been waiting to erupt. It is the final battle cry of white males and their declining dominance in American life. Needless to say, at a time when diversity is at an all time high, and the population at large has become more socially progressive (especially young people), this movement does not have the strength to gain any kind of majority, but it could very well be enough to send the Republican party to its grave.

By Conor Lynch

Conor Lynch is a writer and journalist living in New York City. His work has appeared on Salon, AlterNet, Counterpunch and openDemocracy. Follow him on Twitter: @dilgentbureauct.

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