“In Birmingham they love the governor.”
By joining the Republican Party, once hated in Dixie for being the party of Lincoln and subsequent carpetbaggers, the South helped transform the GOP into the dominant national party for decades.
The conservative movement’s founders might have been intellectuals and the GOP establishment once might have been Northeastern elites, but that arrangement was always tenuous. When Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed banks, the infamous outlaw supposedly replied, “Because that’s where the money is.” Likewise, anyone who seeks to understand why conservatism became what it is can only expect this answer: “Because that’s where the votes were.” Indeed, after the 2014 midterms, almost half of the Republican congressional delegation represented Southern districts. But what happens when you build your political coalition around a constituency that is no longer sufficient? What is more, what happens when appeasing your base and growing your coalition become mutually exclusive goals?
Times change, and yesterday’s solution becomes tomorrow’s challenge. Such is the case with today’s GOP and the South. The South helped fuel Richard Nixon’s romp over George McGovern and Ronald Reagan’s 49—1 rout of Walter Mondale. It did its part in saving us from a President Dukakis or Kerry. It would be hard to overestimate the importance of the GOP aligning with Southern values. Redskins coach George Allen was famous for saying, “The future is now.” Sometimes, to borrow a phrase from Donald Rumsfeld, you go to war with the army you have. That’s the tradeoff Republicans made, and it was perfectly rational. But there were also unintended consequences. A political party inevitably reflects its constituents’ attitudes and biases. The notion that any party can change its voter base without changing its philosophy and its politicians is naive; pandering inevitably becomes a self‑fulfilling prophecy. Republicans captured the South, yes, but the South also captured the GOP.
The addition of the South and rural communities in states like South Carolina, Alabama, and Mississippi as a reliable bloc of the Republican coalition was one of the many factors leading to the GOP’s image as both the stupid party and the party of white men with Confederate flag stickers on the backs of their trucks. This may not be fair—it certainly plays to stereotypes. But that hardly matters. Today, this is increasingly seen as a liability.
The Southern Strategy
You’ve probably heard of the Southern strategy, but you might not know exactly what it means or how the Republican Party allegedly employed it. The Southern strategy, as Mike Allen defined it in The Washington Post, “described Republican efforts to use race as a wedge issue—on matters such as desegregation and busing—to appeal to white Southern voters.”
Whether you believe this was an overt scheme or just how things shook out, this much is true: at some point around 1972, the once reliably solid Democratic South became a Republican stronghold. We may differ about what this means and about whether the GOP deserves culpability for stirring up racial animus to achieve it. But the key takeaway is that the addition of the South to the Republican fold, followed by the party’s abandonment of urban areas, the northeast, and then the Pacific Coast dramatically changed the face of conservatism—and not just because it fairly or not associated the GOP with segregationists—an ironic turn of events for the party of Lincoln.
It helps to consider just who the Southerners who joined the GOP in the ’60s were. Viewed in the most negative light, they were segregationists who felt betrayed when Democrats like Lyndon Johnson pursued the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (which Barry Goldwater opposed). It would also be fair to say that, putting aside the race issue, these Southern Democrats also saw the degree to which the American Left was lurching in a radical cultural direction and jumped ship. “Nixon won the South,” wrote his former aide Pat Buchanan, “not because he agreed with them on civil rights—he never did—but because he shared the patriotic values of the South and its antipathy to liberal hypocrisy.”
While some on the Right want to downplay the race angle, others on the Left suggest that the entire success of the modern GOP was premised on exploiting Southern racism. Interestingly, though, much of what both sides think we know about this trend appears to be wrong. Elections analyst Sean Trende recently argued that “while the dominant narrative continues to insist that the South began to realign toward the Republicans in the wake of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, in fact, Southern loyalties had begun to weaken during the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt.” As evidence, Trende notes that the South voted increasingly Republican every year of FDR’s presidency, and that although Eisenhower lost Dixie, he did so by only three points. What is more, while Eisenhower was gaining support in the South, he was simultaneously pushing civil rights legislation. So why did the South become increasingly Republican starting in the 1940s? According to Trende, “Southern whites simply became wealthy enough to start voting Republican.” This, of course, flies in the face of everything we think we know about why the South became solidly Republican. This is not to suggest that race wasn’t involved in the shift that really began to reach a tipping point after the ’60s, but it does suggest that history is more complex than the Reader’s Digest (or, rather, the Mother Jones) version many of us are taught in school.
After the post—Civil Rights Act “Dixiecrat” shift, economics and air‑conditioning conspired to send American voters fleeing the Rust Belt for the Sun Belt, further eroding the power of the Northeast Republican establishment, personified by the New York governors and presidential aspirants Thomas Dewey and Nelson Rockefeller. (This is a trend that is still under way; according to the U.S. census, the city of Austin, Texas—the liberal enclave in a deeply red state—was, by far, the fastest growing city in America from 2010 to 2013.) It’s unwise to write off an entire swath of the nation, but that’s just what Barry Goldwater, who represented Arizona in the U.S. Senate, seemed to do when he declared that “sometimes I think the country would be better off if we could just saw off the Eastern seaboard and let it float out to sea.” The Johnson campaign turned that line into a devastating ad in which the eastern side of a U.S. map, floating in water, is literally sawed off.
Truth be told, the South’s influence came to dominate both parties. Democrats soon saw that the only way they could win would be to cut into the GOP’s base. For a while, it looked like the only path to Democratic victory was through nominating a son of the South. From Texan Lyndon Johnson to Georgia peanut farmer Jimmy Carter to Arkansas’s Bill Clinton (and even to, yes, Al Gore), seemingly only Southern Democrats could win the White House—and even that trend was not very recent; consider Virginia‑born segregationist Woodrow Wilson or Harry Truman, the descendants of slaveholders and Confederate sympathizers, or even Warm Springs, Georgia, resident FDR. In the post‑Reagan years, Southerners so dominated both parties that at one point, we had a president from Arkansas (Clinton), a vice president from Tennessee (Gore), a Majority Leader from Mississippi (Trent Lott), and a House Speaker from Georgia (Newt Gingrich). The chairman of the GOP was Haley Barbour, from Mississippi. President George W. Bush of Texas, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, and House Majority Leaders Dick Armey and Tom DeLay (Texans) soon followed in what was, perhaps, the apex of Southern domination of the GOP, and simultaneously, of Republican triumphalism. Talk circulated that the GOP had achieved a “permanent governing majority.”
All the while, Southern Republicanism, having descended from Southern Democrats, churned out culturally conservative, yet big‑spending, governmental policies. In the 2000s, deficits ballooned and unfunded entitlements like Medicare Part D were enacted. Meanwhile, some of the GOP’s most prominent Southern governors also played to type. In 2008, the fiscally conservative Club for Growth issued a white paper slamming then Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee for having raised sales taxes, state spending, and the minimum wage. And then it all came crashing down. Republicans forfeited their congressional majority in 2006, victims of a faltering war in Iraq, incompetent handling of Hurricane Katrina, mounting debt, and a slew of corruption and sex scandals that exploded just in time for the midterms. Presidents almost always suffer bad second‑term midterms, but George W. Bush’s mishandling of so many high‑profile issues undoubtedly exacerbated voters’ “Bush fatigue.” Simply put, the Bush shtick had worn thin.
A “Stupid” Stereotype
Ronald Reagan downplayed his intellectual and cosmopolitan credentials to accentuate his everyman persona. In similar fashion, Dwight Eisenhower, the former supreme commander of Allied forces in Europe and president of Columbia University, dodged questions by employing bumbling answers at press conferences. “In public he wore a costume of affability, optimism, and farm‑boy charm,” wrote David Brooks in The Road to Character. “As president, he was perfectly willing to appear stupider than he really was if it would help him perform his assigned role. He was willing to appear tongue‑tied if it would help him conceal his true designs.” Biographer Andrew Sinclair said much the same thing about the much‑maligned Warren Harding’s “mute your own horn” leadership style. In this regard, George W. Bush simply followed a long‑standing tradition—albeit with a Texas twang. Tevi Troy, the former Bush aide who authored What Jefferson Read, Ike Watched, and Obama Tweeted, believes that “Bush probably read more history than [Jack] Kennedy.” If that sounds absurd, it’s partly because Kennedy highlighted his intellectual credentials, while the Yale‑educated Bush downplayed his. As a result, we consider Kennedy (no dummy, but no genius, either) smarter. Is this only the result of a liberal media painting Republicans as illiterate Babbitts? Hardly. “To be fair,” Troy writes, “Bush was not blameless in acquiring a reputation for not reading.”
Playing down his Ivy League credentials helped him get elected governor of Texas and president of the United States—two times each—but the cost was being treated like a bumpkin by the media.
In 2000, the New York Times’ Nicholas Kristoff wrote that Kent Hance believes he “helped teach Mr. Bush the need to be more folksy.” As Mr. Hance put it, “He wasn’t going to be out‑Christianed or out‑good‑old‑boyed again.” If this is true (and one suspects it is), then it’s hard to fault Bush for doing what he had to do to win. And let’s not forget that he wasn’t just trying to forge his own comeback; he was also attempting to avenge his father’s defeat at the hands of Bill Clinton in 1992. What is more, his father, former President George H. W. Bush, had been mocked as a tax‑raiser and a preppy wimp. George W. Bush did everything possible to be the opposite of that. The adoption of the Texas persona helped, but the younger Bush overswaggered and overtwanged. But hey, he managed to win two elections, and winning is everything, right?
The younger Bush might have benefited from being “misunder‑estimated” by his adversaries, but the “bumpkin” label stuck to the rest of us. To the extent conservatives are now associated with this stereotype, one wonders to what degree this was self‑inflicted by past winning Republican leaders who posed as the bumbling everyman, going all the way back to Ike.
The problem was, although this is a bipartisan phenomenon, it just happens to have disproportionately impacted the Right. Again, Republicans are thought of as the stupid party. Both sides of the political aisle occasionally genuflect at the altar of rural superiority, even if Republicans are decidedly better at it. Although President Obama’s appeal to urbanites and minorities is obvious, he is not above the affectation of droppin’ his gs and prattlin’ on about “folks.” Likewise, prep school—bred John Kerry (“Can I get me a hunting license here?”) experimented with some downright, down‑home Forrest Gump elocution during his 2004 race. Hillary Clinton has been known to affect a Southern accent when convenient. Even less subtle was the over‑the‑top, twangy country music song “Stand With Hillary” released in late 2014—“Put your boots on and let’s smash this ceilin’ ”—where all the gs were dropped. The producer of the “Stand With Hillary” song also produced a 2008 viral mariachi video, “Viva Obama.” Nothing happens by accident in politics. Hillary’s pandering is a transparent attempt to woo the “real America.” Noting the dichotomy between Obama’s pop‑culture outreach—which featured the Will.I.Am song “Yes We Can” and Hillary’s—Ben Domenech, publisher of The Federalist website, observed, “The attempt to pander to the white working class voters left out by the Democratic agenda for so many years is obvious and clumsy, but also revealing, signaling their perception of what’s happened to the electorate in the course of the Obama era.”
For all the GOP’s problems, it is perhaps instructive to remember that Democrats also face their own challenges, which include struggles to win white votes—and their own gender gap with men. Putting aside politics, the notion that America should have one de facto white party and one de facto minority party strikes me as unhealthy. We should all resist this sort of racial balkanization. And, of course, just as Republicans confront regional geographic problems, the Democrats missed winning the White House in 2000, at least partly because Al Gore couldn’t deliver his home state of Tennessee. Just a dozen years ago, former senator Zell Miller, a conservative Democrat, penned a book titled A National Party No More, lamenting the fact that his beloved party had written off the South, and would continue to pay an electoral price. “Today, our national Democratic leaders look south and say, ‘I see one‑third of a nation and it can go to hell,’ ” he wrote. This is a good example of how political fortunes can quickly change. Just as Miller’s book hasn’t aged well (electorally speaking, the Democrats seem to have made the right political moves), a dozen years from now this book might seem antiquated. I won’t be at all upset if that happens. Still, almost all the long‑term trends (including demographic shifts and shifts in public opinion) seem to suggest the GOP is in trouble if it doesn’t adapt and overcome.
The Republican electoral shift transcends the deep South. While the GOP became the Southern Party, it also became the Rural Party. That’s a big part of this story, too.
In the introduction of this book, I wrote about my rural background in western Maryland and the deep abiding respect I have for rural Americans who have done much to make this a great country. I don’t want to see an America where everyone is huddled into cities. In the words of Hank Williams Jr., we need Americans who still know how to “skin a buck” and “run a trotline.” But one of the many challenges confronting conservatives is that America has transitioned from the agrarian age to the industrial age to the information age. Unlike the industrial age, where the top‑down assembly line model favored liberals, the tech revolution may favor the rugged individualism embraced by libertarian‑leaning conservatives. Regardless, given these trends, it makes little sense for a movement or a party to allow the rural‑versus‑urban paradigm—and the many cultural issues tied up in that—to define and assign membership status. So long as Republicans could win this way, it made perfect sense to exploit the cleavage between city folks and “Real America.” Not only was this smart politics, but it also tapped into deep‑seated beliefs.
So where did this traditional deification of rural areas come from? Among other things, credit (or blame) the influence of religion (think the Garden of Eden versus the Tower of Babel), philosophy (Rousseau’s notion about noble savages, and later, transcendentalists like Ralph Waldo Emerson—and Walden Woods-loving Henry David Thoreau), and various ideas conceived during the time of America’s founding, such as Thomas Jefferson’s agrarianism. “I think our governments will remain virtuous for many centuries,” Jefferson wrote Madison, “as long as they are chiefly agricultural; and this will be as long as there shall be vacant lands in any part of America. When they get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, they will become corrupt as in Europe.” This was bipartisan. Believe it or not, in the run‑up to his 1932 election, Groton‑ and Harvard‑educated Franklin Roosevelt enjoyed far more support from rural and Southern voters than with big‑city types—and painted himself not as a former Wall Street lawyer but rather as a simple “farmer.”
It’s hard to deny that Americans—particularly traditional or conservative Americans—internalized a worldview that lionizes rural areas and comes close to demonizing urban ones. Look no further than our national myths and heroes. Alan Crawford, author of the 1980 book Thunder on the Right, argued that it all goes back to the cowboy mythology. “The great cult figure of the New Right is John Wayne,” he writes, “the swaggering, tough‑talking loner motivated by duty, principle, and a deep sense of justice. Wayne feared no man, respected all women. He displayed the macho qualities that are admired and emulated in the political and cultural heroes of the New Right.” Top that, pilgrim!
The entire concept of rural superiority is built on questionable premises. Sometimes the Bible holds up desolate areas as ideal (Jesus would often withdraw to the wilderness or desert), but as Tim Keller, pastor of New York City’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church, notes, “When God sends the people of Israel from Egypt into Canaan, he will not let them be exclusively agrarian. He commands them to build cities in the book of Numbers.”
“The reason [the Bible is] positive about cities,” continues Keller, “is that when God made Adam and Eve creative . . . it was inevitable that they would build cities. Cities are places of creativity. Cities are places where culture is forged. That’s the reason why culture does not begin to happen until there’s a city.”
For small government conservatives, even before the plague of inner‑city crime in the ’60s, there were other inherent reasons to fear the city. As Steven Conn, author of Americans Against the City: Anti- Urbanism in the Twentieth Century, noted, “The idea that in New York City now eight million people can turn on their tap and get drinkable water, that’s a miracle. The efficiencies that government manages to deliver in cities become anathema to this kind of antigovernment tradition that I see as part and parcel of the anti‑urban tradition.”
Free Market Dynamists versus Populist Catastrophists
This brings us to a contradiction within conservatism. Much of conservatism—a belief in free markets, for instance—is premised on the dynamic notion that more people equal more ideas. But while optimistic free marketeers adhering to this Reagan and Kemp model subscribe to this theory, most populists do not. The more optimistic worldview made major strides when economists like Julian Simon and Ester Boserup took on the Malthusian catastrophe argument, which erroneously predicted that global overpopulation would lead to mass starvation, and demonstrated that more people equals more ideas, innovation, and prosperity. When you think about it, it makes sense. Rural societies tend to work on subsistence (you eat what you grow— be careful what you wish for, “local foods” advocates!), but cities, by their very nature, demand free market economic skills such as cooperation, specialization, and trade. These things make us rich. And cities are the areas where these things are appreciated and magnified. And let us not forget that great cities, after all, not only have fostered great hedge funds, but have also built great cathedrals stone by stone.
More people—constantly bumping into one another—lead to all sorts of entrepreneurial inventions and progress. Cities, it has been said, are where “ideas have sex.” Indeed, some optimistic cosmopolitan conservatives, such as the late Jack Kemp and his protégé, Wisconsin representative and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, have embraced a pro‑urban philosophy in a consistent manner, which can be reflected in their support for policies like enterprise zones, which encourage growth and development with lower taxes and fewer regulations in urban communities. But since President Obama’s election in 2008, these ideas have been on the outs with conservatives.
The greatest irony of the conservative adoption of an anticity worldview is that it is based largely on a philosophy advanced by the high priest of romanticism, Jean‑Jacques Rousseau. Instead of following the Christian understanding of creation that views man as a fallen creature due to original sin, Rousseau envisioned early man as a sort of noble savage. It wasn’t until man recognized the concept of property and ownership, Rousseau argued, that he became greedy and corrupted.
According to this way of thinking, a simple life is good and pure, while a modern urban life is dirty and unnatural. “Many scholars have pointed out the romanticists’ idea that somehow cities are breeders of sinful behavior and people who live in the country are more virtuous is actually something that’s been passed into the American psyche and actually into the American Christian psyche so that we have a tendency to have a very negative view of cities,” says Pastor Tim Keller. When one looks at the meth epidemic that is springing up in many of our rural communities or considers the inherent temptations and boredom that arise from being a latchkey kid living in some sterile suburb, the city begins to look less dystopian.
The New South
Something horrible happened while I was writing this book. On June 17, 2015, a young white man shot and killed nine worshippers at Mother Emanuel, a storied African Methodist Episcopal church with one of the oldest black congregations, in Charleston, South Carolina. Among the dead lay Reverend Clementa Pinckney, who also had served in the South Carolina state senate. Pictures of the shooter flaunting a Confederate battle flag soon emerged, as did calls for rebel flags to come down from statehouses across the nation.
Leaders emerge during times of tragedy and crisis, and it was at this moment that Nikki Haley, the female, Indian American governor of South Carolina, who also happens to be a conservative Republican, seized the moment. “Today we are here in a moment of unity in our state without ill will to say it is time to remove the flag from our capitol grounds,” Haley said at a press conference on June 22, 2015. “This flag, while an integral part of our past, does not represent the future of our great state.” She was flanked by Republican senators Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott, who is one of only two African Americans in the U.S. Senate. And, in a way, the South Carolina governor and these senators represent a changing Republican Party, as well as a changing South. Graham, the only white representative, is probably the least conservative of the three. But they bring diverse perspectives that not very long ago were absent from Republican politics in the South. “The biggest reason I asked for that flag to come down was I couldn’t look my children in the face and justify it staying there,” Haley later told CNN’s Don Lemon. “What I realized now more than ever is people were driving by and they felt hurt and pain. No one should feel pain … My father wears a turban. My mother, at the time, wore a sari. It was hard growing up in South Carolina.”
Haley’s leadership deservedly drew acclaim. “South Carolina Republican governor Nikki Haley stared down hate and history this summer, turning an impassioned debate over the Confederate flag into a political launching pad,” wrote CNN’s Nia‑Malika Henderson. The governor provided crucial leadership at an important moment. But Haley couldn’t unilaterally remove the flag; she could only sign a bill to do so after it passed the Republican‑dominated state house and senate—which it did. On July 10, the flag was removed from state capitol grounds and placed in a museum.
Considering the stereotypes against Southern Republicans, it is equally notable that while controlling the senate, the house, and the governorship in the Palmetto State, Republicans did the right thing. The good news is that Haley and a generation of conservative Republican leaders like her are taking steps to bring their party into the 21st century, and they are resisting calls to hold on to baggage that was never theirs to begin with. In fact, it was an all‑white, Democrat‑controlled legislature that raised the flag in 1962. And it was Republican David Beasley who fought to have it removed from the capitol dome in the ’90s.
That’s not to say that there weren’t plenty of Republicans who supported flying the flag. But it is to say that there’s absolutely nothing inherently Republican or conservative about the Confederate battle flag.
If conservatives are going to thrive in the New South, they will have to embrace an inclusive conservative message like Nikki Haley’s—and they can’t afford to be bogged down by carrying the offensive baggage that they, after all, had nothing to do with.
From Too Dumb to Fail, copyright Matt K. Lewis, courtesy of Hachette Books.
Matt K. Lewis is a senior contributor for The Daily Caller and writes regular columns for TheWeek.com, The Daily Beast, and The Telegraph (UK). He records a weekly podcast, “Matt Lewis and the News.” In 2011, Business Insider listed him as one of the 50 “Pundits You Need To Pay Attention To,” and in 2012 the American Conservative Union honored Matt as their CPAC “Blogger of the Year.” He lives with his family in Alexandria, Va.