COMING HOME TO ROOST
What the GOP Lost When It Won the South
Why this week’s fight over the Confederate flag is a direct result of the “Southern Strategy” that turned Dixie red—and injected a lot of cultural baggage into the GOP.
As the Republican field and corporations like Wal-Mart slowly but surely distance themselves from the Confederate flag, a subplot involves a trend I’ve been documenting for a while now: How the GOP is being forced to engage in some major soul searching.
The coalition the GOP assembled to win national elections in the latter part of the 20th century has delivered the popular vote in just one of the last six presidential elections, and it’s not realistic to expect they can win many more by relying solely on old, rural, non-college-educated white men.
Not only have the demographics changed—but so have a lot of attitudes.
That’s not to say the way to save conservatism is to embrace liberalism—far from it. But it is to say that conservatives must shed negative stereotypes that, after all, have nothing to do with conservatism to begin with. My forthcoming book, Too Dumb to Fail, subtitled: “How the GOP Won Elections by Sacrificing Its Ideas (And How It Can Reclaim Its Conservative Roots)” is largely about how conservatives can adapt to the 21st century.
Regardless of his ethnicity, I think a young urbanite who manages his stock portfolio on his smart phone and then orders an Uber should be a conservative. And he might—if when he thinks of “conservative” he pictures someone like American Enterprise Institute President and author Arthur Brooks. Someone who is sophisticated, tolerant, and thoroughly modern. But he won’t if he associates that word with an image of, say, a fat, intolerant redneck. (This is not to suggest many Southerners fit this description. There are many things about the South I love. But this is a stereotype.)
The injection of Southerners into the Republican coalition—a coalition they ultimately came to dominate—couldn’t help but change the image of the GOP. There were racial, cultural, political, and even religious implications. Republicans captured the South, yes, but the South also captured the GOP. There were no doubt many salutary benefits to this arrangement—most obviously, an electoral boon that lasted for decades. But it also guaranteed we would eventually see a day of reckoning.
First, though, some background. You’ve probably heard of The Southern Strategy, but 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 or not you accept that this was an intentional strategy, or just how things shook out, this much is true: Around 1964, the once reliably Democratic South started to become a Republican stronghold. We may differ about what this means, and about whether the GOP deserves culpability for stirring up racial animus in order to achieve it. (As Sean Trende notes, the trend actually began in the 1920s, and that long before civil rights became a hot-button political issue, “FDR performed worse in the South in every election following his 1932 election.”)
In one of the chapters, Too Dumb to Fail details the many ways the so-called Southern Strategy impacted conservative policy—but the impact it had in terms of cultural signaling is among the most important, if more superficial, effects.
(And here I’m not talking about overt racism, which I think we all condemn, but instead subtle cultural customs and signals that may seem out of touch in an America that is increasingly cosmopolitan.)
Let’s take George W. Bush, the most successful Republican politician of the post-Southern Strategy, post-Reagan era. After losing a congressional race, George W. Bush (possibly as a reference to a much worse George Wallace line?) vowed “never to get out-countried again.” This was smart politics for Bush, who ultimately went on to become President of the United States, but it helped reinforce the image of a Republican as someone who, well, looks and talks like George W. Bush. (I realize that Texas is often considered more Western than part of the “Deep South,” but you get my point.)
This brings us to today. As we all know, the demographics of the country are changing rapidly. The electorate is rapidly becoming less white, less rural, and better educated. Yet the GOP is still culturally synonymous with, well, white, rural, less-educated Southern whites, who remain a major pillar of the party’s support. And so you get to the point where guys like Scott Walker and Rand Paul spend a week ducking questions about whether the Confederate flag should be flown on government property…in 2015.
So here’s what the GOP has to figure it out: How do they continue to get the Bubba vote while shedding appeals to the cultural symbolism of the past? How do they sell their conservative ideas about free markets, strong national defense, and conservative family values to 21st-century Americans?
The seeds of this challenge were partly planted when the GOP became the de facto party of the South—with all the good and bad that that entails. And now the chickens have come to roost. As you watch Republicans scramble to address the changing political landscape—some more nimbly than others—keep in mind this is the backdrop.