No Comment — November 4, 2008, 1:06 pm

The Southern Strategy Comes of Age

As Ken Silverstein and others offer their election predictions, I’d like to contribute one of my own. This will be a transformative election. The focus, appropriately, is on the likely victors. But I believe the longer-term consequences can be seen in what has happened to the Republican Party. Karl Rove came to Washington in 2000 promising to change the nation’s political landscape. He expected to establish the Republicans as a new natural party of power, with majorities that would lock in control for a generation. At the heart of the Rovian calculus was America’s Southland, which he saw as the ideological and political base of the reshaped Republican Party of the age of Bush. But the very success of this strategy has been the party’s unmaking. It has also marked a complete betrayal of the founding values of the party of Lincoln and Frémont—an act of ultimate political cynicism.

In the early Seventies, Richard Nixon seized on an initiative popularized by Kevin Phillips called the “Southern Strategy.” Phillips noted that in the wake of Democratic sponsorship of the Civil Rights revolution, the Republican Party’s historic base in the South—black voters—had been shattered. Whereas once the Republican Party had commanded the absolute loyalty of the Southern blacks, during the Kennedy and Johnson years, Phillips reckoned, the Republicans had done well to draw 20 percent of the black vote. However, the Southern white middle class was smoldering over the grant of civil rights—especially voting rights—to blacks. They were alienated by the Democrats and, notwithstanding the threat of opportunistic third-party candidates like George C. Wallace, ripe for the plucking by the Republicans. Phillips suggested that a new Republican majority could be fashioned in the eleven states of the Old Confederacy, to which would be added the existing Republican base in the North, Midwest and plains, Mountain West, and Pacific West. The election of 1972 showed that Phillips’s math was right, and in 1980 and 1984, Ronald Reagan pursued an electoral strategy similarly built on the transformed allegiance of white Southerners. Rove altered this grand design, tweaking it by placing the religious right at the heart of the G.O.P. effort (and thereby displacing the more prosperous middle-class voters who had been there before). This strategy succeeded beyond the expectations of its authors. Today it has become an albatross for the G.O.P.

When the votes have been counted tonight, the G.O.P. will reap the final fruits of its Southern Strategy. The Republican Party will have transformed itself from the Party of Lincoln into the Party of the Old Confederacy. We will find that John McCain has achieved his best results in the Old Confederacy—to which only a sprinkling of thinly populated states of the Plains and Mountain West will be added (states that share strong demographic similarities with the “Confederate” states). The core of the congressional G.O.P. will be drawn from the Old South. Moreover, surveying the party’s leadership from the last decade, the predominance of white male Southerners will be clear. The 2008 elections will likely see Republicans falling to their Democratic adversaries in New England (which is now unlikely to return a single Republican to the House of Representatives), the Midwest, the Southwest, and the Pacific states.

Much as the post-Thatcher Conservatives in Britain ceased to be a British party and instead became the party of the England’s prosperous southeast, the Republicans will cease to be a national party. They will instead be a regional party. But whereas England’s southeast was and is the nation’s economic engine, attracting the best and the brightest from throughout the realm, the American South is largely a backwater. And within that region, the G.O.P. is, not coincidentally, weakest among the best educated and most prosperous populations (Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, and Florida) and strongest in the areas most beset by social and economic difficulties. The nation’s political pendulum swings constantly, and the Republican Party will reshape itself and will come to power again. But the Republicans hold on to a final redoubt that offers them little sustenance and little hope for an easy rally and return. This reveals the serious miscalculation of a master tactician. It is the legacy of Karl Rove.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Conversation August 5, 2016, 12:08 pm

Lincoln’s Party

Sidney Blumenthal on the origins of the Republican Party, the fallout from Clinton’s emails, and his new biography of Abraham Lincoln

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

December 2016

Standing Rock Speaks

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Prose by Any Other Name

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The New Red Scare

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Separated at Birth

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Priest in the Trees

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Lightness

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
With Child·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"She glanced across the waiting room at a television playing a birth-control ad and laughed darkly. 'Jesus, Lord, it would be so nice if someone just pushed me down a flight of stairs.'"
Photograph (detail) by Lara Shipley
Article
Swat Team·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"As we shall see, for the sort of people who write and edit the opinion pages of the Post, there was something deeply threatening about Sanders and his political views."
Illustration (detail) by John Ritter
Article
Escape from The Caliphate·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"When Matti invited me on a tour of the neighborhood, I asked about security. 'The message has already been passed to ISIS that you’re here,' he said. 'But don’t worry. I guarantee I could bring even you in and out of the Islamic State.'"
Photograph (detail) by Alice Martins
Article
In This One·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"She glanced across the waiting room at a television playing a birth-control ad and laughed darkly. 'Jesus, Lord, it would be so nice if someone just pushed me down a flight of stairs.'"
Illustration (detail) by Shonagh Rae
Article
“Don’t Touch My Medicare!”·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Medicare’s popularity, however, comes with almost no understanding of what the program is and how it works."
Illustration (detail) by Nate Kitch

Amount paid last fall for a Ford Escort driven by Pope John Paul II:

$680,000

92 percent of Mexicans are relaxed by a pleasant-smelling bedroom.

Swedish biologists studying coercive mating in mosquitofish discovered that females’ brains get larger as males’ genitals get longer, and male Madagascar hissing cockroaches were found to attract mates with either their enlarged testicles or their enlarged horns.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Who Goes Nazi?

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

"It is an interesting and somewhat macabre parlor game to play at a large gathering of one’s acquaintances: to speculate who in a showdown would go Nazi. By now, I think I know. I have gone through the experience many times—in Germany, in Austria, and in France. I have come to know the types: the born Nazis, the Nazis whom democracy itself has created, the certain-to-be fellow-travelers. And I also know those who never, under any conceivable circumstances, would become Nazis."

Subscribe Today