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The Southern Strategy Comes of Age

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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.

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