Republicans have consistently and explicitly used racism as a political strategy. Sadly, their tactics have all too often worked. They are trying it again this election, but this time it seems to be failing. If it fails, especially if it fails big, does the Southern strategy finally die forever?
Racism in Republican Campaigns
In my lifetime, I have come to know the Republican Party as the party of white people; specifically, old, white, Protestant, men. The Republican Party has encouraged this perception and still managed to win quite a few elections.
When Nixon talked about “states rights” in the south, what he really meant was that the federal government shouldn’t make Southerners integrate. When Ronald Reagan began his run for the presidency talking about states rights in Mississippi, in the very county where three civil right activists were infamously murdered, he was sending a very strong message.
When George H.W. Bush used images of a black felon who committed horrible crimes (Willie Horton) in his race against Michael Dukakis, he conjured up images of the scary black man to win an election. And when George W. Bush’s campaign flyered the South insinuating that John McCain had an illegitimate black baby, Bush rode racism all the way to the Republican nomination.
Republicans Moment of Demographic Realization
Bill Clinton’s popularity and success depended in large part upon the votes of women, Latinos, African-Americans, and young people. It took Republicans a while to catch on, but some time during Bill Clinton’s presidency they realized that demographics were against them. In fact, in just thirty-four years, white people will no longer be the majority of the U.S. population.
In 2000, the Republican National Convention looked like Sunday in Harlem (literally, the 2000 convention featured a black gospel choir). Republicans started trying to appeal to black voters and to court Latino voters (particularly Christian conservative blacks and Latinos). Prominent Republicans were even apologizing for their use of the Southern strategy.
McCain’s New Southern Strategy
This time around, Republicans seem to have conceded the black vote and nearly conceded the Latino one. The possibility of the first African-American president is as exciting as the Bush administration’s response to Katrina was infuriating to black voters. Their support of Barack Obama is strong. Latinos are angry at the anti-immigration Republican vitriol that has often turned just plain anti-Latino, and especially anti-Mexican. The GOP is losing them as well.
This leaves John McCain with only one way of winning. He has to make sure he appeals to the most base conservatives of the Republican Party (no that’s not a typo) and bring them out in force. He must make sure every fearful, racist shows up at the polls to vote against the black guy with the funny name. He needs women to show up for the Republicans, as white men alone won’t get them a win. Republicans thought they covered their bases by choosing Sarah Palin as a running mate. She is certainly appealing to anti-abortion zealots, Christian conservatives, racists, and aging cold warriors. Just check out some fan videos.
The Southern Strategy Backlash
Of course in trying to appeal to the fringe elements of the Republican Party, the party was bound to lose some of the moderates. They are betting on the fact that there are enough fanatics and racists out there (men and women) to bring the election home for them. But the gamble doesn’t appear to be working.
Moderate Republicans and true conservatives are abandoning ship. Colin Powell just came out in support of Barack Obama, specifically citing the tone of his campaign and his choice of Sarah Palin. William F. Buckley’s son, conservative columnist and writer Christopher, also came out in support of Obama citing the same reasons. A friends father, who hasn’t voted for a Democrat since the seventies, is voting for Obama in large part because of the Palin choice.
In fact, it seems that the Southern strategy may be pushing the numbers in Obama’s favor in some battleground states like Florida and Virginia. Polls there have shown Obama’s numbers jump since McCain has gone increasingly negative, trying to paint Obama as an outsider, un-American, and suspicious.
The End of the Southern Strategy
I’ve spoken to a lot of people who worry about the ugliness of the campaign. They are afraid that appealing to racism will work yet again and wonder what happens then. A better question is, what if it doesn’t work? What if it fails so spectacularly that no Republican politician running for national office will ever believe that he can win using those tactics?
A rout this election will not only give democrats a win, it will give fiscal conservatives and Libertarian Republicans an opportunity to end the days of the Southern strategy. It will give them an opening to end the stranglehold social conservatives and neo-conservatives have on their party. Let’s hope they take it.