The Southern Strategy Nears Its End

The Obama campaign won the 2012 presidential election largely by furiously and successfully courting new voters, especially in swing states, and in the process introduced a potentially new and deadly (to the Republican Party) group of people into the equation of presidential elections: non-voters. The Romney campaign lost by relying on catcalls, coded language on “food stamps” and “welfare”, and the assumption that the same political strategy focused on mobilizing the white vote that got Nixon elected would work for Romney 45 years later. They were wrong, and their utter surprise and shock at how wrong they were shows how much the Republican party (after forty years of the Southern Strategy) just doesn’t understand the 21st century United States of America.

The Romney campaigns sharp focus on so-called independent voters, at the expense of serious new voter registration efforts, meant that even as they built up a lead among independents, the Obama campaign was cancelling those gains out by getting people to the polls who rarely vote or had never voted before. The Obama campaign targeted young people, minorities, and poor folks and others who while not active voters were people they suspected of being sympathetic to Democratic politics and they got to work. In addition to matching the Romney campaign’s advertisement war, they blew the Romney campaign out of the water with their grassroots ground game.

As the old saying goes, all politics is local, and the Obama campaign turned this presidential election into a local election by combining digital information technology and behavioral psychology with the the oldest tools in politics: canvassing and word of mouth. Romney instead relief on messaging, money, and the type of intellectual laziness that is now endemic across the entire conservative movement. New Ideas? What for? 

At this point, its tempting to say the Obama campaign won simply by being smarter than the Romney campaign, and that would make this three straight races where Barack Obama’s team has simply out-thought the opposition (the 2008 Democratic Primary, the 2008 General Election, and the 2012 General Election), but it also comes down to the fundamental gap between the Republican braintrust’s concept of politics on a theoretical level and the place the United States of America is in 2012.

Looking at the stunningly off-base predictions of right wing and Republican election prognosticators (some of whom I think are very sharp despite our disagreements) and considering the assumptions that the Romney campaign made throughout the election suggests that the same wistful nostalgia for a conservatism that never existed is slowly sapping the American conservatism of any relevancy it may have once had.

The same columnists whose gut feelings told them that the polls must be wrong and that Romney would win in a landslide are the great minds behind the modern conservative movement. Political mandarin Charles Krauthammer thinks that the only change the Republican Party needed to make was to court Latinos better since Latinos are evidently “socially conservative”. Never mind that this confuses Cuban grandparents with their 19 year old grandchildren and fails to acknowledge how evolving social values occur in all communities, but it also completely avoids the question how just why the Republican Party’s message of extreme fiscal conservatism, gutted social programs, and warmongering neocon foreign policy just doesn’t connect with a generation of people raised during a time when public schools budgets have been gutted, when their friends, brothers, sisters and parents have fought and died in Afghanistan and Iraq, and while mostly everyone they know is struggling to make ends meet.

Self-reliance sounds good when you’ve got a decent savings account, a house or two and and something resembling financial security, but at a time like this, it sounds like the vacuous sound byte it is. The abstract (and wrong) notion that deregulation and flat taxes will be the nation’s economic miracle cure and magically create more money and more jobs might sound good within Republican echo chambers but in the lives of many Americans its not something based in their reality.

As Rich Yeselson of the Washington Monthly points out:

In the US, any possibility of the GOP appealing to the economic interests of most white men, as opposed to massaging their beleaguered sense of identity, must be subsumed to the antithetical economic priorities of the GOP’s plutocratic donor class. In short, Sheldon Adelson and the Koch brother are ardent rent seekers from the federal government, union haters and tax avoiders, while promoting the demolition of social insurance for the 99.9%. They do not share most of the same economic goals as the guy wearing the “Put The White Back in the White House” t-shirt at a Romney rally. Yet rage and paranoia paradoxically bind these billionaires and white male small business owners and contractors: see, for example the Adelson owned newspaper in Israel’s headline after Obama’s victory, “Socialism Comes To America.”

Comedian Dennis Miller, on the O’Reilly Factor after the election said, “I liked it the way it was […] from [when he was] 18-58”.  Miller also spoke of all the “unfair attacks” levied against Mitt Romney, “who is a good man”. The subtext here, of course, is that Romney’s opponent is not a good man and was wholly deserving of the slander for the past four years. Moreover, for those Americans who for obvious reasons don’t look too fondly back at the Mad Men era and its predecessors, Miller’s nostalgia is wholly alien and any political messaging that evokes it is likely to come up empty.

These talking points and policies are made all the more obscene by the knowledge that the Republican coalition of geriatrics and white men has benefited more than any other population from systematic and widespread sinecure and the inherited wealth and privilege of a system was for years picked the winners and losers based on the color of their skin and the country of their parents birth. That Republicans reject that narrative of American history doesn’t make it any less true.

In the past year I’ve been told time and time again that its unconstitutional for my taxes to pay for my own health care by people whose healthcare is being paid for by my taxes. The fundamental hypocrisy necessitated by the Right Wing’s ideological and electoral imperatives reek of the self-serving rent seeking antithetical to groups of people who are in the ascendancy: women, immigrants, young people and the working poor whose consumer dollars truly drive the economy (just ask Walmart).  To win elections the Republican Party must protect demographics of incumbency (their electoral coalition) by preserving their entitlements (carried interest, capital gains, low taxes on inherited wealth) while those very same voters want to cut the red haired stepchildren out of the inheritance (social programs) because, essentially, they don’t like them very much.

The Republican Party has convinced itself that its current brand of “conservative” is not only correct but is what the country needs in ever stronger doses. Any deviation from that orthodoxy of God and Markets means you are either a heathen, a socialist, or both, and you are most certainly bound for hell. Even as neoliberalism has become the economic gospel of the left and the right, Republicans scream socialism, while Democrats move further from their social-democratic and populist impulses, while capitalist excess is even more unrestrained and regulated. ! As the Democratic party’s leftist impulses die out, the Right Wing screams communism and tyranny. There is something perverse about the level of disinformation and willful ignorance.

If Barry Goldwater laid the first brick in the intellectual foundation of the modern Conservative movement and Ronald Reagan installed the roof and the air conditioning, the movement has been constructed in a way that necessitates the coalition of big business and disillusioned white Americans that has  been the Republican Party’s base since the 1960s. Nixon’s Southern Strategy has been the unspoken, unacknowledged rule of the Republican Party for decades but its cynical effectiveness is fundamentally incompatible with the the new United States of America. It was always going to have an expiration date but Republicans began to believe that a strategically viable strategy was also ideologically and politically sound, and not in fact a political and social cancer rotting out the state of modern conservatism. It’s amazing that the Southern strategy has lasted for this long until you consider how effective it has been, but we’ve reached the moment where the Republican Party will have to reinvent itself or perish. To reinvent itself it was must disavow the very beliefs that they hold dearest and will have now to recruit people who at this point are almost allergic to their particular concoction of reactionary bullshit.

Standing athwart history yelling,  “Stop!” just isn’t going to cut it anymore. Republican voters will continue to die off and the female, poor, foreign or otherwise different people who have permanently altered the face of the American politics aren’t going anywhere. Not now, not ever.