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Hullabaloo


Monday, December 26, 2005

 
Southern Fried

Atrios links to Novakula's column today in which he discusses Trent Lott's agnizing over whether to seek another term. I think we've all wondered if Katrina would have an impact on the GOP in Mississippi and Alabama and this may be the test. (New Orleans' African American disapora is very likely to result in a stronger Louisiana GOP) I suspect he thinks it's time to cash out. They'll never be a better opportunity.

Atrios also highlights Novak's last line which I also think is the most interesting aspect of the piece:

When George W. stood aside while Trent Lott was tossed out, I wrote on Dec. 23, 2002, that the secret liberal theme behind his defenestration was that "the GOP's Southern base, the bedrock of its national election victories, is an illegitimate legacy from racist Dixiecrats.

Now, three years later, that bedrock may be eroding.


I don't know why he thinks it was secret. That view is right out in the open and it happens to be true. Both the Republicans and Democrats have been talking about the southern strategy for decades. (Perhaps Novak thinks the mass defections from Democrat to Republican in the south directly on the heels of the voting rights act of 1964 was a coincidence?)

In any case, that's not what's interesting. It's that he thinks the "bedrock" of the southern GOP base may be eroding. Personally, I doubt it, at least in any significant sense. However, many of the structural problems conservative writer Christopher Caldwell predicted in his famous contrarian article "the Southern Captivity of the GOP" from 1998 could be coming to fruition.

9/11 obscured them but the problems remain. Here are some excerpts from that article:

The party's 1994 majority came thanks to a gain of nineteen seats in the South. In 1996 Republicans picked up another six seats in the Old Confederacy. But that only makes their repudiation in the rest of the country the more dramatic. The party has been all but obliterated in its historical bastion of New England, where it now holds just four of twenty-three congressional seats. The Democrats, in fact, dominate virtually the entire Northeast. The Republicans lost seats in 1996 all over the upper Midwest -- Michigan, Wisconsin (two seats), Iowa, and Ohio (two seats). Fatally, they lost seats in all the states on the West Coast. Their justifiable optimism about the South aside, in 1996 it became clear that the Democratic Party was acquiring regional strongholds of equal or greater strength.

[...]

The Republican Party is increasingly a party of the South and the mountains. The southernness of its congressional leaders -- Speaker Newt Gingrich, of Georgia; House Majority Leader Dick Armey and House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, of Texas; Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, of Mississippi; Senate Majority Whip Don Nickles, of Oklahoma -- only heightens the identification. There is a big problem with having a southern, as opposed to a midwestern or a California, base. Southern interests diverge from those of the rest of the country, and the southern presence in the Republican Party has passed a "tipping point," at which it began to alienate voters from other regions.

As southern control over the Republican agenda grows, the party alienates even conservative voters in other regions. The prevalence of right-to-work laws in southern states may be depriving Republicans of the socially conservative midwestern trade unionists whom they managed to split in the Reagan years, and sending Reagan Democrats back to their ancestral party in the process. Anti-government sentiment makes little sense in New England, where government, as even those who hate it will concede, is neither remote nor unresponsive.

[...]

Grover Norquist, the president of Americans for Tax Reform, ... and insists that libertarians and moralists can still cohabit. And since Norquist is a key -- if not the key -- adviser to Newt Gingrich, his interpretation can be taken as a semi-official Republican understanding of what's left of Ronald Reagan's electorate. "The Reagan coalition is the Leave Us Alone coalition," Norquist says. "Tax activists want their paychecks left alone. Pro-family people want their kids left alone. Ralph Reed's constituents are not interested in running other people's lives. They don't care what odd people do in San Francisco on Saturday afternoon."

For his part, Reed, formerly the executive director of the Christian Coalition and now a Georgia-based political and public-affairs consultant, thinks the two wings get along as well as ever. Looking at the Republican field for President in 2000, he says, "Traditional supply-siders like Steve Forbes are enthusiastically embracing the social dogma of the party. Lamar Alexander is moving to the right, guys like John Ashcroft are picking up steam, John Kasich is talking about faith in God. I see a holistic message developing." To an extent Reed is right: this is not 1963 or 1964, when the Rockefeller wing and the Goldwater wing fought an intraparty civil war. Yet there is something more troubling going on. Every Republican candidate now has to "make his bones," to prove his good faith by declaring his unequivocal willingness to alienate the "elites" of the country. Describing the Christian right to a reporter last fall, the former Washington congressman Randy Tate, who is now the executive director of the Christian Coalition, said, "They don't just want to be given crumbs off the table and taken for granted." Far from proving Republican tolerance, the rapprochement Reed points to is merely the sound of the Republicans' cosmopolitan wing crying "Uncle."

This southern takeover is part of a natural, if paradoxical, transformation. It parallels the way the Goldwater debacle of 1964 destabilized the Democratic Party -- by sending alienated northern Republican progressives into the Democrats' ranks. These progressives joined with northern urbanites to forge a party that was more to their liking, though it was too liberal for the Democratic Party's stalwart southern conservatives -- and, eventually, too liberal for the nation as a whole. In like fashion, Democratic excesses since the seventies may have destabilized the Republican Party by chasing those southerners into the fold, transforming the Republican Party into a machine that is steadily becoming too conservative for the country.

There has always been tension between the Republicans' constituent wings. What long masked it was the Cold War. The Reaganite party was never a two-part but always a three-part coalition, of social conservatives, economic conservatives, and foreign-policy hawks. The hawks' group was minuscule, but it happened that their passion (anti-communism) was shared by Christians and capitalists alike.

[...]


When the Republicans can no longer promise tax cuts, they're left with only the most abrasive aspects of the Reagan message, kept under wraps throughout the 1980s: the southern morals business. If the Republicans didn't believe in shrinking government, they didn't believe in the freedom that it was supposed to promote -- which made it much harder to argue that their moral agenda was being advanced in the name of live and let live. And what did they have besides the moral agenda?

The Republicans are too conservative: their deference to their southern base is persuading much of the country that their vision is a sour and crabbed one. But they're too liberal, too, as their all-out retreat from shrinking the government indicates. At the same time, the Republicans have passed none of the reforms that ingratiated the party with the "radical middle." The Republicans' biggest problem is not their ideology but their lack of one. Stigmatized as rightists, behaving like leftists, and ultimately standing for nothing, they're in the worst of all possible worlds.


There is messaging "gold" in that article now that it is crystal clear that the Republicans are not the party of small government and it lies here:


If the Republicans didn't believe in shrinking government, they didn't believe in the freedom that it was supposed to promote -- which made it much harder to argue that their moral agenda was being advanced in the name of live and let live.


How can Norquist's "leave us alone" coalition exist in a party that supports the government spying on its citizens and supports intrusion into a family's most difficult medical decisions? How can a "leave us alone" coalition support a president who acts like a king? How can decent people who believe in moral values continue to work hard and support a party that is corrupt to its core?

They can't.

Caldwell concluded with this:

Their party is now directionless, with only two skills to recommend it: first, identifying and prosecuting the excesses of its opponents; second, rigging the campaign-finance system to protect its incumbency long after it has ceased having any ideas that would justify incumbency. The Republican Party is an obsolescent one. It may continue to rule, disguised as a majority by electoral legerdemain. But it will be a long time before the party is again able to rule from a place in Americans' hearts.


They gave up trying to rule from a place in America's heart some time ago and are now ruling from some place in America's gut. Fear (or the fun "horror movie" version of it anyway) is what they use to keep the disparate threads of Norquist's coalition together. I think, however, Bush's misdhandling of Iraq and Katrina -- not to mention the ridiculous overplaying of the terrorist threat --- may have dampened their prospects for a repeat of their successful communist fearmongering of the past.

I think that Caldwell's thesis is proven by the fact that Bush won so narrowly in 2004 and that they were unable to gain any Senate seats outside of deep red territory. They couldn't win any house seats outside of the rigged Texas gerrymander. Bush's popular vote margin came from turnout in the deep south, not because of any gains elsewhere. I ask you, if a Republican incumbent couldn't win big in that election, when we were just three years from a major terrorist attack and deeply engaged in wars in two countries, then what will it take?

They've got the south for the time being. The question for them is if they can legitimately win anywhere else. If Novak is right and they are starting to lose their grip a little bit there then they've reached their high water mark.



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