There may be a little truth in the belief that culture war issues are losing some of their appeal, and that is a good thing. Looking back, we can see that the Southern strategy based on those culture wars was already losing some steam before the current election. In both the 2000 and 2004 elections the Republicans followed that same path and yet barely hung on to power. The mid-term elections in 2006 saw the Republican party lose its majorities in both houses of Congress for the first time since 1992, and the presidential election year of 2008 saw the further deterioration of their support, resulting in even larger majorities for the Democrats.
But I don’t think the issues around which the Southern strategy was built have disappeared or even largely diminished. What I think has happened is that the balance of power within the Republican party has shifted for two reasons in ways that threatens the coalition that had been created.
One reason has been increased demand for real power from the social issues bloc. The second has been the rise within the Republican Party of a third group that has upset the working arrangement that existed between the old-style conservative Republicans and the social issues voters. This group is the neoconservatives. Although they are not a large voting group, they have grabbed the ideological reins of the party away from the old-style conservatives. The rise in influence of the social values bloc and the neoconservatives has seen a huge diminution in the influence of the old-style conservative group that had always run the Republican party.
As I said earlier, the social issues voters formed the backbone of the Republican party electoral base but they never really controlled the party. If one looks at the Republican presidential tickets from 1968 onwards (Nixon-Agnew, Ford-Dole, Reagan-Bush, Bush-Quayle, Dole-Kemp, Bush-Cheney), none of them emerged from the social values base. All of them said they were religious of course, and they occasionally hobnobbed with the radical clerics such as Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and James Dobson of the religious extremist Christianist groups, but they did not give the impression of being true believers. Many of them did not even go to church regularly or, if they did, went to mainstream, middle-of-the-road Christian churches, not the born-again, come-to-Jesus, snake-handling varieties. George W. Bush came the closest to paying at least lip-service to that role but even he does not seem like a true believer.
All of the candidates genuflected at the altar of opposition to abortion but apart from nominating conservative Supreme Court justices, they did not enthusiastically fight for the issues dear to the social issues voters. So after four decades of Republican leadership that ostensibly supported the positions of the cultural issues voters, a woman’s right to choose is still not outlawed (although it has been severely curtailed), flag burning is still legal, gay rights have been steadily increasing, people of color are still immigrating to the US, illegal immigrants are not being detained and kicked out en masse, and the Ten Commandments and other religious symbols are still not allowed in the public square and in schools. One can understand the rising frustration of the social values voters.
It is with this background that we can understand why the choice of Sarah Palin electrified the social issues base of the Republican party. Here, for the very first time, was some who was just like them almost at the very top of their party hierarchy, just the proverbial heartbeat away from the presidency.
An interesting feature about the Palin choice is that in its aftermath most media attention focused on the concerns about McCain’s age, and the danger that he might die in office leaving the nation with the novice Palin at the helm. So the ticket’s supporters in the media tried to reassure us that McCain was in very good health, had good genes for longevity (his mother is still alive!), and that he would be a good mentor for Palin and would help her grow quickly into readiness for the job if the need should arise.
But many people in the party’s social values base did not much like McCain. His heart did not seem to be into some of their passions and he seemed to be just the latest in a line of Republican pretenders who said he shared their values but would not really push their agenda once in office. What is less-well known is that his advanced age was seen by them as a good thing because they hoped he would die soon after taking office, leaving Palin in charge.
The enthusiastic crowds who started appearing at the McCain rallies after the Palin choice were her supporters, seeing her as more truly representing their interests than McCain. These people were hoping that soon after his inauguration, McCain would shuffle off his mortal coil and join that Big Maverick in the sky.
Next: Palin’s appeal
POST SCRIPT: Eddie Izzard on James Bond