The future of the Republican Party-1: The Southern strategy

Given the back-to-back defeats of Republicans in 2006 and 2008 that have resulted in the Democrats regaining control of the White House and both houses of Congress, there will be deep re-evaluation within the Republican Party about the direction in which they should go. Such evaluations, accompanied by vicious intra-party warfare, are normal for losing parties, especially if the defeats are big ones.

What made this year a little unusual was that the sniping started even before the election was over. The difference may have been due to the fact that this division was over the role of a person than the usual ones of issues or campaign strategy. Sarah Palin, a relative unknown until a few months ago, seemed to be the flashpoint for the early fighting, the dividing line separating the factions. But rather than focus on Palin the person, an admittedly fascinating topic that the media can’t seem to get enough of, it may be more helpful to look at what she represents.

To see how the Palin phenomenon came about and why the warfare within the Republican Party is so vicious, we need to go back a little in history. Modern Republican politics has had at its core the ‘Southern strategy’. This was developed following the bitter battles for desegregation in the 1950s and the early 1960s, many of them occurring in the South, that led to the golden age of civil rights legislation of the 1960s.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed racial segregation in schools, public places, and employment. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibited states from imposing any “voting qualification or prerequisite to voting, or standard, practice, or procedure … to deny or abridge the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color.” Congress was outlawing the practice in some which southern states were preventing otherwise qualified African-Americans from voting by having them pass literacy tests in order to register to vote.

These laws were seen as direct rebukes to Southern whites and in signing the second piece of legislation, president Lyndon Johnson is reported to have predicted “There goes the South for a generation.” But the effects actually lasted even longer.

Richard Nixon pioneered the Southern strategy that won him the presidency in 1968 and 1972. It basically exploited the resentment of Southern whites against the Democratic-led civil rights legislation to seal Southern support for Republicans. Once they had secured that large bloc of electoral votes, they then used race and religion-based issues as wedges to divide the rest of the country along cultural fault lines to carve out winning majorities in the electoral college by bringing together two large blocs of people.

One bloc consisted of old-style conservative Republicans, the ones who used to be called ‘Rockefeller Republicans’. They consist of people who are pragmatic, technocratic, and managerial in their outlook, and less ideological. They believe in the rule of law, a small but responsible and competent government, and a non-interventionist foreign policy. On economics they favor pro-business, lower-tax, fiscal policies and balanced budgets. On personal matters, they tend to oppose the expansions of social welfare programs and be somewhat libertarian in their outlook and believers in individual freedoms. They tended to be well educated and had a sense of noblesse oblige, that although possessed of a sense of entitlement that they were properly the ruling class, they had a responsibility for the welfare of people not as fortunate as themselves.

Allied with this group was the second bloc, those people for whom social issues were paramount, people for whom issues such as abortion, gays, guns, god, and flag were important. These people were always the rank and file of the party, the ones who existed in large numbers in parts of the country and gave it voting clout but they were never the leaders. They were the infantry and junior officer corps of the army, not the top brass. They were thrown the occasional bone to keep them satisfied and in line, but their main role was to get riled up at election time and come out in large numbers to vote for the Republican party. This was done close to election time by raising issues like flag burning, abortion rights, gay rights, gun control, immigration and border fences, and the Ten Commandments. After the election ended and the furor was over, it was scarcely mentioned that nothing much had actually changed on any of these issues, so that they could be resurrected the next election if needed.

So we saw campaign after campaign fought on issues of abortion, god, gays, guns, patriotism, xenophobia, pitting church-going rural people against the supposedly multicultural, non-patriotic urban populations, and setting less-educated working class urban people against supposedly effete sophisticates. And race was always a subtext.

Next: The Southern strategy takes hold.

POST SCRIPT: How right wing talk radio operates

This is a fascinating article by a former local station news director on how right wing talk radio manages to plug away in a coordinated fashion day after day on selected topics and thus controls the political conversation. (Thanks to Digby.)

These radio hosts exploit and perpetuate the sense of victimhood of their listeners.

To begin with, talk show hosts such as Charlie Sykes – one of the best in the business – are popular and powerful because they appeal to a segment of the population that feels disenfranchised and even victimized by the media. These people believe the media are predominantly staffed by and consistently reflect the views of social liberals. This view is by now so long-held and deep-rooted, it has evolved into part of virtually every conservative’s DNA.

To succeed, a talk show host must perpetuate the notion that his or her listeners are victims, and the host is the vehicle by which they can become empowered. The host frames virtually every issue in us-versus-them terms. There has to be a bad guy against whom the host will emphatically defend those loyal listeners.

This enemy can be a politician – either a Democratic officeholder or, in rare cases where no Democrat is convenient to blame, it can be a “RINO” (a “Republican In Name Only,” who is deemed not conservative enough). It can be the cold, cruel government bureaucracy. More often than not, however, the enemy is the “mainstream media” – local or national, print or broadcast.
. . .
[T]he key reason talk radio succeeds is because its hosts can exploit the fears and perceived victimization of a large swath of conservative-leaning listeners.

The audience for these shows is a lot more diverse than is commonly thought.

The stereotyped liberal view of the talk radio audience is that it’s a lot of angry, uneducated white men. In fact, the audience is far more diverse. Many are businesspeople, doctors, lawyers, academics, clergy, or soccer moms and dads.

These hosts actually do get daily memos about what to talk about and what point of view to take, so that a coordinated message can be promoted.

Conservative talk show hosts would receive daily talking points e-mails from the Bush White House, the Republican National Committee and, during election years, GOP campaign operations. They’re not called talking points, but that’s what they are. I know, because I received them, too. During my time at WTMJ, Charlie would generally mine the e-mails, then couch the daily message in his own words. Midday talker Jeff Wagner would be more likely to rely on them verbatim. But neither used them in their entirety, or every single day.

You really need to read the whole thing to see in detail how the system works.


  1. Tom Maley says

    I truly believe that the right wing talk radio hosts along with their television brethren (we can’t leave out the loveable Bill O) went to the same schools that wrestling announcers and managers attended. With only one exception, the wrestling announcers and managers actually know that what they were reporting is all a con.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *