It is said that in politics two years is a lifetime, what then is four? Because in four years we have seen one of the hugest tectonic shifts happen in politics. In 2004 the Republican Party was bragging about their “permanent majority” and the triumph of Free Market Conservatism as far as the eye could see. Two year after that Howard Dean and his happy bunch of internet savvy grassroots campaigners put Carl Rove in a huge headlock and delivered a giant noogie to the Elephant Party. Two years after that the Republicans, bereft of the Congress lost both the White House and more seats in the Congress. Over four years the Republicans have hemorrhaged political power like a hemophiliac engaged in a knife fight. What happened?
The short answer is the disease first described by the ancient Greeks—Hubris. Carl Rove and his buddies got far too big for their britches and incurred the wrath of the old and angry political Gods. But that is a far too facile explanation. The seeds of wrath were planted long ago; way before Bush and Rove pulled in a bumper crop of political disaster. It was Nixon and the “Southern Strategy” that was the source of all ills for the Republicans.
Nixon’s evil genius was his ability to tap into the resentments of working class white bigots. The truly evil part of it was his ability to pretend that he was not feeding racist and authoritarian thoughts. Take the meme of “Law and Order” it was a definite twofer of bigotry for working class voters; they could strike out against those unruly, unpatriotic college kids protesting in the streets AND those uppity black folks demanding equal rights. Nixon had huge help in 1968 in that the obvious racist candidacy of George Corley Wallace provided him cover for his more subtitle racist message. Nixon could bat his eyes and declare “racist, little old me,? Oh no, I’m a gentleman and a statesman unlike that awful cad Mr. Wallace.” Nixon was no fool though he saw the opening that Barry Goldwater opened in the formally Democratic South. He knew the only reason for that opening was because of Southern White anger at the dismantling of Jim Crow. His whole Southern Strategy was a way of having cultural issues trump economic ones.
What Nixon did was to provide a template for future Republicans to follow; a way to win by appealing to white male fears and resentments. Nixon helped to flip the Southern tier of states that were a part of the old Confederacy solidly to the G.O.P. He showed the way for hard-core racists to hide behind a veneer of respectability. To a man (and they were all pasty white men) all the old Dixiecrats slowly morphed into Republicans. Nixon provided a thin veneer of plausible deniability to stone-cold troglodyte bigots like Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond.
What Nixon began Regan put on steroids. Nixon could never shake the well-earned reputation of a bad actor. Tricky Dick was well known as a mean, vindictive, S.O.B. who compensated for his poor political skills with over-arching ambition. Regan, the B movie star, on the other hand had the political skills and the sunny charisma that Nixon lacked. When Nixon told you he was not a racist or pandering to racist tropes any half intelligent voter knew he was full of male bovine digestive byproduct. Nixon’s viciousness was just too obvious to ignore. Regan on the other hand was truly believable when he denied malice to our darker hued brethren. Even when he continually trotted out the epic racist urban myth of the “Welfare Queen” who paid for a fleet of Cadillacs via her benefits, he never was effectively called out. Regan’s geniality easily covered for the vile, despicable and vicious race baiting he indulged in.
Regan further tied the Republicans to the mast of Dixie by inviting the Religious Right into the “Big” Republican tent. These helmet-haired T.V. evangelists of salvation had no real home after the Democratic Party followed Hubert Horatio Humphrey and the progressive wing into civil rights struggle. These followers of the salvation mankind were dead set against integration and equal rights. They were never really happy with the Democratic Party even after it nominated one of their own, Jimmy Carter, and placed him in the White House. Carter was far too wed to the old time Baptist faith of separation of state and religion and far too much his darker skinned brother’s keeper for their taste. Carter fought bigotry when he occupied the Georgia governor’s chair; that could clearly not do. Regan was more than happy to bring these people and their agenda into the party of Lincoln.
Regan was the perfect man for the message. He could hammer away at the social issues that invigorated the Christiansists while still sounding charming to the ill or under informed. The vicious misogyny, the shredding of the church-state wall, the lowing of the civic discourse was ignored both by the media and the masses because the guy delivering the message was so gosh-darn nice.
By the end of Regan’s term a Corporatist-Christianist axis had formed in the Republican Party. Bush Sr. was a creature of the old-school corporatist faction but fully pandered to the holy warrior section of the Republican Party. He sent out olive branches to the high pooh-bas of the Jesus brigade in the shape of his dim-witted V.P., Dan Quayle and his son W. While Dobson and others never truly warmed up to Bush Sr. they were actually able to use this fact to extract numerous concessions from him.
It was however the two terms of Bill Clinton that actually show the power of Dixie and its ability to warp the national consensus. One of the reasons the great triangulator got the nod in the first place is because he was a “moderate southerner.” He and his DLC amigos convinced the Donkey Party that victory lied in becoming a Corporate-friendly Republican Lite. Clinton did little to stop the onward conservative rush acting mostly as a brake on their enthusiasm. Even then it was mostly the social agenda of the religious right that got the short-shrift. The eventually disastrous economic policy of free market absolutism sailed through with out a hitch. Clinton even helped to end “Welfare as we know it” a concession to our dark racist side that will become all too apparent in its failings now that we are in an economic melt down.
But it was the election of 2000 that truly sunk the Republicans. It sunk them because they got their dream date of George W. Bush. On of the more laughable revisionist memes put out by Conservative true believers is that Bush was not a “real conservative.” Nothing could be further from the truth. The reason Bush the younger got the nod for the Republican nomination was that he was the conservative purists choice. McCain, running his maverick 1.0 campaign had gone off the reservation in 2000 especially where the religious right was concerned. This allowed Rove and the Bushies to sink McCain’s chances with a vile little racist push poll in the South Carolina Primary. The evangelicals bought the lie hook, line and sinker. The 2000 primary vote in S.C. put in sharp relief how the modern Republican Party absolutely depends on the racist cracker vote in Dixie.
It was the events after the 2000 election though that not only proved Compassionate Conservative to be an Oxymoron but also the term Competent Conservative to be one too. Bush proved then old adage “be careful of what you wish for, you might just get it.” Conservatives of all stripes got exactly what they wanted: the Corporatists got to enrich themselves at public expense, the NeoCons got their jolly little war in Iraq and the Christian Crazies got to set social policy. Bush and his Republicans even rushed into the Terry Schiavo mess like a sailor on shore leave rushes into a whore house. It was this government interference into a very private matter that was the first real red flag to ordinary Americans that something was rotten on the banks of the Potomac.
The triumphalism of Bush and the Republican Party in the 2004 election quickly unraveled the thin majority they enjoyed at the polls. It was the elephants from the land of Dixie that were the main offenders. The Republican contempt for all forms of science, especially with the mint julep crowd, finally blew back into their collective faces with the Hispanic vote. W , a very canny political operator when votes are on the line, spent time and effort wooing the Hispanic vote. He looked at the demographics and noticed that Hispanics were a fast raising portion of the electorate. Bush and Rove understood that national victory depended on being competitive among Hispanic voters. Uncharacteristically or maybe very characteristically Bush grocked the science of demography when applied to capturing voters.
The effort paid off, Republicans snagged almost 45% of the Hispanic Vote.. The nativist Dixie wing was not about to let that stand. The good old crackers of the G.O.P went on a tear during the immigration law reform debate. Hispanics got a front row seat at a display of good old Southern race-baiting and bigotry and left the show in droves. Republicans went from being competitive amongst Hispanic voters to having the Democrats rip out their livers and parade it on a pole with this voting block. Heck of job Glenn Beck.
It is also the very Southern centric message that is undoing the Republicans on a broader scale. The South isn’t what is used to be. Virginia has slowly shifted from solid Red to Purple to a fairly bright Red since 2000. Florida has become a swing state. The east coast, once the bastion or Rockefeller Republicanism and were the true power lay in the party, has become Donkey Heaven. The Elephants have become a vestigial appendage in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine. Their New England House contingent has vaporized. Even in the old Stomping grounds of the epic hater Virgil Goode the Republicans have been showed the door.
More than anything it is Regan’s decision to tie the Republican party to the mast of right wing evangelical Christianity that has brought the electoral disaster to his party. Any serious candidate for Republican office must make the appropriate sacrificial noises to the religious right. But all Christiansists have to offer is a stream of invective about social issues that most Americans are bone tiered hearing about. When your job is in deep trouble and your house in foreclosure you just can’t gather as much concern about prayer in school or intelligent design.
(Some think that the current hard times will help the religious right. Not necessarily. The retrograde social thinking and the free market absolutism which are part of the prosperity gospel that most megachurches preach has limited appeal in hard times. Sooner or later the pitch of better and more secure economic conditions via your faith in your lord and savior Jesus Christ crashes against the reality of the bank repossession of your car and the ending of your unemployment benefits. The very message required of churches during an economic downturn; blessed are the poor, we are our brothers keepers, judge not lest you be judged, a person is judged by the richness of his spirit not their possessions, are anathemas to right wing evangelicals. Look for more traditional faiths and especially the Roman Catholic Church to gain adherents. The Church of Rome has a long and deeply thought out philosophy of anti-materialism to draw upon even if its Popes have observed it mainly in breech. )
As for the party of Lincoln, it is in deep Kimchi. The power of the Religious right has peeked. Current political and economic realities have made their concerns moot. But these people are the operational soul of the Republican Party. They are the phone dialers, stamp lickers, door knockers and street muscle of the G.O.P. The Democratic Party always had the unions to fall back upon, now they also have the Net Roots. Dean and his disciples have built a grass roots structure that is committed, diverse and multifaceted. Look at the two conventions. The Democrats were a bawdy, rowdy, polyglot mess of heaving humanity. The Republicans looked more like a freaking Amway meeting held at an exclusive whites-only country club. It was a monotone palate of old pasty-white men. The McCain-Palin rallies were even more embarrassing not only where they almost exclusively white, they were both pitifully small and excessively crazy.
What does the Republican Party do? How does it dig itself out of this prison of its own devising? There are hints that the Republican may actually achieve a historical third defeat in the election of 2010. If that happens, if they go zero for three, will the professionals in the party finally mount an insurgency to liberate the Elephants from the toxic effects of Dixie? The Party is already irrelevant on the Left Coast. It is fast becoming an also-ran in the northeast corridor. The Midwest is less of a toss-up than it used to be and even parts of the South are falling away due to demographic changes. Further down the line demographic changes further imperil the G.O.P. When angry white men become fewer and father between an electoral strategy based on getting the lion’s share of that vote becomes less and less viable. Obama was able to win solid Red states by crushing the Republicans in the minority vote and getting just enough white votes (chiefly among women) to pull out the win. The minority majority / majority minority proposition is already a winning strategy, what happens when the U.S. becomes one large minority as California already has.
The Califorinification of the nation is nothing but bad news for Republicans if present trends continue. The G.O.P. gets relegated to the fever-swamp of the rural South becoming ever more irrelevant and sclerotic while the Democrats essentially become a one party state. Republicans political commitment to the homogeneous authoritarian culture of Dixie has left it without the tools it needs to compete in the diverse urban culture of the rest of the nation. Its message of free market purity coupled with cultural retrenchment and minimal government (except to hunt down terrorists and the dreaded gay) no longer holds any sway. The Trifecta of the Iraq War, the economic collapse and the culture of crony corruption (hello Halliburton, Brownie you're doing a heck of a job) have made suspect their claims of being a serious and responsible institution for handling the affairs of state.
By taking in the culture and politics of Dixie the Republicans have become of reflection of its worst traditions. It has become corrupt, inbred, willfully ignorant, bigoted, intolerant, cruel, despotic, and slothful. It has bred a race of political pigmies from Newt Gingrich to Tom Delay. It has dragged the nation back into the political primordial ooze. It has placed partisan and personal considerations over country. It has lied; it has cheated and it has stolen. In the last two years as a minority in Congress it has willfully obstructed the nations business. It has become a party of mere opposition, only knowing what is against: against government, against taxes, against regulation, against the unions, against equality, against common decency. While this type of behavior is tolerated in the operatically corrupt states of Texas, Arkansas and Alaska it should not become the norm in the nation as a whole. If the elections of 2006 and 2008 are any indication the majority of Americans agree with this proposition. Dixie is undoing the Republicans, the only way the party becomes healthy again is to find a new set of Conservative principles not smothered in masses of kudzu.