Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Bitter fruit

On November 4, an electoral landslide wiped out many of the few remaining Republican moderates in Congress, widening the ideological divisions that have contributed to partisanship and gridlock on Capitol Hill. According to Pew Research, the Grand Old Party’s (GOP) national membership has shrunk to about 27% of the population.

So, what happened? Why did the Republicans lose? There are many reasons, but to name a few: racially tinged character-assassination ads that the majority of the nation saw through, lack of a real plan to help the middle class, different and conflicting messages every day or so, and the Sarah Palin pick. Once Palin was added to the ticket, Christian right leaders climbed on the band wagon and swung into action. They pursued a culture-war strategy focused on hot-button issues such as abortion and gay marriage. To mobilize their base, they also engaged in an ad campaign that played upon intense anger and fear in relation to Obama.

When the Republicans signed off on tactics used by Karl Rove and company, who led them into a harsh “either you’re with us or against us” far-right mindset, there was a lack of compromise, a lack of inclusion, and a lack of tolerance. The Republican base had already subscribed to the belief that government should reflect the views of “real America” which was code for white, Anglo-Saxon, evangelical protestant. Today, although a majority of Americans live in big metropolitan areas, Republicans espouse the belief that “real America” is small-town or rural and, above all, white and aim their election strategy toward that group. It’s called the Southern Strategy.

The Southern Strategy was crafted by Richard Nixon in the hopes of luring the southern white working class away from the Democratic party. He used anti-civil rights rhetoric and racist imagery to achieve this. The 1968 presidential campaign offered the GOP the first opportunity to run the "Southern Strategy." The Southern Strategy worked so well that it has been in continual use by the Republicans since then.

This crisis in the GOP has been building for over 40 years. It goes back to when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964. Johnson knew that the vestiges of segregation was so entrenched in the South that white southern voters would change to the Republican party once it became clear the Democrats favored black civil rights. He said that the law would cause a generation of Southerners to move to the Republicans. Ever since then, the party has depended upon the Southern strategy of racist rhetoric and fear to stay in power. Subsequent elections proved Johnson right: the South turned Republican.

Since the mid-1990s the GOP became completely dominated by Southerners. In 1994, Newt Gingrich of Georgia ushered in his "Revolution." By 2000, Southern Republicans controlled the House of Representatives with an iron hand under Tom DeLay. From 2000 to 2006 Southern Republican rule was complete: DeLay in the House, Frist in the Senate, and Bush 43 in the driver's seat. Just before the 2006 Congressional election, Republican corruption and connections to Abramoff, a high powered lobbyist, was made public. This allowed the Democrats to win a simple majority in Congress in 2006 – although not enough to be veto-proof or filibuster-proof.

It appears that the Republican party will now become more extreme – leaning ever further to the right. The spectacle of the McCain campaign drove out many Republican moderates and intellectuals -- people like Andrew Sullivan, George Will, David Brooks, and Christopher Buckley. This will pose a dilemma for any moderate conservatives that might remain. These moderates had spent the Bush years in denial, closing their eyes to the administration’s dishonesty and contempt for the rule of law. Some of them tried to maintain that denial through this election season, even as the McCain-Palin campaign’s tactics grew ever uglier. Now, moderates’ eyes are wide open and they are leaving the party in droves. The number of voters who call themselves Republicans is at a 28-year low of just 27%.

The GOP has exploited race and hot-button social issues for so long that it has whittled away its numbers to the point of becoming a regional party. After losing the presidential election, what remains of the Republican party will become so heavily identified with social and cultural stands -- and so thoroughly right-wing evangelical -- that it will be on the losing side of the demographic changes that are taking place in this country. They will continue to look backwards to what was, instead of embracing the country’s diverse future. They refuse to admit that the nation is becoming more diverse, more tolerant, and more reflective of a 21st Century multicultural society.

The Democrats’ landslide was not only brought about by the Republican use of the Southern Strategy, but also by a majority of the American electorate finally realizing that Republican policies had run the country into the ground. Bush and his gang of neo-cons, who in their zeal to set up a democracy in the Middle East, engineered a foreign policy that so strained the military it undermined America’s ability to finish the war in Afghanistan or be prepared for any other crisis. But the nail in the GOP’s coffin was the total collapse of the tenets of supply-side, trickle-down economics that are at the core of conservative ideology. Wall Street loved the laissez-faire atmosphere that the Republicans in charge of the Securities and Exchange Commission gave them. Wall Street ended up crashing and then begging Congress to shore up their losses with an infusion of hefty amounts of taxpayer cash. The financial system has collapsed to the point that even Alan Greenspan, the preeminent deregulator, now believes the government should stimulate economic growth and improve stability in the private sector through better regulation.

Even with the handwriting so obviously on the wall, the GOP base is in denial, refusing to believe that average Americans would reject their cause. A recent poll found that Republicans, by a margin of more than two to one, believe that McCain lost “because the mainstream media is biased” and the economic collapse, not because the nation grew weary under the burden of neoconservative policies.

The GOP’s long transformation into the party of the way-too-far right seems likely to accelerate as a result of the McCain defeat. The "values" wing of the Republican party will continue to dominate the Republican primaries so that any future GOP presidential candidate will have to pass the evangelical litmus test. It's a recipe for the party to nominate one Sarah Palin after another – and continue losing – just like in Oregon where the party moved to the right in recent years, nominating cultural conservatives, and losing badly for offices at all levels.

With the Obama campaign turning Virginia, North Carolina, Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada to the Democratic column, the Republican party is in danger of becoming a permanent minority. Their cultural ideology will keep them relegated to the Deep South and parts of the Mountain West. There are now no Republican congressmen left representing New England and much of the Northeast. In the Northwest, their numbers are shrinking. For a second straight election cycle, not one single incumbent Democratic senator lost his seat in Congress.

Here’s the reality: an Election Day poll by the Center for American Progress and the Campaign for America's Future asked whether Republicans had lost because they were too conservative or not conservative enough. By a 20 point margin, voters chose “too conservative.” Seven out of ten said they wanted the Republicans to work with Obama and “help him achieve his plans.”

What happened in this election was, in the eyes of many political analysts, an inevitable backlash after a decade of Republican rule in Congress, during which many of the leaders came from Southern states, and GOP policies were designed to appeal to the party's extremely conservative elements. What remains of the Republican party will be the hard right subculture that attends rallies where crowds chant “Vote McCain, not Hussein!” while harboring frightening fantasies about Barack Obama’s socialist or Marxist or Islamic roots. It will be the party of Saxby Chambliss, the senator from Georgia, who, observing large-scale early voting by African-Americans, warns his supporters that “the other folks are voting.” These remaining Republican ideologues lean so far to the right that they are unable to abandon their cultural war and move to the middle where they need to be to win elections.

The Southern Strategy has finally born its bitter fruit.