The Southern Strategy

Back when I was a kid, we had Ronald Reagan but what we really had at that time was Lee Atwater and a continuation of the terrible Southern Strategy. Atwater died 20 years ago, but the Southern Strategy for the GOP is still resonating today. Of course, let’s remember, that the Southern Strategy disenfranchised a ton of people including African-Americans and anyone with a brain. The concept actually was developed by Richard Nixon, who knew that the only way for him to win a presidency was to focus on disenfranchised southern white voters. I think there is no doubt that by preying on racial fears, the republicans set up a strategy that is still effective today that has evolved into a variation of the tea party.

Politics evolve and morph constantly. No war is ever won, it’s just a series of battles. And those battle victories are achieved by political coalitions, consensus and a message.

Reagan never swayed off the message of fiscal conservatism while still appearing to be somewhat “sane” (notice the quotation marks campers) on civil rights issues although he had his share of problems there, mainly because he was continually disconnected from those issues. (Remember Bob Jones University?) The thing is they never became a huge wedge back in those days to the extent that they are now. Reagan stayed on his course. George Bush the First only got into deep trouble when he uttered the lines “Read my Lips, No New Taxes” and then raised taxes anyway, creating a great deal of opportunity for Bill Clinton but eight years isn’t forever. Then we got George Bush the Second, Karl Rove, Dick Cheney and corporate overlords.

The things that are happening in our state right now go back three decades and possibly even four.

Although younger political junkies didn’t live through the days of Jimmy Carter, Ned McWherter and on a state level, the West Tennessee block of rural Democrats that did very well in Nashville from the late 60s to the early 90s, there were activists that worked quietly behind the scene. And let’s also remember, Ned McWherter wasn’t afraid of kicking someone’s hiney if it was necessary. Those activists are the ones that we forget about. That knowledge is there sitting untapped to a large degree. They were fearless and effective in their day.  They weren’t afraid to throw a left hook when they needed to or sit quietly when it was necessary. And they didn’t have the communication tools that we have now. It was a time of boots on the street. And McWherter was different than Phil Bredesen. Two different political beasts, one who wasn’t afraid to throw a punch for the democratic party and created an emotional connection with voters. The other who avoided as much confrontation as he could and focused on the business of politics but didn’t inspire much emotion at all.

We don’t have either one of those things now.

I’ve been thinking a lot that Ronald Reagan would not win in 2011 because the new crop of GOP  has embraced the Tea Party as the new normal. Reagan would be considered a moderate in these days, who also wasn’t afraid to throw his weight around.  Reagan, who touted a lot of quotes about unions, was pretty anti-labor himself. (Ask one of the 11,000+ air traffic controllers he fired in 1981 and put a lifetime ban on although that was eventually rescinded by Clinton 12 years later.) Through and after his presidency, America became more conservative and more anti-union. Honestly, do you think FOX news would be a Reagan supporter? He didn’t have to contend with that nonsense.

And the Republican Party has evolved from the Atwater days to the Newt Gingrich regime of the early 90s to what it is today, which is a successful mess of wedge issues, blame game tactics and blatant drunk-with-power elitism. The issue, as I see it, as that when you create a voting block of people who are politically marketed to feel like victims, that’s a particularly powerful block of people. And it didn’t start with the Tea Party, it started long before we giggled over the term teabaggers.

Where do the democrats fit in?

During the 80s and 90s, there became a trend where democrats began to describe themselves as a particular kind of democrat. I’m a Blue Dog, I’m a Liberal, I’m fiscally conservative yet socially moderate and the list goes on.  In some ways, watching this happen, I began to see that it came down to “I’m a good democrat, you are a bad democrat” which became a little discussed yet constantly referred to mantra. Vibinc and I were discussing this very issue this week. These days, as I sit in a sandwich generation that is neither young nor old but just in the middle, I see that the disconnect is that there is a chasm between the idealism and hard work of young democrats and a dismissal of the difficult tasks that older democrats have accomplished in the past.

The bottom line is that we are all democrats and we need everyone. The bottom line is that campaigns should start now and not three months before election day. Candidates need to be recruited now. Communication needs to begin now. And let’s remember, not all voters live in Nashville.

The issues that face this nation and the democratic party were created decades ago by ghosts, so what this means is that we are looking at years of work and it’s not going to happen overnight. A place to start is that we have huge economic inequalities in this state and this nation.

And everyone’s voice, young, old, new or seasoned is important to start building the house from the ground up.  The positive difference is that the democrats can alleviate suffering if they so choose, not create fissures and disenfranchising voters while gathering power.

And that is the key.

4 comments for “The Southern Strategy

  1. Mike Turner
    March 19, 2011 at 2:24 pm

    A Big part of the Southern Strategy as you pointed out was to motivate the Angry White Male. The GOP was willing to go along with their ever trending rightward views on the Social issue’s, as long as the Establishment Repubs were still running the show, but now and to many Republican’s Chagrin, the tail is tired of being wagged and now wants to wag the Dog. It will be very interesting to watch this family feud or Civil War for the Soul of the GOP. Will the Tea Party win or will the Establishment win, will the Christian Right be successful in their attempts to co-opt the Tea Party. Will the Socially Progressive Establishment type’s throw up their hands in disgust or will the Blue-Collar Repubs get disillusioned and start voting their pocket books and return to the Democrats. I can hardly wait to see how this plays out.

  2. Phil Phillips
    March 26, 2011 at 10:47 am

    Reagan also did immesaurable damage to America in suttle ways by altering the political language. I’m in my slightly later 50’s and can remember when people referred to “My Government” or “Our Government” rather than “the government”. Remember his first inaugural address? “The scatiest 11 words in the English language are “I’m from the government and I’m here to help you.” and “Big government is not the solution to our problems, big government is the problem.”
    One of our greatest challenges is getting our patriotic “language”back. Democrats are the true patriots…We don’t advocate shipping jobs overseas, tolerate Vets living on the streets, or allowing American citizens to die due to lack of healthcare. People who do these things would have been labeled “traitors” by our Founding Fathers.

    It’s not “the government”, it’s OUR Government!” Using the “third person” allows us all to set it at arm’s length and critize without feeling any responsibility to fix it. Let’s start here. The next time you hear that phrase, correct the person. “No, this is America, it’s our government, mine and yours, and we all bear a shared responsibility for it, no matter what some in Washington want us to think.”

  3. March 26, 2011 at 11:11 pm

    Some people say that a liberal won’t even take his own side in an argument. I’m not that kind of liberal, never ran from the label, will put up my dukes rather than meekly shrink from conflict. We’re in a fight, and we have to realize we won’t win it by splitting the difference.

    • March 27, 2011 at 10:01 am


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