Eluding subtlety the way bats and zombies elude light, Republican presidential candidates made a theatrical presentation of their reliable southern strategy last evening in their Mint Julep debut in South Carolina’s presidential debate.
At core a southern-based political operation since the mid-Sixties, and now one in demographic and electoral reality, Republicans, in particular demagogic super snail Newt Gingrich leaving a wide and gleaming trail of slime, made sure their Old South bona fides were fully on display. The GOP’s absorption of Dixiecrats back in the day left the New South to the Democrats, and Republicans have milked the abiding racial resentments they inherited for every sweet drop since.
As close followers of current events will be aware by now, when black interrogator Juan Williams challenged Newt Gingrich’s previously racially rancid rhetoric he was showered with boos and hoots. And the rebel rank and file responded to Gingrich’s paean to the Confederate ethos with everything but the Rebel Yell.
Especially crowd-pleasing was Gingrich’s reiteration of his color-coded smear of President Obama as the “food stamp president,” failing to contextualize his wink (“Now, I know among the politically correct you’re not supposed to use facts that are uncomfortable”) with the useful information that the Bush Recession so devastated the American economy record numbers of Americans were driven to use relief. I don’t know if it’s politically incorrect to advise Newt that he might as well don the pointy hat and the robe at this point but that is what I would advise him.
Let’s be clear that the Republican fetish for smaller government originates not coincidentally with the extension of the federal franchise to include blacks in the Fifties and Sixties, or that the infatuation with states’ rights among the Republican crowd stems from its use as the go-to ancestral rationalization for the enshrinement of segregation or de-facto segregation as it were. Not surprisingly in the current nationwide campaign Republican legislatures and governors have embarked upon to re-restrict the right to vote, “states rights” play a prominent rhetorical role, the sanitized “philosophical” rationale.
And of course long has the localism “philosophy” been the “principled” defense for continuing tyrannizing and repression in states and localities. Southern (and other) factory owners righteously resented the feds poking their noses into how they treated their workers. The New Deal’s expansion of the federal government sat pretty well with Southern whites just as it did with the rest of the country. But one era’s proud post-Depression safety net became another era’s subsidization of the worthless and the lazy when The Great Society came along.
And when justices of the Supreme Court started mucking around with the schools in Brown vs. The Board of Education, and later federal and judicial entities began to implement integrated schools and housing for real, and when congress codified voting rights and civil rights The Federal Government was on its way to becoming the iconic Bogey Man it remains today, with commensurate electoral benefits.
Republican exploitation of racial animosities and residual prejudice always has been morally indistinguishable from bigotry and racist cant, though clearly Republicans publically compartmentalize it away as nothing of the sort, with their melodramatically plaintive victimhood, uncomfortable with the facts, as Newt might say.
The call and response performance of GOP candidates’ dog whistles and the rabble-rousing crowd’s responsive hoo-ahs was more peeling way of the veneer of respectability that has covered the party’s resurrected Bircherism (as in the John Birch Society) and nativism in its current regressive quest to boldly recapture the medieval.
Very likely there is something to the racial explanation of the Republican rank and file’s relative comfort with pervasive and deepening income inequality over several decades, mistakenly believing only the bottom is falling away from the top rather than the middle too. Republicans being the self-designated party of ideas, their newer one is largely indistinguishable from their older one: sharecropper capitalism for all.