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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 1/2/09

Is the GOP's "Southern Strategy" Over?

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Paul Krugman's newest essay at the New York Times, "Bigger Than Bush," skewers the GOP for its racist backlash strategy, aka the "Southern Strategy." He, as usual, makes a great deal of sense, but he also has not gone far enough and is bound by the limitations of vision within this two-party system.

Here are the first few lines of his Op-Ed, followed by my commentary:

"As the new Democratic majority prepares to take power, Republicans have become, as Phil Gramm might put it, a party of whiners.

"Some of the whining almost defies belief. Did Alberto Gonzales, the former attorney general, really say, 'I consider myself a casualty, one of the many casualties of the war on terror'? Did Rush Limbaugh really suggest that the financial crisis was the result of a conspiracy, masterminded by that evil genius Chuck Schumer?

"But most of the whining takes the form of claims that the Bush administration’s failure was simply a matter of bad luck — either the bad luck of President Bush himself, who just happened to have disasters happen on his watch, or the bad luck of the G.O.P., which just happened to send the wrong man to the White House.

"The fault, however, lies not in Republicans’ stars but in themselves. Forty years ago the G.O.P. decided, in effect, to make itself the party of racial backlash. And everything that has happened in recent years, from the choice of Mr. Bush as the party’s champion, to the Bush administration’s pervasive incompetence, to the party’s shrinking base, is a consequence of that decision."

* * *

Left out of Krugman’s analysis of the GOP’s Southern Strategy is the strategy’s origins and its overt text (its racist content being its subtext) in the “law and order” issue of the 1960s. The GOP’s counter-attack against the 1960s’ insurgencies was its claim that social protests and street crime were all one and the same: criminal lawlessness.

While the Democrats under LBJ initially rightly derided the GOP for its coded racial appeals, they eventually succumbed to the “get tough” on crime mantra and both parties have been competing with one another ever since over who is tougher on crime. The explanation regularly offered for this convergence by the two parties and for the success of the Southern Strategy is white ethnics’ covert racism and beyond their ranks a general public antipathy for crime.

The conventional wisdom that the public embraced more punitive measures towards street crime in the Sixties and ever since is, however, wrong. 

My work on this topic earned me an international academic award in the 1990s (the Alfred R. Lindesmith Award), but the message of this work has not really extended beyond certain scholarly circles. There isn’t room here to recount the full argument and data that underscore that argument, but I encourage readers to go a full article on this at http://wcr.sonoma.edu/v5n1/loo.htm. I offer this excerpt from it here:

 “[T]he polling record indicates that the electorate was not particularly aroused about crime during the 1960s. They were, in fact, more sympathetic to the civil rights issue than ready to ‘get tough’ on crime…

“Elites in [the face of a widespread social insurgency] are in hot debate as to how to best handle the crisis. In the 1960s, liberal elites argued that concessions (e.g., the War on Poverty) needed to be made to the insurgents lest a conflagration result. Conservatives argued that concessions would only fuel the fires of insurgency and a crackdown was what was needed.

“The 1960s' insurgency managed to breach the public agenda normally fashioned by elites … A debate raged in the society as a whole over whether the key social problem was crime or social injustice. The crime issue as authored initially by conservative elites in the 1960s was in fact challenged largely successfully by social movement activists who argued forcefully that social injustice, not crime, was the central social problem of the day. This insurgency created significant splits - for a time - in elite ranks. The widespread influence of the insurgency effectively blocked crime from emerging at the top of the MIP [most important problem in the nation] polls during the 1960s since not only were elites unable to speak with one voice, but more importantly, the public was split in its views and its loyalties…

“[T]he decline of the welfare state and its replacement by the security (or Neoliberal) state is linked to the globalization of capital that began in earnest in the 1970s and 1980s. The decline of informal methods of social control (family, neighborhood organizations, jobs, and so on) that has occurred as a result of globalization necessitates the growth of formal, coercive methods of social control (especially the criminal justice system). This also coincides with the dismantling of the Keynesian Welfare State, which included the alliance between organized labor and the Democratic Party that began with FDR's administration. The Democrats ended up colluding with the Republicans on the crime issue after the 1960s because globalization emerged, with Neoliberalism as its political expression, first in the form of Thatcherism in England, and Reaganism in the U.S.

“Globally, Social Democrats and their U.S. equivalent (the liberal wing of the Democratic Party) have been largely or entirely supplanted by Neoliberalism. Thus, in this country the Democratic Party has moved to the right even as the Republican Party has moved even further to the right. Both major parties have spoken essentially in unison on the crime issue - that is, that we have to crack down on criminals…

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Cal Poly Pomona Sociology Professor. Author of "Globalization and the Demolition of Society," co-editor/author (with Peter Phillips) of "Impeach the President: the Case Against Bush and Cheney." National Steering Committee Member of the World Can't (more...)
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