Immediately after winning the 1980 GOP presidential nomination, Ronald Reagan went to Philadelphia, Mississippi and gave a speech on “States’ Rights.” It was a curious venue for a curious subject. In the same southern town just 16 years previously, 3 civil rights activists were murdered by the local police department, the county sheriff and the KKK. “States’ Rights” had a special meaning: it stood for opposition to the civil rights movement. It would be like giving a pro-guns speech in Columbine today – a massacre which happened 15 years ago.
Reagan advisor Lee Atwater said in a 1981 interview, “You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968 you cant say ‘nigger’…. So you say stuff like ‘forced busing, states’ rights’ and all that stuff…. You’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is blacks get hurt worse than whites.”
Conservatism among poor whites was and is fundamentally about racism. The GOP, not by accident, but BY DESIGN, is a party for whites only. Though they feinted toward inclusiveness during the 90s, their Tea Party wing – birthers and all – still doesnt care enough about winning the White House to strike a deal on immigration reform – a necessary first step toward taking a fraction of the Hispanic vote – without which they have little chance of winning a national election.
LBJ knew that the Civil Rights Act would drive white southerners to the GOP. The so-called “solid south” had been wobbling since the 1940s, when Strom Thurmond formed the “States’ Rights” party, whose single policy goal was maintaining segregation. He took 4 southern states in the 1948 presidential election. Coming just 4 months after passage of the Civil Rights Act, the 1964 Presidential election saw 5 southern states go to the GOP, whose candidate, Sen. Barry Goldwater, voted and campaigned against the Act. With his home state, they were the only states he won. The same 5 states went to George Wallace in 1968, again running only on segregation. Wallace remains the most successful third-party presidential candidate of the past 100 years. Racism, and nothing else, was all it took to win the white southern vote. And still is.
One of Nixon’s advisers dubbed it “the southern strategy” – stripping the white southern vote from the DNC though appeals to racism. Remarkably, one facet of the southern strategy explicitly included pushing southern blacks into the Democratic Party, to lower that party’s stature in the eyes of racists. As a Nixon adviser put it, “The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the south, the sooner the negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans. That’s where the votes are. Without that prodding from the blacks, the whites will backslide into their old comfortable arrangement with the local Democrats.”
Success breeds success – Nixon’s “southern strategy” has grown to define GOP electioneering and politics, as increasingly virulent strains of conservatism have taken over the GOP – a once-great party with a strong liberal tradition. Since Reagan, GOP candidates have competed in general elections on Goldwater’s conservative policy positions, using Nixon’s electioneering strategy. The quadrennial GOP presidential candidate’s visit to the outrageously racist Bob Jones University (which forbids interracial dating) only ended after Bush Duh went in 2000, after which BJU unilaterally decided to withdraw from politics.
The language the GOP uses has evolved – where before we had “states’ rights” and “busing”, we now hear about “the takers”, “the 47%”, “illegals” – and then there are the birthers. The common element is belief in an “enemy within,” against whom a nation unifies in animus. Patriotism – nominally defined as love of country – is routinely expressed as hatred of particular people within it.
The birthers – crazies who suggest that Obama was born in Indonesia or Kenya – are NOT fringe elements within the GOP – they are mainstream. Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann and Newt GIngrich – all GOP national candidates – have made remarks sympathetic to or supportive of them.
And that’s how we got here – with many poor, white Americans supporting a political party that opposes there own financial interests. Among 46 million Americans in poverty, more than 30 million are white. Red states are themselves net recipients of federal dollars – receiving far more in federal support than they pay in federal taxes. Increasing the size of government almost invariably means that rich, liberal states will pay more; while poor, conservative states will receive more – and yet red-staters are against “big government.”
Almost 10 years ago, Thomas Frank took a crack at this issue with his book “What’s the Matter with Kansas.” His conclusion was that conservatives pulled a bait-n-switch on poor whites: luring them with demagoguery on cultural issues (abortion, death penalty, gay marriage, flag burning, etc.), in the hope that they wouldnt notice their regressive stand on fiscal issues (reducing taxes on passive income, slashing social insurance). There’s a lot of truth in his analysis – though Frank, a decent Kansan himself, was a bit too genteel in his conclusions.
In a Russian fairy tale, a genie appears to a peasant and says he will grant him any wish – on the condition that whatever he receives, his neighbor will receive double. After thinking it over for a minute, the peasant replies “kill one of my cows.” Poor whites have long taken pride that they’re somewhat less poor than poor blacks. They remain content with losing, as long as they think those other folks will lose more.