January 24, 2012

The "Southern Strategy" Revisited

So, the GOP presidential race to date has come to this, a candidate has won a large victory in a Southern state’s primary by employing the same tactics as the much criticized and once discredited “Southern Strategy” first used by Richard Nixon.  Newt Gingrich has won “a smashing victory” (as one news outlet put it) in South Carolina by appealing to an undercurrent of anti-African-American racism and inveighing against a never defined “national establishment” of effete elites on Meet the Press last Sunday, represented most visibly by his attacks on the “elite media” (also never defined). Never mind, as the New York Times reports today, that Gingrich himself must be counted a central part of any “national establishment,” or the millions he has earned from his engagement with it. 

Never mind, too, that his thinly veiled references to a perceived African-American lack of work ethic and laziness, in response to a questioner at a debate as Gingrich lectured him on the sums expended as “handouts” to black citizens, are wholly without empirical foundation. The candidate also traveled the state arguing President Obama “put” more people on food stamps than any chief executive in American history. Never mind the claim is not true as the President cannot “put” anyone on food stamps, and the number of assistance recipients was larger under President George Bush. Moreover, many more SNAP recipients are non-Hispanic whites than African-Americans.

These facts do not matter. Gingrich, as many before him, is out to identify scapegoats to placate fearful voters, and who better to blame in a climate of fear than an inchoate (and even better, effete) “them” and a long maligned and feared minority. Here is a politics of mobilization by appeal to fear and prejudice against the “other.” Never mind complex explanations, never mind messy reality; democratic elections can be won by mobilizing around nasty instincts and emotions that offer ready explanations for complex concerns.

There is no way to sugarcoat this ugly turn. It is the basest form of democratic politics and it is dangerous in its implications for our polity’s capacity to deal with difference and to secure the rights of all of its citizens. Regardless of partisanship, no one should stand aside and let this sort of thing happen unheralded. It must be dubbed what it is. The chairman of the Republican Party publicly apologized in 2005 for his party’s past use of these tools in the guise of the Southern Strategy. They are just as reprehensible today. To “win” by appeal to the darkest forces of the human psyche cannot be justified because it “works.”

The nation and its political parties had once put the mobilization strategies so in evidence in Gingrich’s campaign in South Carolina behind them. Their return, in whatever guise, is a pox on the nation and should be criticized as the obnoxious turn they represent. Democratic elections are not merely about power, but about governance. One cannot govern a heterogeneous nation by polarizing it for electoral purposes. Americans of all political persuasions should resist strongly this return to a dispiriting politics of division, disparagement and disempowerment.

About the Author

Max Stephenson Jr.

Max Stephenson, Jr. presently serves as Professor of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech and Director of the Virginia Tech Institute for Policy and Governance. He has published widely on policy, civil society and governance concerns. He is the author most recently, with Laura Zanotti, of Peacebuilding through Community-Based NGOs: Paradoxes and Possibilities, Kumarian Press (2012) and editor with Laura Zanotti of Building Walls and Dissolving Borders: The Challenges of Alterity, Community and Securitizing Space. Ashgate Publishers, 2013.

Max Stephenson Jr.

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