All Eyes on Dixie

The South isn't all Bob Jones University, and Democrats can make inroads there.

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The Elephant Man. He is Southern, white, economically insecure (at best), deeply religious and, therefore, out of step — sometimes defiantly — with Big City mores and culture. He's a problem. To be exact, he's the Democrats' problem. Not just because liberals don't like him (many don't), but because he leans, hell, lunges right and, heavyweight that he is, drags the whole damn electoral college with him.

For pundits and political junkies, he's this season's biggest game. So much, it seems, depends on him. Scores of articles have come out focusing exclusively on him, taking his temperature, speculating about his political life expectancy. Wading through them all, it's hard (at least for me) not to think of John Merrick, the theater's Elephant Man, who rates somewhere between a freakshow and a scientific marvel — an outsider, hyper-religious, a riddle that each of his overly solicitous visitors tries to solve.

The now-famous red-and-blue map showing the presidential results of the 2000 Election demonstrated the degree to which the Republicans now hold sway in the once solidly Democratic South. click here for full size view

Why all the fuss? Think back to after the last presidential election, when every media outlet with a graphics department produced maps of the U.S. with Dem-controlled states shaded blue and GOP states red. The North, the upper Midwest, and the West Coast looked like a vast blue sky. The GOP had the rest, most notably the South — an enormous uninterrupted swathe of red, which is to say, reddish-gray. The "Party of Lincoln" owns the old Confederacy. Whereas once Republicans were a party of the Northeast and the Democrats' hold on the South was rock solid, all that has changed.

This state of affairs was long in the making, but nobody predicted it as boldly, or as presciently, as Kevin Phillips. His analysis of voting patterns in The Emerging Republican Majority, published in 1969, indicated that despite the appeal of the Democrats' New Deal social programs to working-class Southern whites, their loyalties to the party were being eroded by the social upheavals of the 1960s. Richard Nixon was so impressed by the book that he made Phillips an adviser, and by 1972 had crafted a "Southern Strategy" that allowed him to carry the South with a whopping 71.3 percent of the vote in 1972, more than doubling his 1968 Southern vote totals.

The extent to which Nixon's Southern Strategy played off racial fears is hotly debated, but it's worth noting that one of Nixon's staffers at the time, H.R. Haldeman, wrote in his notes: "Use Phillips as an analyst — study his strategy ... go for Poles, Italians, Irish, must learn to understand Silent Majority ... don't go for Jews and Blacks."

Whatever part Phillips' analysis played in reshaping the electoral map, however, it's clear that he's unhappy with the results. In the essay that follows, Phillips provides the Dems with a strategy intended to, in effect, reverse some of the gains he himself helped Republicans make. The plan he proposes (which he describes, by the way, as a "Northern Strategy") is not, needless to say, a rehash of Nixon's. His interest is principally in picking off a few Southern states, not in trying to realign the whole region. To Phillips, "over-Southernization" carries grave consequences.

Looking at the GOP 30-plus years into its Southern experiment, he sees a party dominated by the Religious Right, foreign policy unilateralists, and free market extremists of the Tom DeLay-Texas variety. He detailed the economic fallout of GOP's growing corporatism in his book Wealth and Democracy, which draws an analogy between today's America and the Gilded Age of the late 19th century. What he sees is, in a word, fat cats run amok.

The full extent of his distaste for this particular brand of conservatism can be found in his newest book, American Dynasty, which expands the list of grievances to include those specific to the Bushes — who are not only "robber barons" of the Gilded Age variety, but also American quasi-royalty. Through arrogance and deceit, they were able to "restore" themselves to the White House — continuing a dynasty that, in his mind, is noteworthy principally for its greed and ambition.

Like David Horowitz, the disillusioned leftist who now rates as one of the Democratic Party's fiercest critics, Kevin Phillips speaks with the sort of vitriol and passion typical of a political convert. That, and his stature as an electoral analyst, makes this essay a fascinating and almost obligatory read.

Next week, we will feature two articles underlining the importance to the Democrats of two constituencies — African-Americans and Latinos — who have been shunted to the side in all the hoopla over Elephant Man. —David Bramer

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