The postmortem on Bush vs. Kerry was given 40 years ago by LBJ. After signing the Voting Rights Act in 1965, Johnson reportedly told confidants that the racist backlash would be so intense Democrats would lose the South for a generation. LBJ was not only prophetic, he was optimistic. Here we are in 2004, and the Republican hold on the South is more solid than ever. The biggest difference between then and now is that the racist backlash against Democrats lacks the widespread passion it once had, and the GOP has had to alter its strategy somewhat to keep the party's good thing going.
Either because changing demographics have forced them to abandon the old race-baiting strategy (the cynical view) or because too many formerly racist Southerners have become enlightened (the more hopeful view), Rove and Co. have had to add a new wrinkle to the GOP's game plan — to find a new "nigger," so to speak.
Many Republicans would bridle at this suggestion, of course; but GOPers have spent years now denying that Democratic support for civil rights had anything to do with the South's shift from a solidly Democratic region to a suffocatingly Republican one. They'll note that Lincoln was a Republican and that a host of moderate Republicans voted for the Voting Rights Act. They'll also point out that much of the backlash to the Voting Rights Act came from conservative white Democrats. These claims, while valid, simply point to a sad truth — the Republican Party had a proud legacy that it abandoned precisely at that point when the Democratic Party began to put a chokehold on its own bigots and racists. The GOP wanted those racist, formerly Democratic voters, and they went out of their way to get them.
Known as the Southern Strategy, this effort to make use of white Southern rage and discontent was devastatingly effective. Just look at any map from the last two presidential elections. All good things must pass, however, and at least since the time of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" controversy, the GOP has been busy morphing its original Southern Strategy into something like a Sodom Strategy — and just as the original "Southern" Strategy helped Republicans win racially outraged voters outside the South (especially in rural areas and huge swaths of suburbia), gay-baiting is swaying elections in key states nationwide. Unlike the Southern Strategy, however, the Sodom Strategy is a nearly pure product of the Culture Wars. Thus, while the Southern Strategy appealed to the economic anxiety of the working poor by scapegoating "welfare moms," the Sodom Strategy portrays gay activists and "activist judges" as part of a liberal elite at odds with conservative values.
As has been widely reported, a disproportionate number of voters leaving the polls on Nov. 2 cited "moral values" as their top priority. Morality, in the surreal rules of today's politics, has little to do with concerns for social or economic justice and a whole lot to do with distrust of modernity: the more backward, the more traditional a value, the more cachet it has with social conservatives. In the broadest sense, these voters' concern for moral values simply shows that the Culture Wars we've been fighting since the 1960s continue unabated. The struggle over abortion, sex and a whole host of faith-based angst-raisers rages on. The concern with "morality" is not simply that, though.
One "moral" concern took on an undeniably high profile in this election: gay marriage. Some pundits have attributed this to the Massachusetts' high court ruling that granted gay couples the right to wed. As the New Republic's Franklin Foer put it, "I yield to only Andrew Sullivan in my support of gay marriage. But I found that Mass. decision, legally and politically, dunderheaded." Others, like openly gay Massachusetts Democratic Rep. Barney Frank, believe San Francisco's highly publicized same-sex weddings were more damaging.
Many gay advocates are alarmed by any analysis that places gays at the center of Kerry's defeat. In an AP story from Nov. 6, Matthew Foreman, executive director for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, said, "It's sickening and fascinating that when one in five voters said 'moral values' was the most important issue for them, pundits immediately equated that with gay marriage alone. To pin all this on 'the gays' is wrong." While understandable, Foreman's concern is somewhat misplaced: the fact is, the Republicans did specifically court anti-gay attitudes in this election. Saying as much isn't to blame gays themselves, anymore than pointing out the existence of racism is a slam against blacks. The fault doesn't lie with the target of the discriminatory attitude, but with the discriminatory attitude itself.
Anyone who supposes that Republican political strategists are above fanning those discriminatory attitudes to further their party's goals is dangerously naive. Eleven states passed amendments banning gay marriage this election, and in each case, the debate surrounding that amendment has been credited with bringing a flood of social conservatives — Bush voters — to the polls. The issue itself was nationalized when the possibility was raised that the U.S. constitution could be likewise amended.
One of the ironies of all this is that the Republican Party's politicization of gay marriage is related, in part, to its effort to win over those members of the black community whose social conservatism includes opposition to gay marriage. While any Republican appeal to blacks goes only so far, the effort wasn't entirely fruitless. Polls show that Bush was able to increase his support among African Americans from 5 percent in 2000 to 11 percent this election. In an electorate as divided as this one, that's not an insignificant shift.
The parallels between the original Southern Strategy and the new Sodom version are both discouraging and heartening. Discouraging because the Democrats' (sometimes half-hearted) support for gay rights could shift a large number of voters to the Republican column for years to come. Heartening because, like racism, homophobia is a disease that, little by little, will be wrung from the body politic — and at that point, the Republicans will have not one but two chapters of vile opportunism and bigotry to answer for.