washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Republican Extremism Now Coming From Every Region

A very old hypothesis essentially attributing Republican extremism to southern influences popped up again this week, so I addressed it at New York:

Having grown up in the authoritarian police state of the Jim Crow South, I am acutely aware of the racism that dominated the politics of my home region while white supremacists had the former Confederacy in their grip, and that persisted in various ways even as they lost power. So I am sympathetic to the argument that the roots of today’s twisted Republican Party trace back to the peculiar white southern conservatism that migrated into the GOP during and after the civil-rights movement. New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie revives this “southern coup” hypothesis in a meditation on the death of Republican prophet (and later anti-Republican writer) Kevin Phillips and the rise of Louisiana’s Steve Scalise. But I think it’s a bit anachronistic. The MAGA movement that has now conquered the GOP is a thoroughly national phenomenon drawing on reactionary and “populist” impulses from every region of the country.

There’s no question that the rapid defection of the South from its ancient Democratic allegiances to the GOP that began with Barry Goldwater’s campaign in 1964 was a major factor in the narrow victory of Richard Nixon in 1968 (for which Phillips was the whiz-kid demographic analyst). But as Phillips pointed out in his seminal 1969 book, The Emerging Republican Majority, southern white conservatives angry about civil rights were just one component of the new coalition that just three years later gave Nixon a vast landslide win that captured nearly every former citadel of Democratic power. There were the Catholic working-class ethnic voters (soon to be known as “Reagan Democrats”) of the urban Northeast and Midwest, who had their own racial and economic grievances with LBJ’s Great Society; rural midwestern and western “populists” bridling against federal regulations; and, throughout the country, white suburbanites defending their quality of life from rising crime and creeping taxes. Yes, racism pervaded much of this newfangled conservatism, but it was native to much of white America, not just imported from the South.

It’s plausible to argue that there was a particular ferocity to southern white conservatism — perhaps based on Evangelical culture and/or a racialized approach to issues like labor relations and public education — that has come to characterize conservatism elsewhere. But just as country music is a national (and even global) cultural force whose southern heritage is increasingly incidental, there’s a point at which white conservative Republican politics became truly national as well, blending southern and non-southern traditions.

When Connecticut Yankee turned Texan George H.W. Bush became president in 1988 by catering to the Christian right in the primaries and running openly racist ads in the general election, was he representing “the South”? How about that much-discussed avatar of harsh partisanship Newt Gingrich, the Pennsylvania-born Army brat from a suburban Georgia district that could have been relocated to just about anywhere in the country without changing its character? Did the South slowly strangle the moderate Republican tradition in its ancestral northeastern stomping grounds, or did the GOP come to represent a coalition of homegrown cultural and economic conservatives in unlikely places such as New York? It’s often been noted that the harsh anti-labor and anti-government themes Scott Walker championed in Wisconsin made the 21st-century politics of that once-progressive state feel like 20th-century “southern” politics. But at a certain point, you have to stop treating a national political movement as some sort of interregional infection; it’s more like an ideological pandemic.

That point was surely reached when Donald Trump came along and conquered the Republican Party with a speed that showed how ripe it was for a sharp turn toward authoritarian populism in all its forms, from southern cultural and religious grievances to western anti-government paranoia to the midwestern protectionism and isolationism that gave Trump his “America First” motto.

It’s really no accident that Trump was a quintessential New Yorker who moved to the least “southern” spot south of the Mason-Dixon line, just as it’s no surprise that Ohioan Jim Jordan has outflanked Louisianan Steve Scalise on the right in the House GOP conference. Sure, there remain some distinctively southern MAGA folk such as the Alabaman Tommy Tuberville and arguably even Marjorie Taylor Greene, a wealthy Atlanta suburbanite who basically bought a rural-and-small-town congressional seat. But those battling to restore the “American greatness” of government of, by, and for conservative Christian white people hail from fever swamps located in all 50 states.

2 comments on “Republican Extremism Now Coming From Every Region

  1. Wendell Williams on

    As a Texan born in 1939, I completely agree.

    When I was the Democratic Nominee for Congress in 1992, in Northern Calif., Willie Brown was introducing me to a crowd of supporters. I had not met him before,
    so he was reading my resume to introduce me.
    Many people don’t know that Willie is from Texas.
    When he got to the point in reading my resume and saw that I was from Texas too,
    he was surprised to know “Wendell was from Texas.”

    So when he finished, the first thing I said in my speech was “Mr. Speaker, you and I have more in
    common than you may realize.
    Number one, not only are we both FROM Texas, but
    number two, we both had the good sense to ESCAPE”
    I got a lot of applause to start off my speech.
    People who have not grown up in the south simply can not really understand
    how deeply ingrained racism is down there.
    Wendell H Williams
    Former Democratic Nominee
    U.S. Congress (CA10)

  2. Wade Riddick on

    I disagree.

    The conscious drive to restore the Confederacy starts with Republican donors like the Kochs, who see corporations as the new plantations. Working with the economist Buchanan, they have explicitly modeled their government “reform” efforts on restoring the Confederacy’s absolute property rights regime.

    Consider the following three economic advantages the Union wielded successfully in the Civil War:
    1) Heavy borrowing through the creation of a deep treasury market.
    2) Creation of the federal dollar.
    3) Supported by the first federal income tax.

    Southern plantation owners couldn’t be bothered to pay taxes to save their slave states, nor have a common currency or borrow. Dixie died impoverished in hyperinflation.

    The Republican caucus today agrees on very little except how great it would be – in a perfect world – to shut down the federal government. Consider their first actions in this Congress viz. federal economic power:

    1) Trying to default on the federal debt despite just having pledged to honor the provision in the constitution honoring that debt.

    2) Abolishing the federal income tax and replacing it with a national sales tax, which would create the biggest one-time burst of inflation any of us have seen (~30%).

    3) In state houses, they’re toying with replacing the federal dollar with Bitcoin or gold – the monetary geniuses disagree on the best method of suicide – thus privatizing the money supply just like during the bad old days when banks issued their own scrip… pre-Civil War.

    Three for three they are target the Union’s monetary stool from the Civil War. That’s not a coincidence. These guys don’t simply want to ditch the New Deal for the Old Deal. They want the Old Old Deal back.

    This is clearly a revanchist attempt to unravel the Union’s monetary advantages from the war, motivated by vengeance. “I am your retribution,” Trump proclaims.

    Furthermore, consider the practical effects of the Dobbs (2022) decision on abortion – bearing in mind that Jerry Falwell only turned to abortion to organize voters after losing in federal court on his “voluntary” segregation principle. The confederacy was made up of sovereign states and citizens of Mississippi needed a passport and permission to cross into Alabama. Dobbs recreates the same friction to interstate travel. For the first time since the days of slavery, local D.A.’s, A.G.’s and police are inventing grounds to impede the free flow of citizens across state borders. Dobbs places enormous prosecutorial discretion in the hands of local justice – where it’s easiest to corrupt elites and squash rights. Texas S.B. 8 is modeled on private bounty hunting gangs that patrol the Confederacy looking for runaway slaves. The same structures were used to police whites-only primaries during Jim Crow.

    Black voters have been resegregated into marginal representation in Congress and legislatures through the use of gerrymandering.

    Neither the South nor its “libertarian” sympathizers support universal public education. If you want to see resegregated schools, check out the charters in New Orleans, where hedge funds are devouring more and more of the public education budget in the name of “choice.”

    These are all extra-judicial means to dispossess certain select citizens of their rights to equal treatment under the law.

    This is only one of several modern day shadows that Dixie’s legacy continues to cast on our affairs through the Republican Party. And it is our future if they regain power.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.