Gene Lyons: The end of the Southern Strategy
Come to think of it, things have been awfully quiet on the End Times front. Living in the South, one grows accustomed to hearing about a never-ending series of conspiratorial threats and eschatological panics.
Prophetic fads sweep the region. It’s Satan worshippers one year, secular humanists the next. Subliminal messages are descried in popular music; supermarket bar codes harbor the mark of the beast; logos on boxes of soap suds give evidence of corporate diabolism.
Under President George W. Bush, a series of preposterously bad novels by evangelical authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins became huge bestsellers. Dramatizing the book of Revelation as an action/adventure melodrama like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “Terminator” films, the books portray born-again American suburbanites as Jesus’ allies in an apocalyptic struggle against a U.N.-sponsored “World Potentate,” who looks “not unlike a younger Robert Redford” and speaks like ...
Well, like Barack Obama, actually. Which I think explains something about what appears to be happening in the 2012 presidential election. To an awful lot of white Protestant evangelicals across the Deep South especially, President Obama has become no less than a secular stand-in for the Antichrist — a smooth-talking deceiver representing liberal cosmopolitanism in its most treacherous disguise.
Dislike of Obama has grown to cult-like proportions across the region. Statewide polls show the president losing by thunderous majorities. A recent poll by the Public Religion Research Institute highlighted in the New York Times shows that “among southern working class whites, Romney leads by 40 points, 62-22, an extraordinary gap.” In the Midwest, Obama leads among the same group. Subtract the African-American precincts, and the president might not win 30 percent of votes in states like Arkansas and Oklahoma — one reason many Republicans suspect that national polls must be skewed.
So is it all about race? Not entirely, no. Many of the same voters who see President Obama as an African-born Muslim socialist would very likely support, say, Condoleezza Rice. (Or think they would, anyway.)
Nor, however, are their fears entirely irrational. Because if the polls are right — and a disinterested observer would have to say that professional pollsters have grown increasingly accurate at predicting recent contests — the 2012 presidential election may not bring about “The Rapture,” but it could definitely mark the definitive end of a political era.
Specifically, it doesn’t matter how badly President Obama loses the five Deep South states won by Alabama Gov. George Wallace in 1968 — along with, say, South Carolina, Texas and Oklahoma. Should he prevail in most of the nine “swing states” where everybody agrees that the contest will be decided, and where Obama currently appears to lead by strong majorities, the white, GOP-accented South will find itself politically marooned.
Richard M. Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” will have been dismantled and a new, moderately center left Democratic coalition built by President Obama will have replaced it. For the first time since 1972, the Rush Limbaugh/Mike Huckabee wing of the GOP will find itself with no clear path to power. (Not that there’s anything remotely holy about Limbaugh; I’m talking demographics here, not theology.)
The existential shock would be considerable. Not since the 1960s, when successive civil rights laws overcame the region’s “massive resistance” and ended legal segregation, have certain kinds of white Southerners experienced such anger and trepidation. Boo hoo hoo.
Moreover, should Obama be successful in rebuilding the U.S. economy during a second term, and once voters grasp that “Obamacare” has liberated them from the fear of being driven into bankruptcy by medical emergencies, the new Democratic coalition could prove to have a kind of staying power not seen since FDR and Truman.
Indeed, it’s been Republican anxiety over that very possibility in the wake of George W. Bush’s spectacular failures that led to the GOP’s Washington version of massive resistance during Obama’s first term.
Or, to put it another way, if President Obama can win in this economy, how could any talented Democratic candidate lose?
The temptation for Southern Republicans would be to double down on the crazy, because “conservatism,” so-called, can never fail, only BE failed. Also because religious melodrama is really what an awful lot of them are really about. That, and Koch Brothers money. They’re not actually conservatives at all, in the classical sense, but sentimental fanatics seeking to purge the nation of sin; adepts of “limited government” with their noses buried in women’s panty drawers; apostles of a lost utopia located in a non-existent past, most often in ‘60s sitcoms like the “Andy Griffith Show.”
In that sense, fear and loathing of President Obama strikes me as a lot wider than deep; a fad, not an existential dread. They survived the Voting Rights Act; they’ll get over this. However, adapting to the new political reality may take some time.
Too bad, because the nation needs a principled conservative party to check the follies of the anti-gravity left.
Today, it hasn’t got one.
Gene Lyons, Arkansas Times columnist, is at firstname.lastname@example.org.