Southern Strategy has Bottomed Out

GOP: 'Positive polarization' may have worked at one time, but its divisiveness hurts now.

By RICHARD TAFEL, Commentary, The Los Angeles Times
February 12, 1999 Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Blogger Tumblr

A strategic shift the Republican Party made nearly 30 years ago has helped to slowly poison its image before the American people, and it may be the Achilles' heel that brings it down in 2000.

In 1972, the core of President Nixon's reelection campaign was not break-ins and wire-tapping but rather the "Southern strategy," or as the Nixon team called it, "positive polarization." It was about winning over the South by pitting a singled-out minority, such as African Americans, against a fearful majority, such as angry Southern whites. The key was to play directly into the hands of bigotry and intolerance, veering away from the heritage of the party of Lincoln.

This was the same Nixon who had been vice president when President Eisenhower sent troops into Arkansas and Mississippi to enforce desegregation orders against the insolent resistance of racist Democratic governors and police chiefs. Nixon's Faustian reversal radically changed the GOP, shifting the party's center of gravity and making intolerance toward minorities of all kinds a hallmark of Republican strategic thinking.

At first, the "Southern strategy" was a numerical success. Some of the senior Republican senators at the impeachment trial today are Southern Democrats wooed into the GOP –Trent Lott of Mississippi, Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, Jesse Helms of North Carolina and Phil Gramm of Texas. All have used blatant appeals to intolerance to score political points throughout their careers.

In the early 1990s, former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke won the Louisiana GOP gubernatorial nomination and was beaten by Democrat Edwin Edwards, who was implicated in some shady dealings. The infamous Bayou bumper sticker that helped Edwards get elected –"Vote for the Crook, Not the Kook" –speaks volumes on the public mood toward the impeachment showdown today.

"Positive polarization" has given the party a hateful and frightening face, ushering in spates of gay-bashing, intolerance toward legal immigrants and declarations of a "Christian nation," essentially telling Jews and those outside of fundamentalist Christianity to get lost. Over the last two general elections, the state GOP in California has been virtually annihilated. Even Southern voters are clearly moving on. In the '98 elections, GOP candidates were toppled in Alabama, Georgia and the Carolinas. But party leadership seems reluctant to hear the message.

"It should be clear to GOP leaders after this election that the 'Southern strategy' has run its course," says Faye M. Anderson, a national vice chairman of the New Majority Council, a new Republican National Committee project aimed at reaching out to minority voters.

Duke is making another go at a GOP nomination, this time for the House seat Bob Livingston is giving up. Sen. Lott and Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.), meanwhile, have embarrassed the party by speaking before the Council of Conservative Citizens, the offspring of the old White Citizens' Councils that took up arms against Eisenhower's federal troops.

Duke is now calling his past leadership in the American Nazi Party and the Klan, in effect, "youthful indiscretion" as he prepares to run this time around on "Christian conservative principles." For his part, Lott said he had no prior knowledge of the CCC's bigoted agenda. But when he addressed the CCC in Greensboro, Miss., in 1992, he said: "The people in this room stand for the right principles and the right philosophy." Last year, he described homosexuality as a disease similar to alcoholism and kleptomania.

RNC Chairman Jim Nicholson did the right thing when he denounced the CCC in strong words and called on South Carolina RNC member Buddy Witherspoon to resign his CCC membership. Will anyone in the party stick up for Nicholson and demand Witherspoon's head? Will Lott and other senior Republicans continue egging on gay bashers and racists without fear of internal reprisal? How can the GOP rescue itself before it's too late?

The presidential campaign of 2000 will answer these questions, one way or another. Recent polls showing both Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Elizabeth Dole beating Al Gore in a White House match-up indicate that a rescue of the GOP can only come from outside the congressional party, now dominated by the sons of the "Southern strategy." A woman running for president or a man who speaks of "compassionate conservatism," thus attracting minority voters, hint at new leadership. But the moment they or any promising candidate bows to intolerance, watch those numbers – and the GOP's prospects – deservedly sink like a stone.

Richard Tafel Is Executive Director of Log Cabin Republicans, a national gay Republican organization.