Once upon a time, there was the party of Lincoln. It was devoted to the idea of emancipation and 40 acres and a mule. Over the last 150 years, how times have changed. Today, in order to secure their electoral base, the Republican party has lowered itself to the lowest common denominator of its rabid base. It has become the Grand Old Party of racism.
Since the Southern strategy became the bread and butter of Republican electoral politics, a key shift happened in the party. As new (more Southern) elements gained power in the party, racism began rearing its ugly head from time to time. The most toxic of these outbreaks was the Louisiana politician, David Duke. A former Grand Wizard of the KKK, he ran semi-successful candidacies for the House (1989), the Senate (1990), governor of Louisiana (1991) and president (1992). While much of the national party repudiated Duke’s racism, his ability to collect votes in Louisiana pointed to a demographic and a fact just beneath the surface of the Republican Party. At the heart of the base (especially in Southern states) people with predominantly racist beliefs form the core of the party that Republicans rely on to get elected.
In recent years, the American electorate has basically broken itself down into thirds. About 25% of the electorate is liberal/progressive and about 35% of the electorate identifies as hard-core Republican/conservative. The remaining 40% or so occupy the mushy middle of non-ideologues, independents, libertarians, greens, and others. 40% might seem high, but that mushy middle has a tendency not to come out to vote. They are notoriously unpredictable. For much of the 1980s and 1990s, Republican electoral strategy was pretty simple. To win elections all you had to do was get out your base, and focus on enough single, hot-button social issues to swing key constituencies who might be found in that mushy middle. For example, you might go for the Catholic vote by focusing on abortion. Additionally, Republican strategists also tended to focus on negative advertising as a means of voter suppression. If middle-of-the-road voters were not breaking your candidate’s way, you could always swing enough mud to turn those voters (who were not very likely to vote anyway) off. Meanwhile, Democrats would have to both excite their base and manage to pull enough of those 40% to get a plurality.
While favorable for many years, the demographics began to slip away from Republicans after 2000. Primarily in Southern states, Hispanics have become the new force to deal with in politics as the Hispanic population in the U.S. has soared.
Enter Karl Rove. Rove’s strategy was quite smart. He took into account the growing Hispanic nature of the electorate and chose to directly address them in Bush’s 2000 campaign. His improved slice of the Hispanic pie (35%) was just enough to help push him over the top in several key states in 2000, especially Florida. In 2004, Bush did even better with national security dominating the campaign. That year, Bush managed to get around 44% of the vote. But then, the bottom dropped out for Republicans with the Hispanic community. What happened?
The answer to that question is simple. In June of 2007, Bush’s Immigration bill, which would have established a path to citizenship for up to 12 million illegal aliens in the country, went down to ignominious defeat, largely at the hands of conservatives in his own party. Key conservative senators, such as Jim DeMint (R-SC) and John Cornyn (R-TX) led the charge. Bush’s “Big Tent” had been scorched just in time for the 2008 elections. When all the dust had settled on the McCain campaign, he managed to receive only 31% of the Hispanic vote. Obama was able to pull together a powerful coalition of minorities, liberals, and people in the middle who simply wanted a change in the country’s direction. Obama easily won election as he managed to flip key states like Florida, North Carolina and Virginia from red to blue. However, in massive defeat, the Republican party didn’t change course. Instead, Republicans at the state level got involved in the process and Arizona passed a “show me your papers” immigration bill that pushed even more Hispanics into the D column. The Republicans were facing electoral apocalypse. So, what to do?
Unfortunately for them, the solution will most likely be their undoing. Since 2008, Republican party strategy has shifted to give the nativist, “know-nothing,” bigoted wing of the Republican party exactly what they want. In primary after primary, they have pushed the extremist candidates of choice. Rebranded as the Tea Party movement and endowed by the wealthy supporters of Republican think tanks, they have systematically purged the Republican party of any moderation. In 2010, the new Republican strategy became clear. First, your base must over-perform in the polls. You do this by giving them red meat in the form of concessions and an enemy in the form of President Obama (more on this later). Second, you take advantage of a ruling (Citizens United) by your bought-and-paid-for Supreme Court that allows corporations to dump unlimited money on campaigns. You use that advantage to suppress Democratic votes in any way possible, be that hiring thugs to scream at town hall meetings, or massive negative campaign buys. The result was rather predictable: in an off-year election (2010), when moderates are less likely to vote, the Republicans managed to gain control of Congress. The trouble is that now their strategy is locked in for 2012.
In 2012, no Republican who significantly disagrees with the base will come close to being nominated. What’s worse, the concert of racism that was once conducted with dog whistles is now out in the open. It is slowly exposing itself as the racist strategy that it is. Since 2008, Republicans at all levels have used the Obama birth certificate as a code word for race. It gave birth (pardon the pun) to the weaselly argument of, “I take him at his word, but people have raised questions.” Time and time again we heard this talking point from the Republican leadership. Tea Party leaders, like Rep. Michelle Bachmann (R-MN), were even more open with their doubts about what President Obama was trying to hide.
Enter Donald Trump. Over the last month, Mr. Trump has managed to stir up huge free publicity on this non-issue to help put forward the central idea of his non-campaign for president. When not challenging the president’s nationality, Trump has been busy touting his, “great relationship with the blacks.” Trump’s constant verbal diarrhea merely reveals what has been there all along: the attacks on President Obama and his birth certificate were always about race.
While you might dismiss Trump as a “barker” for the Tea Party sideshow as President Obama so eloquently described the situation, the Grand Old Party of racism just keeps rolling along. State by state, the Koch Brothers, ALEC and other groups have been systematically pushing their racist agenda. Across the nation (Florida, Wisconsin, North Carolina and other states) Republican legislatures have all put forward curiously similar bills, all designed to make it harder to vote. For example, in Florida, those most likely to move by demographic are the poor and minorities. The bill would make it much more difficult for registration groups to work with these individuals, even leaving non-partisan groups like the League of Women Voters thinking they will have to suspend voter drives under the threat of fines. With more people voting provisional ballots (of which only 48% were counted across the country in last fall’s election), voter suppression is a certainty as voters forgo the long lines created by the shortening of early voting.
In Oklahoma, the mask has completely fallen off and Republican legislators seem to be empowered these days to say exactly how they feel. Upon the passing of legislation to put Affirmative Action up to a vote by the electorate, Rep. Sally Kern (R-Oklahoma City) decided to let it all hang out. In an interview with the Tulsa World she said, “Minorities earn less than white people because they don’t work as hard and have less initiative.” She went on to add that, “We have a high percentage of blacks in prison, and that’s tragic, but are they in prison just because they are black or because they don’t want to study as hard in school? I’ve taught school, and I saw a lot of people of color who didn’t study hard because they said the government would take care of them.”
The GOP needs to ask itself if they still want to be the party of Lincoln. Right now, they are looking an awful lot like the party of David Duke and ‘Bull’ Connor.