In 1957, William F. Buckley wrote his most infamous editorial for National Review, entitled “Why the South Must Prevail.” Is the white community in the South, he asked, “entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically?” His answer was unambiguous: “The sobering answer is Yes—the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race.” Buckley cited unfounded statistics demonstrating the superiority of white over black, and concluded that “it is more important for any community, anywhere in the world, to affirm and live by civilized standards, than to bow to the demands of the numerical majority.” He added definitively: “the claims of civilization supersede those of universal suffrage.” And what method should be used to enforce the maintenance of “civilized standards”?
Buckley suggests a no-holds-barred defense, including violence. “Sometimes,” he wrote, “it becomes impossible to assert the will of a minority, in which case it must give way, and the society will regress; sometimes the numerical minority [white] cannot prevail except by violence: then it must determine whether the prevalence of its will is worth the terrible price of violence.”
Barry Goldwater had voted against the 1964 Civil Rights Act and it was noted by pro-segregation Southerners. In fairness to him, he supported other civil rights plans. But it was Nixon who devised and pursued what came to be called the Southern strategy. As Wikipedia puts it, this was an appeal “to racism against African-Americans.” Nixon was not the first Republican to notice that Lyndon Johnson’s civil rights legislation had alienated whites both in the South and elsewhere — Johnson himself had forecast that Southern whites would desert the Democratic Party. This is the moment when the party of Lincoln deposited Lincoln in the nearest receptacle.
In 1980, Ronald Reagan started his campaign by going to Mississippi and the Neshoba County Fair and tastelessly proclaiming his belief in “states’ rights.” 7 miles away, three civil rights workers had been killed 16 years earlier, protesting one of those bogus rights – the right to segregate the races. Reagan never acknowledged any appeal to racism. Racists took it as a wink anyway.
Reagan’s team then went on to invite in other groups excluded from the dominant “moderate middle”. Evangelicals came on board with a number of extreme positions which then became de facto Republican party planks. Reagan also brought with him the previously ostracized very far right: “John Birch society” types and Ayn Randian near sociopaths who believe the government owes its people absolutely nothing and even claimed that idea as an ethical centerpiece.
The constellation of average conservative voters, angry lower-class white folks, wealthy upper-class extremists and evangelicals were in place when George Bush became president. He did his best to support the arrangement and hold things together even though he appeared to be holding his nose at times. As a sophisticated, wealthy elitist from an earlier time he had to adapt to a changing culture but he did, mouthing all the freshly extreme talking points.
George HW Bush, however, was a creature of that new culture. Spotted by Karl Rove for his combination of down-market southern style, religious conservatism, and 1%-er bona fides, he was a “hat trick” candidate for his time and place.
It’s a story that reads like a folktale about dangerous hubris; successive groups of Republican elites and strategists brought more and more extreme and uncontrollable groups inside the tent, always in the belief that they were not being altered by doing so and that they would be able to retain control. But every time they did so, they altered the DNA of the party and excluded more of the general population whose views, while conservative, didn’t mirror the absolutism of the party platform. They now could not move toward any more moderate position without alienating one of the “legs” they were standing on. Their constituents were also not among the increasing demographics of the country so, unable to find more constituents, they undertook to disenfranchise the other side, through the means of gerrymandering and the “solution without a problem” of voter fraud ID laws.
A series of “clever” moves designed to strengthen the position of the Republican party were actually a series of fundamental narrowing changes carrying them further out on their own limb. With the 2016 campaign, we saw the party elite lining up another group of mortician-like candidates to win the mantle of this political Frankenstein’s monster. To their shock and dismay, their constituency dumped them and ran off with a hooting orangutan in charge.
And one by one the party powerful and elite, dizzy with their loss of control, bent their knees to the fruit of their own machinations, swearing allegiance to the runaway monster they built.
We are living in this unstable, proto-fascist, unripe banana-republic because for 60 years the guiding lights of the Republican party thought that coarsening our political conversation and appealing to the lowest possible denominator was clever because the wins for their side were easily worth the cost of the goddamn United States itself. Spineless, ethic-free, careerist politicians were the Darwinian survivors of this race to the bottom, and Surprise! They won’t lift a finger to save us.