What Will the Next Republican Coalition Look Like?

You may have heard recently about the interesting case of Chip Saltsman, the candidate for chairman of the Republican National Committee, who as part of his campaign sent around a CD of song parodies, including one called "Barack the Magic Negro" that came from Rush Limbaugh's radio show. Most people didn't hear about the rest of the CD, as it was described by The Hill: "The CD, called 'We Hate the USA,' lampoons liberals with such songs as 'John Edwards' Poverty Tour,' 'Wright place, wrong pastor,' 'Love Client #9,' 'Ivory and Ebony' and 'The Star Spanglish banner.'" The humor-loving Saltsman of Tennessee was said to have been aided, not hurt, in his candidacy by the dust-up that ensued.

Watching this story, I couldn’t help but think of Ken Mehlman, who managed George W. Bush's reelection campaign and then became chairman of the Republican National Committee. In 2005, Mehlman went on a kind of apology tour, including an appearance before the NAACP, in which he said, "Some Republicans gave up on winning the African-American vote, looking the other way or trying to benefit politically from racial polarization. I am here today as the Republican chairman to tell you we were wrong." His party's supporters were not exactly on board -- that day, Limbaugh bellowed, "Know what he's going to do? He's going to go down there and basically apologize for what has come to be known as the Southern Strategy, popularized in the Nixon administration. He's going to go down there and apologize for it. In the midst of all of this, in the midst of all that's going on, once again, Republicans are going to go bend over and grab the ankles."

What Mehlman understood is that if you are the party of white people (and white men in particular), your appeal is destined to shrink as the country grows more diverse. The census department projects that by 2042, a majority of Americans will be non-white. Yet whatever the good intentions of people like Mehlman (and I have no particular reason to question his sincerity on this point), the GOP continues to be dominated by people who are so used to stoking the fires of racial animus that they seem incapable of seeing the road to electoral ruin they travel. As hard as it may be to see from today's vantage point, Republicans will win elections again, including presidential ones. But there is no doubt that an era of GOP dominance has come to an end. Whether you date its beginning at Ronald Reagan's election in 1980, Richard Nixon's election in 1968, or Barry Goldwater's failed campaign in 1964, it is finally over.

The Republican majority is like a building that has crumbled, the walls and windows gone and only the concrete foundation remaining. The only problem is that rebuilding on that same foundation would dictate a structure of the same size and shape, and those raw materials are no longer available. The foundation is the white South, and its place at the heart of the GOP -- which has been the party's great strength for four decades -- is what threatens the party with obsolescence in a changing America.

In his influential 1969 book The Emerging Republican Majority, Nixon aide Kevin Phillips wrote that the Democratic Party consisted in large part of an African-American constituency supported by a particularly decadent establishment, which consisted of "research directors, associate professors, social workers, educational consultants, urbanologists, development planners, journalists, brotherhood executives, foundation staffers, communications specialists, culture vendors, pornography merchants, poverty theorists and so forth." Awesome as the power of pornography merchants and poverty theorists may have been, it could not overcome the mathematics of a conservative majority centered in the South and the Sun Belt, one made up of "the unpoor, the unblack, and the unyoung," in the evocative description a former Census Bureau director gave to Richard Nixon's winning 1968 coalition at the time.

Securing this coalition meant a particular ideological and geographic strategy, one with the South at its center. Lyndon Johnson's efforts on civil rights broke the lock Democrats had had on the region since the Civil War, and Southern conservatives quickly began moving to the party where they really belonged. Both voters and officeholders who had been loyal Democrats switched parties; their ranks included some of the most conservative officials in recent memory, including Strom Thurmond, Jesse Helms, and Phil Gramm. The process neared its completion in 1994, when not only did Republicans take both houses of Congress, they did it with a new Southern leadership -- Newt Gingrich of Georgia, Dick Armey and Tom DeLay of Texas in the House; Trent Lott of Mississippi (himself a former Democrat) and Don Nickles of Oklahoma in the Senate, among others. Those aggressive young Southerners eventually pushed out an older generation of Midwestern moderates like Bob Dole of Kansas and Robert Michel of Illinois, accelerating the party's long march to the right.

Though many of those politicians are now gone, the party's electoral base remains the same. To see how centered the GOP is in the South, take a look at the 11 states that seceded from the Union during the Civil War, plus the two states which were semi-officially part of the Confederacy (Missouri and Kentucky). In these Southern states, John McCain beat Barack Obama by an electoral vote margin of 117 – 55. Outside the South, Obama beat McCain by 309 – 57. To think about it another way, McCain got two-thirds of his electoral votes from ten Southern states (removing Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia, all of which he lost) that make up only 23 percent of the American population.

This problem is demographic as much as it is geographic. We've been hearing about the "New South" for at least 20 years now, and in this election we saw it, with an African-American candidate winning Virginia and North Carolina. But in the Old South, McCain's vote among whites was about as close to unanimous as you get in American politics (excluding African-Americans' commitment to Democrats). According to exit polls, McCain got 73 percent of the white vote in South Carolina, 84 percent in Louisiana, and 88 percent in both Mississippi and Alabama.

The Democratic party's efforts to aid African-Americans may have been used against them in the past, but it is now the Republicans who are boxed in by their most loyal constituents. Forty years ago, "the unpoor, the unblack, and the unyoung" provided a comfortable majority for Republicans, but no longer. Look what happened with immigration in this election. During the Republican primaries, the candidates competed for who could be the most fervently anti-immigrant (or at least who would come in second to Tom Tancredo, who based his entire candidacy on fear of the brown horde crossing our borders). Eventual nominee John McCain, theretofore known as a moderate on the issue, announced his conversion to the cause, proclaiming his zeal for border security and saying he would no longer vote for his own comprehensive immigration bill. The result was predictable: though the issue made no appearance in the general election, Latinos got the message loud and clear, and voted for Obama by a 36-point margin.

Few could have been more displeased with this result than George W. Bush and Karl Rove, who had seen the demographic writing on the wall years before. Their efforts at cultivating Latino votes, which had borne at least some fruit, were washed away in that Republican primary. And the "permanent Republican majority" spreading out across the land, though never more than a pipe dream, became a joke.

Thirty-three years after the release of Kevin Phillips' prescient book, John Judis and Ruy Teixeira wrote The Emerging Democratic Majority, in which they argued that, "Today's Democrats are the party of the transition from urban industrialism to a new postindustrial metropolitan order in which men and women play equal roles and in which white America is supplanted by multiracial, multiethnic America." Seven years after their book was published, Judis and Teixeira's predictions are coming true. Some Republicans realize it's happening. What they haven't quite figured out is what to do about it.

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