If you’re even casually familiar with American politics, you’ve probably heard of the Southern Strategy. The strategy, pioneered by Richard Nixon in 1968 and perfected by Ronald Reagan in 1980, was simple: Republicans reached out to white voters angry with the Democratic Party over its support of basic equality. By tailoring its message to appeal to disaffected whites, especially Southern whites, the GOP planned to crack a Democratic coalition that had been ascendant since the 1930s.
In a just world, reaching out to racists would have backfired — well, in a truly just world, there wouldn’t have been racism in the first place — but the Southern Strategy was a resounding success. From 1968 to 2004, Republicans won seven of ten presidential elections. Democrats carried the popular vote only once — barely — in 1976, against the man who pardoned Nixon. The only two successful Democratic candidates during that stretch were Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, both White Southerners. President Lyndon Johnson is said to have predicted that the Civil Rights Act would cost Democrats the South for a generation; it’s actually been two generations and counting.
But time has a way of evening things up, and what had been a strength of the Republican Party is quickly becoming a massive liability. The country is becoming more diverse with each passing year, and that diversity is making it impossible to build a coalition on white voters alone. Indeed, though a majority of his voters were white, the coalition that sent Barack Obama to the White House in 2008 and re-elected him in 2012 was anchored by non-white voters.
Mitt Romney’s supporters, meanwhile, were 89 percent white. He took 60 percent of white voters. This was by design: Mitt ran a campaign consciously targeted at white voters. He still lost handily. There simply aren’t enough white voters to deliver a national election on their own.
Republicans acknowledged this after the election. The sober wing of the GOP agreed that they had to start reaching out to People of Color. They suggested embracing some form of immigration reform, allowing them to stop alienating Hispanic voters. Perhaps they could moderate on social issues, and try to broaden their coalition. Who knows, they could maybe even try to reach out to African American voters!
Unfortunately for both Republicans and the nation, the Republican Party base is the base they’ve been cultivating for decades — a base that has been built on the foundation of racism and nativism, with a healthy helping of religious fundamentalism. And while simple math tells us that the GOP must broaden its appeal, the base of the GOP is preventing that from happening.
So with the base pushing the GOP rightwards, the GOP is now starting to push a plan that is simply ridiculous: they’re now actively pushing to try to win even more of the white vote, in hopes that they can keep offsetting the gains of minority voters.
One simply needs to look over the last month to see the problem for the GOP. The Voting Rights Act was gutted, and the Republican base cheered. Republicans have shown no interest in fixing the part of the act struck down by the Supreme Court. Indeed, Southern states have rushed to put new voting restrictions into place that had previously been blocked by the Justice Department.
Americans as a whole strongly disagree with the Supreme Court’s ruling — a majority oppose the ruling, while less than a third support it — and the GOP could reach out to moderate voters of all races by agreeing to work with Democrats on a fix. They cannot, however, because a Republican base built on racist resentment is not going to accept a sensible, fair approach to civil rights.
The same problem holds on immigration. Most Americans favor immigration reform that allows undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship. Again, though, this is in direct opposition to the GOP’s nativist bent. Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s “oops” moment got a lot of press last year, but it’s arguable that his campaign’s collapse started with his support of the DREAM Act. Romney hammered Perry on the issue, and had already dented Perry significantly before the floor fell out.
Even on issues that aren’t tied directly to race, like LGBT rights and abortion rights, Republicans have gone to great lengths to reward their extreme right wing. In Texas, that meant cheating to force through abortion restrictions; in Wisconsin and Ohio, it meant pushing them through in the dark of night. The moves have been brazen; in North Carolina, the current anti-choice bill winding its way through the legislature was attached to a bill on motorcycle safety.
Meanwhile, Republicans continue to try to thwart efforts to expand same-sex marriage, even as a majority of the country support it. Indiana, not content with having same-sex marriage outlawed, made it a felony for two people of the same sex to even attempt to procure a marriage license.
On all of these issues, the GOP is out of step with Americans, though completely in tune with their base. Unfortunately for the GOP, these stands not only make it unlikely that they will win non-white voters, they alienate a significant chunk of white voters, too.
Younger voters tend to be more tolerant than older ones on issues of diversity and tolerance. Quite simply, coming out strong against immigration, same-sex marriage or voting rights is not a way to win over white voters, but a way to alienate them. Even on an issue like abortion rights, where the nation is more closely divided, the GOP is managing to alienate potential allies. Since saying he would sign abortion restrictions into law, North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory’s approval rating has plummeted.
Republicans are continuing to play to their base, continuing their spiral into a more and more pure party. In the process, they’re ensuring that generations of voters, white and non-white, will view the party as an exclusive entity. The Civil Rights Act cost Democrats the South for two generations, but today’s GOP appears ready to cede the nation for generations to come.
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