If you’re wondering where the Tea Party has gotten the bulk of its political energy, look South. According to a recent academic study, half of all Southern whites are Tea Party supporters. Half. And, as Michael Lind notes in a must-read article at Salon, that half leans toward the upscale (those better-off than your average American).
And what is the problem that the Tea Party is trying to come to terms with? Here’s Lind:
[D]emography destroyed the temporary Nixon-to-Bush conservative majority (although conceivably it could enjoy an illusory Indian summer if Republicans pick up the Senate and retain the House in 2016). Absent ever-growing shares of the white vote, in the long run the Republican Party cannot win without attracting more black and Latino support.
And what’s the Tea Party’s response to this? Don’t even try to attract black and Latino support. Dig in. Lind notes that Tea Partiers and the elite whites that lead them “would rather disenfranchise blacks and Latinos than compete for their votes. And they would rather dismantle the federal government than surrender their local power and privilege.”
So if you’re wondering why the Republican Party is making few obvious attempts to moderate itself in the face of demographic realities, wonder no longer. The Southerners who dominate the party have chosen a Southern strategy for holding onto what power they still have.
What is that strategy? Lind identifies it as five-pronged: gerrymander, filibuster, disenfranchise, privatize, and bring under greater state control the federal government.
Lind might have added, in the light of the recent crisis, brinkmanship surrounding the federal debt ceiling as a sixth prong in the Southern strategy. Here, for example, is how Politico reported today the remarks of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz on raising the debt ceiling:
Sen. Ted Cruz hopes to see congressional Republicans tie raising the debt ceiling to demands over President Barack Obama’s health care law.
“We should look for ways to mitigate the harms from Obamacare,” the Texas Republican said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.” […]
The debt ceiling should also be used as leverage “for some significant structural plan to reduce government spending” and to “avoid new taxes,” Cruz said.
And Lind writes this:
Although racial segregation can no longer be employed [as a prong of Southern strategy], the tool kit of the older Southern white right is pretty much the same as that of the Newest Right […] Today the white notables of the South increasingly live in states like Texas, which already have nonwhite majorities. They fear that Obama’s election, like Lincoln’s, foreshadows the emergence of a new national majority coalition that excludes them and will act against their interest.
That fear, of course, is justified, and the way they’re dealing with it is rational (from their point-of-view). Here’s Lind one more time:
While each of the Newest Right’s proposals and policies might be defended by libertarians or conservatives on other grounds, the package as a whole—from privatizing Social Security and Medicare to disenfranchising likely Democratic voters to opposing voting rights and citizenship for illegal immigrants to chopping federal programs into 50 state programs that can be controlled by right-wing state legislatures—represents a coherent and rational strategy for maximizing the relative power of provincial white elites at a time when their numbers are in decline and history has turned against them. They are not ignoramuses, any more than Jacksonian, Confederate and Dixiecrat elites were idiots.
But the Southern strategy, though coherent, is, of course, shortsighted, and probably won’t even work in 2014 and 2016. Hard demographic winds are blowing and Republicans have chosen (for now) to fight them. It’s a fool’s errand, which they will discover by 2020, if not before. Here’s a reality check from Linton Weeks at NPR:
The demographic makeup of the United States will shift dramatically in the next eight years.
Paul Taylor, director of the Social & Demographic Trends project at the Pew Research Center in Washington, says the country is on a trajectory to become a majority nonwhite nation by the early 2040s. Today it’s 63 percent white; by 2020 it will be about 60 percent white.
And here’s some more reality. According to Advocates for Youth, Millennials, who are more liberal than their parents and grandparents, will represent about 40% of eligible voters in 2020:
[E]very year there are an additional 4 million new Millennial voters; by 2016 they will represent 36 percent of eligible voters and by 2020 they will represent just under 40 percent of eligible voters.
And for perspective, this means that if Republicans don’t start winning more non-white and young voters going forward, Democrats in national elections can do worse with whites than Michael Dukakis did against George Bush Sr. in 1988 and still win elections. Here’s NPR again:
[I]n 2012, Obama won 80 percent of the nonwhite vote but just 39 percent of the white vote. Fact is, Obama lost the white vote by the identical margin — 20 percentage points – as Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis in 1988.
Back in 1988, Taylor explains, “a defeat of that magnitude among whites meant that Dukakis suffered an Electoral College drubbing of 426-111. This year, it yielded Obama an Electoral College victory of 332-206. In short, whites mustered 220 fewer Electoral College votes’ worth of clout in 2012 than in 1988.”
Hurricane Obama has reached land and the Tea Party phenomenon is one of the swirls kicked-up in its wake. Contemporary Southern strategy is doomed to be as ephemeral as the wind; a historic debacle; a lost opportunity for the Republican Party to adjust to reality. Watching the GOP implode over the next decade isn’t going to be pretty. Let’s hope the collateral damage can be kept to a minimum.