So what to make of the 2012 Presidential election? We could begin with a look at the Southern Strategy, demographics and misplaced calculations by Republican strategists.
By any measure, the 2012 national elections were fascinating and historic. Old worn election textbooks are being discarded because even ample revisions would be insufficient. The word “demographics,” which was once a technical catch phrase of minor importance has now surged to the forefront as a term that had best be understood if one is to have any chance of winning future national elections.
It could be argued that the seeds for the election’s outcome were planted back in the 1960s. That is when upon signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 President Lyndon Johnson made his prophetic comment to Bill Moyers that, “we have just delivered the South to the Republicans for a long time to come.” A year later the Voting Rights Act of 1965 guaranteed the clout of the ballot box to African-American citizens, and thus the stage was set for massive party transformation in the previously solid Democratic South. The Republicans and their candidate Richard Nixon wasted little time in devising the “Southern Strategy” for deployment during the 1968 presidential campaign. The intent of the Southern Strategy was to put the Johnson prediction in action.
Over the next several years over 90% of the newly-enfranchised black voters arrived in the Democratic Party just as the majority of white southerners made their trek across the aisle into the previously-despised Republican Party. This became the source of the oft-repeated phrase of the day, “I didn’t leave the party. The party left me.”
Over time, it has become clear that the purveyors of the Southern Strategy failed to anticipate the stagnation of white population growth versus the rapid increase in the minority population. If we fast forward to the 21st century we arrive at the clearest debate yet between the bedrock ideologies of the individualism of laissez-faire capitalism and a system of capitalism where broad opportunities are guaranteed by government assistance and intervention. At least that is the debate that should have taken place.
Instead, the Republicans found themselves divided and marching down two distinct tracks. The division apparently confused even the Republican presidential ticket of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan. The first track was the historic debate just mentioned, i.e. a debate that if won at the ballot box would have gone a long way toward realizing the Republican dream of staying the hand of government involvement in providing support for citizens that has been the cornerstone of the legacies of Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.
It was, however, in the words of a number of Republican Party pundits the second track that proved to be the undoing of the Romney/Ryan ticket. Older white voters who, since the introduction of the Southern Strategy, had become the bread and butter of the national Republican Party continued to prosecute the old-fashioned campaign that had been so good to them in the past. This approach over the past four years, however, morphed into a campaign of hatred of Barack Obama the person more so than the policies of Barack Obama the President.
Republican David Frum, former speech writer for President George W. Bush, lamented afterward that the campaign of personal disdain for Barack Obama detracted significantly from the more important debate over two competing systems of government. More importantly, Frum laid considerable blame for this at the feet of conservative Republican-oriented news and entertainment media. The months-long barrage of largely debunked news stories related to everything from President Obama’s country of birth to his religion to the myths of trips abroad apologizing for the Untied States and his alleged refusal to salute the American flag were relentless. Another commentator labeled the media entities as the “machines that fed the beast of white resentment.”
Meanwhile, the euphoria of 2008 for minorities turned to deep resentment in 2012 at their perception of how the first African-American president was treated by extreme conservatives. Ultimately, the election demonstrated that a national campaign centered on the last vestiges of the Southern Strategy and a modern day version of white male resentment is no longer a guaranteed winning formula. The coalition of ethnic and social minorities as perhaps envisioned years ago by the late George McGovern, at least in this election, broke through for victory. Not only did the Obama ticket win, but same-sex marriage won by a popular vote in three states while two states, Colorado and Washington, approved legalized recreational use of marijuana. Furthermore, the Democrats expanded their margin in the Senate and closed the gap on the Republicans in the U. S. House.
Once the results were in, the reaction of ordinary voters who depend on the more conservative news and entertainment outlets was one of outrage. David Frum’s assessment seems to be accurate in that these very sincere voters are incredulous that one whom they have become convinced by those they trust for news is a “communist Kenyan born, un-American radical” could be chosen once again as president.
The task at hand is too daunting to let misplaced outrage affect the debate going forward. The original debate over the appropriate size and role of government must now be given center stage after all. Surely this means a return to serious negotiations in search of crucial compromises that will enable the nation to progress.