Election 2012: The death of the Southern Strategy?

—Steven A. Ramirez

For many decades the GOP played the politics of racial divisiveness to further the cause of tax cuts, deregulation and a more limited federal government. The election of 2012 promises to end this ugly chapter in American politics. The ultimate outcome will change our political landscape in far-reaching ways.

Surprisingly, Republican leaders openly admit that their party used race to appeal to white voters (particularly in the old Confederacy) disaffected with the perceived embrace of racial equality within the Democratic Party. Republican strategist Kevin Phillips openly admitted to seeking out the votes of “negrophobe whites” in the New York Times in 1970. The Nation very recently posted the actual audio recording of Reagan Administration Official Lee Atwater articulating how the GOP implemented the Southern Strategy in sordid (and highly offensive) detail in 1981. Atwater unabashedly ties the politics of race to economic issues such as tax cuts. Two Republican National Committee Chairs actually apologized for the Southern Strategy.

In my book Lawless Capitalism, I argue that the politics of racial division led directly to the subprime debacle through massive financial deregulation beginning in the Reagan Administration. Deregulation of mortgage lending, the basic structure of globalization, and financial consolidation all find their roots in the Reagan Administration. Indeed, the fundamental explosion in American debt started in 1980. To be fair, the Democrats contributed much to the crisis too. The crisis resulted from longstanding and bipartisan policies. Nevertheless, the Southern Strategy dominated the political scene in the decades preceding the subprime debacle.

The election of 2012 may spell the end of the Southern Strategy, at least as a means of GOP success. African American and Latino voters turned out in record numbers. Asian American voters supported President Obama over Mitt Romney by 73-26, a margin that exceeds Obama’s advantage among Latino voters.

The viability of the GOP’s Southern Strategy will continue to fade. Asian Americans form the fastest growing minority group in the nation. A recent study by the Pew Hispanic Research Center projects that the voting power of Hispanics will double by 2030—to nearly half of the electorate. If the Democrats continue to run candidates of color to energize this base, then these growing voting groups will constitute a formidable foundation for a durable Democratic majority. Meanwhile, the GOP base still today favors discriminatory practices, such as anti-immigration laws and legislation designed to suppress the vote of minority communities.

On issues relating to immigration, education, voting rights, the war on drugs, and many others, a fundamental change in political calculus is afoot. I contend the change may be even more monumental than such core issues. Ultimately, without the ability of governing elites to use the politics of racial division to further their interests, the very high level of economic inequality currently burdening our nation may be unsustainable.

Steven A. Ramirez is Professor of Law at Loyola University of Chicago, where he also directs the Business and Corporate Governance Law Center. His book, Lawless Capitalism: The Subprime Crisis and the Case for an Economic Rule of Law, will publish in December 2012.

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