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The South swallows Lincoln’s ‘party of the North’

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The Republican ticket may hail from Massachusetts and Wisconsin, but Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan head the most Southernized major U.S. political party since Jefferson Davis’ day. In its hostility toward minorities, exploitation of racism, antipathy toward government and suspicion of science, today’s Republican Party represents the worst traditions of the South’s dankest backwaters.

No other party in U.S. history has done such a 180. Founded as the party of the anti-slavery North and committed to deep governmental involvement in spurring the economy (land-grant colleges, the Homestead Act, the transcontinental railway), today’s GOP is the negation of Abraham Lincoln’s Republicans. It is almost entirely white — 92 per cent, compared with just 58 per cent of Democrats. It is disproportionately Southern — 49 per cent of Republicans live in the South vs. 39 per cent of Democrats.

The beliefs of the white South dominate Republican thinking. As the white share of the U.S. population shrinks and the Latino share rises, Republicans have passed draconian anti-immigrant laws and opposed legislation enabling immigrants brought here as children to gain legal status.

They also exploit racist resentments in a way not seen since the Willie Horton spot of 1988. Consider the Romney campaign’s ads falsely attacking President Obama for gutting welfare reform. "Under Obama’s plan, you wouldn’t have to work and wouldn’t have to train for a job," proclaims one such commercial. "They just send you a welfare check." Obama’s plan, as several media fact-checking monitors have noted, does nothing of the sort. The spot clearly seeks to resurrect the kind of resentment of African Americans that the GOP exploited back in the days when welfare was a major program. The Romney campaign has evidently concluded, since virtually its entire pool of potential voters is white, that it must rouse the sometime voters among them with such expedients — which explains why it is running more of these ads than any others.

In the anti-government column, the Ryan budget, which House Republicans enthusiastically adopted, would cut taxes disproportionately on the wealthy and halve the share of spending on every domestic, non-entitlement program. It would decimate education, transportation and funding for college students and scientific research. It would bring the nation down to the developmental level of the anti-tax, anti-public-investment Southern states of yore.

The ghosts of Dixie — of the Scopes Trial and the underfunding of public education — also pop up in Republicans’ willful resistance to science and, more broadly, simple empiricism. Global warming? Evolution? Homosexuality’s causation? How babies get made? Find a robust scientific conclusion and you can find a significant number of Republicans — adducing pseudo-science and faith — who oppose it.

What’s remarkable is not that a significant number of Republicans harbor these beliefs but that these beliefs have come to dominate the party. Veteran politicians of the more pluralistic GOP that was around as recently as half-a-decade ago, including Orrin Hatch and Romney himself, have had to repudiate their past as thoroughly as China’s communist apparatchiks did during the Cultural Revolution. An empiricist? Not me, buddy.

But how is it that the South has come North in today’s GOP? The fact that Barack Obama is our first black president coincides with the United States’ transformation from a majority-white nation to a multiracial country no longer destined to remain the world’s hegemon. Augmented by an intractable recession rooted in a crisis of capitalism, this epochal shift has summoned the shades of racial resentment. To the extent that Republicans can depict government as the servant of this rising non-white America (precisely the purpose of Romney’s ads), the South’s antipathy toward government can find a receptive audience in other regions.

This transformation of the GOP has also been spurred by the Southernization of the economy. The U.S. economy’s dominant sector is no longer the unionized manufacturing of the Northeast and Midwest, whose leaders included such Republican moderates as George Romney, and whose white working-class employees were persuaded by their unions to back Democratic candidates. Instead, the economy is dominated by a mix of the low-wage, non-union retail and service sectors, and by high finance, which has shown itself fiercely opposed to regulation and taxation, happy to reap and shield its profits abroad at the expense of U.S. workers, and willing to invest plenty in a party that does its bidding.

That party is meeting in Tampa this week. Cut through its self-justifying rhetoric and we’re left with a GOP whose existential credo is, "We’re old, we’re white and we want our country back." The rest, as the sages say, is commentary.

Harold Meyerson is editor-at-large of The American Prospect.

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