Republicans still fighting the Civil War

The United States continues to commemorate the 150th anniversary of its Civil War. Last week marked 150 years since the battle of Chancellorsville, probably the south’s greatest victory.

So you can hardly blame the media for seizing on the fact that the new president of the National Rifle Association, Jim Porter, sounds a lot like an unrepentant Confederate: “Now y’all might call it the Civil War, but we call it the ‘War of Northern Aggression’ down South.”

One might respond that Porter’s references to the Civil War sound more like jokes (albeit in dubious taste) than a serious political point, and that in any case an NRA president from the deep south holding weird political views should hardly be considered earth-shaking news.

More interesting is the way that pro-Confederate views have gradually insinuated themselves into the mainstream of the American conservative movement and therefore the Republican Party. I talked about this a few months ago, when I said that “One day [Republicans] will have to choose whether they are the party of Lincoln or the party of the Confederacy.”

For those who are interested, you can now read a much longer version of the argument by Frank Rich in New York magazine. He connects the current failure of the Republicans to appeal to black voters with the party’s 50-year history of providing a safe haven for racist ex-Democrats from the south – starting with Barry Goldwater’s opposition to the Civil Rights Act, the embrace of segregationist senator Strom Thurmond, and the “southern strategy” masterminded by Kevin Phillips and implemented by Richard Nixon.

This, of course, is not an unbiased account. Rich is a Democratic Party partisan, and he is certainly not giving the Republicans the benefit of any doubt (although he does concede that “By all accounts, Goldwater himself was not a racist”). But he raises points that Republicans need to deal with if they want to remain within the American mainstream. (He also unearths some fascinating material – make sure to follow his links.)

The problem that the GOP now faces is, perhaps not surprisingly, much the same as the problem that doomed the Confederacy. Pitching yourself to sectional interests works for a while, when you can get solid support in part of the country combined with diffuse support elsewhere. The Democrats held office that way in the 1850s, and the same trick finally won the Republicans control of Congress in 1994.

But as you become more and more captive to one concentrated group, you alienate the rest of the country, and your losses there outweigh any gain you get from consolidating support in a particular region. That’s where Mitt Romney came to grief last year: he won more southern states than any losing Republican in history, but it was no use. Aggressively southern-oriented policies eventually fail, since the non-south does in fact constitute the large majority of the country.

And while that majority might be passive at first, if you get them sufficiently worked up they will invade your territory, burn your cities and lay waste your heartland. Perhaps modern Republicans are getting off lightly.

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