By Martin Woodley
General elections in the US are usually dominated by intense campaigning in a relatively small number of battleground states which can swing behind either Republican or Democratic candidates according to the ebbs and flows of the political struggle. Most states are either solidly red or blue and do not elicit more than a passing inspection of the particulars of the movement of votes either way. In particular, the period opened by the 1968 election cycle saw the use of the ‘southern strategy’ by the Republican Party under Richard Nixon to detach the southern white conservative part of the voter base of the Democratic Party and attract it towards the Republican Party. In this way, a period of Democratic Party dominance between 1933 and 1968 was transformed into a succeeding period of Republican Party dominance which has lasted right up until the present. In particular this strategy transformed the deep south from being solidly blue to solidly red over the period between 1968 when they swung behind Nixon, until 1992 when they were voting for Republican candidates in state-wide as well as presidential elections.
However it is now becoming increasingly clear that the events of 2020 – in particular the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the upsurge in the struggle for racial justice led by the Black Lives Matter movement, and the outcome of the general election – indicate the passing of the previous period of Republican dominance, and instead portend the opening of a new political period. The latest events around the run-off senatorial elections in Georgia; Trump’s unhinged attacks on Georgia’s Republican officials demanding that they swing the election for him[i]; and most recently, the attack by right-wing extremists instigated by Trump on the Capitol Building housing the joint session of Congress to confirm the results of the electoral college, provide further evidence of the passing of one period and the inauguration of another. Central to this assessment is the general election results in Georgia and Arizona, but particularly in Georgia due to the outcome of the senatorial run-offs[ii].
A by-product of the outcome of the presidential election and especially the loss of Georgia and Arizona after decades of Republican dominance is the turmoil currently raging in the Republican Party. As a result of the attack on the Capitol, arrests have been made of people carrying home-made bombs in their vehicles; pipe bombs were placed outside the Democratic and Republican parties headquarters near the Capitol; an elected member of the West Virginia House of delegates resigned due to his participation in the attack; numerous members of the Trump administration have resigned their positions directly as a result of the attack; an article of impeachment has been introduced charging Trump with ‘incitement of an insurrection’; the House of Representatives voted to request Vice-President Mike Pence to invoke the 25th Amendment, while House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy is not lobbying Republican representatives to resist.
Meanwhile, it is clear that there was collusion between the Capitol police and the rioters[iii], and outgoing Capitol police chief Steven Sund has accused Senate security officials of deliberately delaying efforts to call in the National Guard[iv], including while the riot was taking place. Further, there was full knowledge prior to the day of the riot that ‘extremists were preparing to travel to Washington to commit violence and war’[v], yet there were only 115 officers on duty at any one time on January 6th whereas 5,000 officers were on duty at the Capitol for the Black Lives Matter protest June 1st last year[vi]. Yet, despite the turmoil, a third of all voters continue to support Trump and believe that the election was stolen. This confirms that there is mass, albeit minority support for actions such as the attack on the Capitol and any further such actions that may follow[vii]. 147 Republicans voted to reject the electoral college result after the attack on the Capitol. To cap the continuing turmoil, corporations including Facebook, Dow, Microsoft, FedEx, JP Morgan and Marriott are turning off the flow of donations to the Republican Party[viii] [ix] [x].
The period opened by 1968
1968 marked a qualitative turn in the domestic politics of the USA. Abroad it was becoming ever more embroiled in the Indo-Chinese war, which following the Tet Offensive of that year was becoming increasingly unwinnable. Domestically, the anti-war movement had joined with the civil rights struggle to provoke major new dynamics within the political party system. These were i) the adoption of the southern strategy by Nixon as a response to the gains of the civil rights movement, which started a trajectory to the right within the Republican Party which has continued ineluctably up until the present; and ii) the impact of mass movement politics energising leftward tendencies within the Democratic Party.
The initial rightward impetus provided by Nixon was accelerated by Reagan via the adoption of Chicago economics and the ‘war on drugs’. White, Christian evangelicals gained a much greater influence in the Republican Party during the term of Newt Gingrich as Speaker of the House of Representatives; and following the financial crisis and economic downturn, and the election of Obama to the presidency, the Tea Party mobilisations further radicalised the Republican Party in Congress. The emergence of Trump and the alt right is simply the latest iteration in this rightward development.
The mass movement politics impacting the Democratic Party was initiated first by the civil rights struggle, and consolidated in 1968 by the urban rebellions and the anti-war movement. The response of the Democratic Party leadership was to impose the pro-war Hubert Humphrey – who didn’t even stand for nomination in the caucuses – as presidential candidate over the hitherto most popular candidate in the caucuses, the anti-war Eugene McCarthy. The Democratic Party leadership has since been forced on several occasions to make cosmetic concessions to the mass movements after imposing unpopular choices for presidential nominee. Lately, the base of the Democratic Party has been impacted by various mass movements including the Dreamers’ movement; the Occupy movement; the movement organised around the People’s Climate March; and in 2015 and 2020 the Black Lives Matter movement.
2020 and the closing of the period opened by 1968
The tumultuous year of 2020 has done much to reveal the underlying weaknesses of the previous equilibrium. It is no accident that it has resulted from the biggest global public health crisis for one hundred years – a shock which has revealed much about the inner structure of US politics. In particular, it brought together the effects of an economic crisis produced by the pandemic but which exacerbated the weakness produced by the financial crisis, with the historic upsurge around racial justice led by the Black Lives Matter movement. The major political effect of this mobilisation of the urban population have thrown light on the end points of the processes inaugurated by 1968 – the southern strategy adopted by the Republican Party, and the mass movement politics impacting the left of the Democratic Party. In particular, the limits of the southern strategy has been revealed by the loss of the ultra-conservative stronghold states of Arizona and Georgia in the presidential election, and the two Georgia senatorial victories for the Democrats. In passing it should also be noted that there are limits to the impact of mass movement politics in energising the left in the Democratic Party. These were revealed around the #ForceTheVote controversy surrounding the election of the post of Speaker of the House of Representatives.
The rest of this article will be concerned with discussing the objective material basis which places limitations on the southern strategy, and hence underlays the turmoil currently engulfing the Republican Party.
Demographic trends which impact political strategy
The transformation of the southern economy
The transformations in the economy of the south actually have a long history, and go back to the New Deal, which started a process of the abolition of the separate southern economy[xi]. However, this was a slow process and in particular the southern population of African Americans only modestly increased, and in a number of deep south states actually decreased between 1950 and 1970 – the great migration was still underway. The share of African Americans living in the south fell from 60.2% to 45.1% between 1950 and 1970.
After 1970 the population of the south generally – particularly the populations of Florida, Texas, Georgia, Virginia and North Carolina – increased faster than the national population as a whole. The metropolitan areas were key to this population increase. Figure 1 shows that after Dallas and Miami, Atlanta has experienced the largest population increase of any metropolitan area in the deep south. In terms of the population hierarchy, in 1950 Atlanta ranked as the 25th largest metro area, whereas in 2000 it ranked 12th.
Figure 1: Source: Urban Areas in the Transformation of the South: A Review of Modern History; John F. McDonald; 27 May 2013; Urban Studies Research; https://www.hindawi.com/journals/usr/2013/376529/
Moreover, the African American population of the south in the 18 metropolitan areas increased more rapidly than the overall population: increasing by 123% between 1970 and 2000 compared with a total population increase of 103%. For the first time the African American population was more urbanised in the south than the population as a whole. In Atlanta, the African American population increased as a percentage from 22.5% in 1970 to 28.4% in 2000.
The political impact of the transformation in Atlanta
Between 2000 and 2019 Georgia’s eligible voter population grew by around 1.9 million – around half of this increase is accounted for by the growth in the black voting population. This increase in black voters is driven by migration – the great migration from the rural south to the urban north following Jim Crow has reversed, with flows moving from urban north to urban south. This reverse migration of African Americans is supplemented by inward migration from central America, the Caribbean, Africa and Asia[xii].
Between 2000 and 2019, Black eligible voters who were born outside of Georgia accounted for a majority (58%) of the increase in the state’s Black voting population.
Republican election officials have long had one major approach to addressing this problem – voter suppression. This topic has been covered in previous articles[xiii]. Georgia’s Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who oversaw voting in the state, and just happened to be running as Republican candidate for Governor against Stacey Abrams in 2018 – was accused of purging 1.5 million voters from state electoral rolls between 2012 and 2016 – disproportionately blacks and minorities. His succeeding Secretary of State, Brad Raffenspurger, has illegally purged at least 198,000 voters in 2019[xiv].
Even as Biden received more votes than Trump in the presidential contest in Georgia, Republican candidates received more votes than Democrats in the senatorial races. The extraordinary thing is that there were 75,000 additional voter registrations between the general election in November and the senatorial run-offs in January – mostly black registrants, which ultimately proved decisive. Again, remarkably, the turnout for the January senatorial run-offs was 92% of the general election turnout. Whilst the margins of the victories are small, it is clear that the effort that went into producing the victories in the face of the scale of the Republican voter purges was huge.
Overall, turnout reached a remarkable 92 percent of 2020 general election levels in precincts carried by Mr. Biden in November, compared with 88 percent of general election levels in the precincts carried by Mr. Trump. Overall, turnout reached 93 percent of 2020 levels in precincts where Black voters represented at least 80 percent of the electorate. In comparison, turnout fell to 87 percent of general election levels in white working-class precincts. Democrats made their largest gains in the predominantly Black counties of the so-called Black Belt, a region named for its fertile soil but now associated with the voters whose ancestors were enslaved to till it, as well as the growing majority-Black suburbs south of Atlanta. It was the culmination of a voter drive led in part by Stacey Abrams, who narrowly lost the governor’s race in 2018[xv].
Contrary to the Democratic Party managers’ stated intention of appealing to disenchanted Republican voters, the actual results confirm that Democratic gains were achieved as a result of the heroic efforts in voter registration in majority black districts, and the expansion of those districts into some of Atlanta’s suburbs.
At the same time, the relatively limited Democratic gains in Republican areas suggest that there was virtually no shift in voter preference since the November election, despite hundreds of millions of dollars in television advertisements. Democrats had cause for hope they might change some minds. Mr. Biden had run ahead of the Democratic Senate candidates in November, and they sought to lure some of these voters to their side especially after the President’s effort to foment doubts about the outcome of the November election. In fact Republican candidates fared even better in affluent precincts, those with a median income over $80,000 per year, than they did in the general election, and in the precincts where Republican candidates ran farthest ahead of Mr. Trump in November.
Instead, it was overwhelmingly the increase in the black eligible voter population – including the expansion of black neighbourhoods into the suburbs – plus the registration drive and activist effort to turn out these voters that determined the Democrat surge. Figure 2 shows the evolution of the political map of the Atlanta suburbs in presidential elections between 1984 and 2020.
Figure 2: Atlanta’s suburbs are in the process of being transformed from areas of white flight from the central city in the 1960s to diverse neighbourhoods. Source: How Atlanta’s Politics Overtook the Suburbs, Too; Emily Badger; The New York Times, Dec. 9, 2020; https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/09/upshot/atlanta-suburbs-democratic-shift.html
The southern strategy was an attempt to reimpose racial divisions following the gains of the civil rights struggle. Over time it led to the detachment of southern white conservative voters from Democratic Party allegiance to Republican Party allegiance. It produced an impulse propelling the Republican Party to the right and consolidated a majority of racial minority votes in the base of the Democratic Party. It also produced a tendency for Democratic strongholds to be predominant in urban centres and Republican strongholds to be predominant in rural, suburban and small town districts.
However, the growth of metropolitan areas in the southern states is bringing a new factor to this dynamic – southern metropolitan areas are taking on a more northern aspect and are pushing the southern white conservative increasingly to the margins.
At the same time, the expansion of majority black neighbourhoods into the suburbs has produced white flight to the extent that northern rural districts are beginning to take on a southern aspect. Therefore, the racial divisions that were buttressed by the southern strategy are overlapped by political divisions between metro area and rural county, where the metro area experiences pressure from the base to the left and the rural county experiences pressure from the base to the right. All of this is happening in the context of the general rise of the city vis-a-vis the countryside and small town.
The rise of the city is in this way placing limits on the further progress of the southern strategy – conservatives are confined to the countryside which is diminishing in importance. Added to this trend is the fact the people of colour are an increasing proportion of the population – it has been projected that people of colour will be a majority of the American working class by 2032[xvi]. These are the trends – demographic and political – which lie behind the turmoil and panic currently in the Republican Party.
There is only one option left to the continued pursuit of their strategy – that is to inflame the racial divisions within the city itself. This was the meaning behind the appearance of far right-wing militia-type forces uniting with police unions in order to suppress the protests in the summer. At the same time, the uprisings led by the Black Lives Matter movement showed that for the first time there was majority support in the population for multi-racial solidarity, as well as for the radical left policies scorned by the major parties. There will now be a race against the clock by the right to prevent the consolidation of multi-racial class solidarity before it can take hold on a mass scale for the first time in American history.
[i] On Nov. 9, the two Republican senators forced into Georgia run-off races, Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, released a joint statement calling for the resignation of Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger over allegations of mismanagement and lack of transparency. However, a factor in Georgia state officials’ resistance to the Trumpian demands is a reluctance to have scrutiny of the recent history of voter suppression by himself and by previous Secretary of State, Brian Kemp.
[ii] However, it should be noted that Democrat Mark Kelly won a special Senatorial election in Arizona in November 2020 to replace a vacancy due to the death of John McCain.
[iii] At least two officers have been suspended and more than a dozen more are under investigation.
[iv] Outgoing Capitol Police chief: House, Senate security officials hamstrung efforts to call in National Guard; Carol D. Leonnig, Aaron C. Davis, Peter Hermann and Karoun Demirjian; The Washington Post, Jan. 10, 2021; https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/sund-riot-national-guard/2021/01/10/
[v] FBI report warned of war at Capitol, contradicting claims there was no indication of looming violence; Devlin Barrett, Matt Zapotosky; The Washington Post, Jan. 12, 2021; https://www.washingtonpost.com/national-security/capitol-riot-fbiintelligence/2021/01/12/
[vi] MAGA v BLM: how police handled the Capitol mob and George Floyd activists in pictures; Julian Borger; The Guardian, Jan 7 2021; https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/jan/06/capitol-mob-police-trump-george-floyd-protests-photos
[vii] Polling taken directly after the attack on the Capitol confirms that whilst the majority of voters condem the action most Trump voters either think the rioters were mostly right or that the actions simply went too far. Most Americans reject the attack on the Capitol but millions empathize with the mob; Philip Bump; The Washington Post, Jan. 9, 2021; https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2021/01/09/most-americans-reject-attack-capitol-but-millions-empathizewith-mob/
[viii] Capitol riot prompts top US firms to pull funding for leading Republicans; Adam Gabbatt; The Guardian, 12 January 2021; https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/jan/12/us-companies-political-funding-republicans-capitol-riot
[ix] Companies Pull Back Political Giving Following Capitol Violence; Kate Kelly, Emily Flitter and Shane Goldmacher; The New York Times, Jan. 11, 2021; https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/11/business/corporate-donations-politics.html
[x] Campaign finance system rocked as firms pause or halt contributions after election results challenged; Todd C. Frankel, Jeff Stein and Tony Romm; The Washington Post, Jan. 11, 2021; https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2021/01/10/marriott-campaign-donations-congress/
[xi] Urban Areas in the Transformation of the South: A Review of Modern History; John F. McDonald; 27 May 2013; Urban Studies Research; https://www.hindawi.com/journals/usr/2013/376529/
[xii] Black eligible voters have accounted for nearly half of Georgia electorate’s growth since 2000; Abby Budiman, Luis NoeBustamante; December 15, 2020; Pew Research centre; https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/12/15/black-eligiblevoters-have-accounted-for-nearly-half-of-georgia-electorates-growth-since-2000/
[xiii] Class and voter suppression in American politics; Martin Woodley; Socialist Action; http://www.socialistaction.net/2020/10/30/class-and-voter-suppression-in-american-politics/
[xiv] So huge was the scale of voter purges that prior to the ravages of the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter mobilisations many people – including investigative journalist Greg Palast believed that they would enable Trump to steal the 2020 Presidential election. How Trump Stole 2020: The Hunt for America’s Vanished Voters; Greg Palast; Seven Stories Press, 2020; ISBN 9781644210567. The scale of voter suppression in recent elections is described in detail in After the Purge; Angela Caputo, Geoff Hing, and Johnny Kauffman; APM Reports, October 29, 2019; https://www.apmreports.org/story/2019/10/29/georgia-voting-registration-records-removed
[xv] Why Warnock and Ossoff Won in Georgia; Nate Cohn; The New York Times, Jan. 7, 2021; https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/07/upshot/warnock-ossoff-georgia-victories.html
[xvi] People of color will be the majority of the working class by 2032; Press Releases June 9, 2016; Economic Policy Institute; https://www.epi.org/press/people-of-color-will-be-the-majority-of-the-working-class-by-2032/