Douglas Kiker of NBC news once gasped when observing the presidential campaign of George Wallace, "They're all Southern! The whole United States is Southern." Kiker, himself a Southerner, delivered this judgment in 1968, but he could as well be describing the Republican Party in 2012.
For the GOP, the more than 40-year attempt to secure the white south as an electoral staple has been successful, but not without a price. With it comes a long Democratic tradition, which the old style New England and Midwestern Republican would have a hard time accepting. Indeed William Saxbe of Ohio commented in 1970 after a strong snort of the "Southern strategy," "I am not ready to abandon the Republican Party and turn it over to a bunch of unreconstructed rebels from the South."
What he was referring to was not just race but economics. Great Society Southerners were once gung ho for federal projects and saw nothing wrong with Uncle Sam picking up the bill for regional progress. Everything from agricultural subsidies to military installations were fair game. Jesse Helms, longtime senator from North Carolina, saw nothing wrong with advocating protection for textiles and allotment checks for tobacco growers. Although he gave lip service to free market ideas, Helms remained a conservative Democrat.
And that is different from the Republican variety. More social and cultural than economic in origin, the Southern version included some aspects of New Deal liberalism. Lester Maddox, the Georgia segregationist, nevertheless refined a Republican invitation to switch parties in 1970 by explaining that "the Democratic Party brought a little better life to our people." Indeed in 1938, a study called the South the nation's No. 1 economic problem. By 1960, thanks to government spending, Southern incomes were up substantially.
Indeed Southern Democrats would have been delighted to remain sometime allies with Republicans had it not been for the Voting Rights Act. As more African-American voters entered the party, their impact on Democratic primaries increased. Suddenly the balance between "old guard" or "big mules" and progressives was upset. Gradually, as African Americans gained political prominence, conservatives became squeezed and so they became Republicans. Often they entered the GOP in such numbers that more traditional Republicans were overwhelmed. By the 1990s, white politicians were redistricted to increase African-American numbers in the House of Representatives. Then to preserve their careers, they became Republicans. Hence Rick Perry and lesser lights brought old Democratic priorities to a new GOP.
The old devil and David Webster whiggery that dominated Republican economic priorities were not shared by the emigrants from the new Democratic Party. Thrift was not one of their virtues and it showed. Also, their traditional views on family and women's rights often crossed with Republicans. Back in the 1970s, a Gerald Ford could back the Equal Rights Amendment and a pipe-puffing Millicent Fenwick could defend abortion. With the influx of former Democrats, often fundamentalist in religious views, this becomes less possible. By 2012, family issues predominate in the Republican Party.
To a lesser degree the old Republican mantra of "Duty, honor, country" was replaced by a free market credo that worships consumerism as the highest of virtues. George W. Bush in the greatest national crisis of our era could think of nothing better to suggest that the nation go shopping after Sept. 11, 2001. Old-style Republicans would have cringed but new fashioned GOPers would understand. Partially this is part of the "business progressive" credo that marked Southern Democratic politics before 1990.
Indeed Republicans are not the conservatives of yore. Listening to the field with their embrace of the military-industrial complex is to not hearken back to Dwight Eisenhower but to John Kennedy in his most ardent cold-warrior phase. Perhaps the country has not become more Southern but - gasp - more Democratic.