For a brief moment in Hartford, Connecticut, on October 6, 1996, the fondest dreams of Southern conservatives seemed to have come true. Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole was debating President Clinton.

Perhaps “debating” is the wrong word. In the awkward and disjointed style of discourse that now seems typical of GOP presidential candidates, Dole was spouting the talking points his handlers had given him: “I think the basic difference is . . . I trust the people. The president trusts the government.”

Woodenly, Dole cited the details of the infamous “Hillarycare” plan:

We go back and look at the health care plan that he wanted to impose on the American people: one-seventh the total economy; 17 new taxes; price controls; 55 to 50 new bureaucracies that cost $1.5 trillion. Don’t forget that. That happened in 1993.

True enough, but not exactly an important issue three years later and not an inspirational vision, either.

But then, after some more of this wonkish blather. Dole uttered the line that seemed the culmination of decades of effort by Southern conservatives: “I carry a little card around in my pocket called the Tenth Amendment. Where possible, I want to give power back to the states and back to the people.”

Imagine that: a Kansas Republican, speaking before a Connecticut crowd, citing the Tenth Amendment and arguing that the federal government should “give power back to the states”! When the standard-bearer of the party of Lincoln declares his faith in states’ rights, it would seem that a revolution has occurred.

Alas, the senator from Archer Daniels Midland didn’t mean a word of it, and the idea that this big-government fossil from the Nixon era was the man to lead a grassroots populist insurgency against the Beltway establishment was so absurd that not even his aides and party henchmen believed it.

Still, for all his humbug, the fact that Dole felt he could score rhetorical points by declaring fealty to the Tenth Amendment was testimony to the status of the South as the electoral base of the Republican Party. More than 25 years after Pat Buchanan and other top GOP strategists masterminded the “Southern strategy” to wean white voters in Dixie away from their traditional allegiance to the Democrats, a great shift has been accomplished: White Southerners are overwhelmingly Republican in their political loyalties. The evidence is everywhere. In 1990, Georgia’s congressional delegation consisted of eight white Democrats, one black Democrat, and one white Republican. By 1996, after redistricting and the addition of an extra House seat, the Georgia delegation comprised eight white Republicans and three black Democrats. Last year, a poll in Alabama found that 80 percent of white males under age 40 considered themselves Republicans.

But, despite having won the steadfast allegiance of the majority of voters in the nation’s fastest-growing region. Republicans have still managed to lose two consecutive presidential elections—not to mention engaging the ire of the chattering classes, most of whom have an instinctive loathing for Southerners that they scarcely bother to conceal. In fact, to the university professors, think-tank wonks, and shout-show pundits who constitute the neoconservative commentariat, any party or candidate who could win the votes of 80 percent of young white men in Alabama is considered a threat to civilization.

So, having carefully wooed the white South since the 1960’s, the GOP establishment has found a perfect role for its new allies: scapegoats. Whenever Republicans are disappointed at the polls, as they were in 1992, 1996, and 1998, the GOP’s failed strategists now place the blame on those evil Southerners.

This “blame Dixie first” tactic was most clearly defined by Christopher Caldwell in the June 1998 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, which featured cover art of an elephant wearing an NRA cap and a ball-and-chain and carried the caption: “Hostage to Dixie’s culture and NRA dogma, the Republicans are a party in deep trouble.” Inside, in an article entitled “The Southern Captivity of the GOP,” the Atlantic‘s readers were treated to a 12-page slur against the South, complete with a cartoon of an elephant wearing a plaid shirt and an NRA cap, drinking a beer, and driving a pickup truck with a gun rack in the rear window and two slobbering hound dogs in the back. This, according to Mr. Caldwell, is what the Republican Party gained by its “Southern strategy”: the support of drunken, gun-toting rednecks.

Caldwell’s article epitomizes the left’s anti-Southern prejudice:

As southern control over the Republican agenda grows, the party alienates even conservative voters in other regions. The prevalence of right-to-work laws in southern states may be depriving Republicans of the socially conservative midwestern trade unionists they managed to split in the Reagan years. . . .


The most profound clash between the South and everyone else, of course, is a cultural one. It arises from the southern tradition of putting values—particularly Christian values—at the center of politics. . . . Republicans have narrowly defined “values” as the folkways of one regional subculture, and have urged their imposition on the rest of the country. . . .

Southerners now wag the Republican dog. How did the party let that happen?

This is the sort of “Bible-thumping zealots trying to impose their values on the rest of us” argument that one might expect to hear at an ACLU convention. What’s interesting, though, is that Caldwell imagines himself to be a conservative. A senior editor at the Weekly Standard and a native of Massachusetts, Caldwell never really explains why he views the South as such a political liability. He seems very concerned about “gay rights,” an issue on which he says “the country has moved leftward,” citing polls that show Americans “overwhelmingly . . . favor equal rights for gays . . . but think gays are pushing their agenda too fast.” Caldwell apparently wishes the Republicans to become stewards of the gay-rights agenda, to make sure it progresses at a speed that will not alarm the voters. while Caldwell makes a lot of noise about the NRA, the fact is that the “right of the people to keep and bear arms” has as high a level of support in the Great Plains, the Rocky Mountains, and the Pacific Northwest as it does in Dixie. Only in the Northeast and some other highly urbanized areas is gun control a popular issue.

Likewise, Caldwell implies that the GOP’s anti-abortion constituency is predominantly found below the Mason-Dixon line:

If anything, southern Christians were the low men on the Reaganite totem pole, coddled far less than tax activists in the prosperous coastal cities. That Reagan paid only lip service to pro-life activists during their annual Washington marches still rankles the party’s southern wing.

Caldwell is so eager to blame the South that he ignores even the most obvious facts. First, the Reagan years saw a continued increase in economic prosperity in the South, a trend that went back at least to the 1950’s, while those “prosperous coastal cities” (such as Ed Koch’s New York) continued a decline that dated back to the urban riots of the 1960’s. Second, it was Catholics in the Northeast and Midwest who were the original hard core of the pro-life movement. Republican Senator Rick Santorum—arguably the most ardent pro-lifer in the U.S. Senate—represents Pennsylvania, not Mississippi or Tennessee.

Caldwell’s real animus is revealed when he says that one of the “many symptoms” of the Republican “crisis of confidence” is to be found in the party’s “repudiation in the most sophisticated parts of the country.” If Caldwell is suggesting that Reagan ever enjoyed support among “the most sophisticated”—Harvard professors? Hollywood producers? Manhattan socialites?—he is simply deluded. He repeats this error when he refers to “the Republicans’ cosmopolitan wing.” Caldwell never says who constitutes this “cosmopolitan wing” of the GOP (Henry Kissinger? Arianna Huffington?) or exactly how many votes they can bring to the polling booths on Election Day, but the existence of such a wing and its usefulness in advancing a conservative agenda is something which Caldwell must prove, not merely assert.

Evidently Caldwell, like a great many other Republicans inside the Beltway, deeply desires the approval of those who are “sophisticated” and “cosmopolitan”—that is, the kind of people who consider the New York Times to be an objective arbiter of truth. This desire is responsible for such anomalies as Arizona Senator John McCain’s recent enthusiasm for tobacco taxes and “campaign finance reform.” Anyone who has experienced the ferocity of liberal hatred can understand this impulse. Wouldn’t it be nice just to cede all the most controversial issues to the liberals, nod one’s head in agreement, and be celebrated for one’s “moderation” and “bipartisanship”? The glib abandonment of principle, however, is not something a stiff-necked Southerner can embrace.

The origins of Caldwell’s suggestion that the COP abandon its Southern strategy, so far as it is revealed in his Atlantic Monthly article, can be summed up in two words: Arthur Finkelstein. It was Finkelstein who first mastered the technique for deploying the attack ads which have filled the airwaves every other year over the past decade or so. Finkelstein’s hallmark was his effective use of the word “liberal” as an epithet: He buried Mario Cuomo by labeling him “too liberal for too long.” But the old magic — made possible by the depth of Republican campaign coffers—has begun to lose its effectiveness of late. New York Senator Al D’Amato lost badly in 1998, despite millions of dollars’ worth of Finkelstein ads labeling Representative Charles Schumer as a “liberal Brooklyn congressman.” Other Finkelstein clients, including North Carolina Senator Lauch Faircloth, were losers, too. It seems that voters may have begun to tune out Finkelstein’s repetitive liberal-bashing. It seems, also, that Democrats have learned how to use Finkelstein’s tactics against him: Schumer’s campaign ads declared that D’Amato had told “Too many lies for too long.”

But Finkelstein—a recluse who lives in Massachusetts with his male lover and two adopted children—apparently has convinced Caldwell (and many others) that the GOP’s woes are geographic and demographic. Caldwell cites “the Finkelstein box,” which includes the South, the Southwest, the Great Plains, and the interior Northwest, as a sort of political dividing line:

In states that have their largest population centers outside the box, no Republican got a majority in the [1996] election. Inside the box, no Democrat got a majority except Mary Landrieu, of Louisiana (and that barely). Although most Republican governors outside the box are pro-choice, almost every single Republican governor inside the box is pro-life.


The Republican Party is increasingly a party of the South and the mountains. The southernness of its congressional leaders . . . only heightens the identification. There is a big problem with having a southern, as opposed to a midwestern or a California, base. Southern interests diverge from those of the rest of the country, and the southern presence in the Republican Party has passed a “tipping point,” at which it began to alienate voters from other regions.

There is at least one word for such an “analysis”: bunk. Since “Reagan Democrats” in the South and Midwest transformed the national political landscape in the 1980’s, the South’s interests have converged with, not diverged from, the rest of the nation’s. The surprise winners in 1998 were Democratic gubernatorial candidates in South Carolina and Alabama who supported state lotteries—which were considered political poison in the Bible Belt just ten years ago. But Southern voters now support lotteries because they provide funding for education without requiring new taxes. If the vote for lotteries is viewed as an anti-tax vote, it may represent the kind of grassroots tax rebellion first typified by Proposition 13 in California 20 years ago.

Truth be told, Caldwell and Finkelstein merely use the South as an excuse for the failures of the Republican Part)’ since 1994. These failures were caused by a variety of factors, including the numerous blunders of Pennsylvania-born Newt Gingrich and the sinister brilliance of President Clinton and his advisors (including the Louisiana-born James Carville). In the fall of 1995, when it looked like the COP was heading toward sure victory in the 1996 elections, I was working at a newspaper in Rome, Georgia. Our city editor was a cynical character. When I remarked that the Republicans were almost certain to win, whomever they nominated for president in 1996, the city editor scoffed: “Who have the Republicans got? Who? Phil Gramm? Bob Dole? Who? Nobody. You can’t beat somebody with nobody, and the Republicans have got nobody.”

He was right, of course, even though he ended up voting for Dole. But the important insight is that elections are won by candidates, not trends. After 12 years of Reagan and Bush, GOP strategists in 1992 counted on a trend and were beaten by a candidate. Bill Clinton. In the wake of the “conservative revolution” of 1994, GOP strategists in 1996 again counted on a trend and were beaten by the same candidate. Trendmongers like Finkelstein and Caldwell ignore such lessons at their peril.

To the extent that Finkelstein and Caldwell have any influence in the Republican Party, however, this idea of the “Southern captivity” of the GOP is now conventional wisdom, and it portends an abandonment of the venerable “Southern strategy.” One thing is certain: It is unlikely that the Republican presidential candidate in 2000 will be waving around the Tenth Amendment during debates. If the recent record of the GOP establishment is any indication, the result will be another defeat, perhaps disastrous enough to sweep Democrats into control of both houses of Congress, at which point the political musings of Finkelstein and Caldwell will be moot.

With Al Gore as president and a Congress controlled by House Speaker Dick Gephardt and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, Finkelstein and Caldwell will get their wish: The influence of the South in such a government will certainly be minimal. For the rest of the us, however, the prospect of a federal government unshackled by any conservative counterweight will probably not be quite so welcome.