It was six short, precious years ago that former Georgia governor and senator Zell Miller wrote "A National Party No More", which warned that the Democratic Party of which he claimed to be a member was in clear peril of being marginalized. Or, as the product description over at Amazon puts it so succinctly:
With the growl of the Marine sergeant he was, Senator Zell Miller leaves no doubt that he believes his own Democratic Party is badly out of step with most of the country and needs to shape up or ship out.
Of course, believing something, and something actually being true are not exactly the same thing.
However, Miller was prescient in one way. He correctly warned America of a political party bent on its own self-destruction, risking complete irrelevance in the process.
He only missed on one small element--he got the identification of the political party wrong.
Perhaps it was all a matter of geography. Miller, a product of the rural South, may have made the mistake of believing that the political attitudes of his friends and neighbors in exurban and rural Georgia were somehow predictive of the nation writ large. But evidence is mounting that the solidly red South, far from a bellwether, is rather an outlier in understanding what "real America" thinks about the issues of the day.
In a must-read piece for National Journal, former LA Times political chief Ron Brownstein outlines how the Republican Party is now, by all right, growing into a Southern regional entity.
Readers to Daily Kos have heard that thesis tossed out before. Yesterday, in the write up for our weekly tracking poll, DemfromCT pointed out a quote from a Daily Kos piece from over a year ago which stated the following:
The Republicans, under George W. Bush, have succeeded in remaking themselves from a national party into a regional party (the South).
This graph, from the National Journal piece, shows the unreal disparity in presidential elections between the South (defined as National Journal as the eleven states of the old Confederacy plus Oklahoma and Kentucky) and the other states of the Union:
Notice, in particular, how both Al Gore and John Kerry had reasonably comfortable leads outside of the South that were more than offset by that single region of the nation.
At the Congressional level, the disparities are, if possible, even more stark. In the United States Senate, Republicans control 19 of the 26 seats in the South. Outside the South, Democrats control 53 seats. The GOP controls just 21 seats outside of the South.
What this means, in a nutshell, is that outside of the South, Democrats come very close to controlling three-quarters of the seats in the United States Senate.
While the ratios are not quite as stark in the more localized House of Representatives, the statistics are still pretty damning. Since the mid-1990s, the majority of the GOP House delegation has come from the South. According to National Journal, the last time that was true was during Reconstruction, when many old-line Democrats were barred from serving because of their service to the Confederacy (this was also the brief moment in history when the South sent African-American members to the United States Congress like Senators Hiram Rhodes Revels and Blanche Bruce).
The primacy of social politics in modern conservatism (as covered in Thomas Frank's 2004 book "What's The Matter With Kansas") has solidified its position in the South, but may well have done the party irreparable damage elsewhere.
As outlined here last week, Republican presidential performance in the suburbs, relative to average national performance, has been eroding consistently over the past decade or so.
It is hard not to suspect some connective tissue between the ascendancy of the GOP in the American South and their descent elsewhere. Especially when one looks at the polling data on what issues Americans believe are of the utmost political importance.
The political trinity that seems to define Republican social conservatism is "God, guns, and gays." Somewhere along the line, the Republican Party grew convinced that social conservatism along those lines was the ticket not only to locking down the South, but winning over middle-class voters elsewhere.
It worked in the South, where even Democratic candidates at the federal level feel the need to toe the line on the trinity listed above. But, nationally, their decision to put social issues at the top of the list in terms of issue-based talking points has been disastrous.
It is not that America necessarily is in solid dissent with the GOP on these issues. Indeed, on issues like gun rights, gay rights, and abortion, the GOP position could either be classified as the narrow majority position or a significant minority position.
Where the GOP loses voters by emphasizing social conservatism is in the fact that voters just don't think these issues are of paramount importance, and the Republicans risk looking like the party of misplaced priorities by campaigning on them as vehemently as they do.
Consider this Time Magazine poll from June of 2008. The date, incidentally, is chosen intentionally because it predated the worst of the economic crisis that wound up dominating the public conversation close to the election.
What follows are the percent of Americans who found the issue in question either extremely important or very important:
The Nation's Economy--94%
The War In Iraq--86%
Strengthening Social Security/Medicare--74%
So-Called "Values Issues" Such As Abortion and Gay Marriage--47%
To put it succinctly--the voters of America do not care about the trinity of social conservatism nearly as much as the Republican Party thinks that they do. And they have paid a steep political price for that miscalculation.
Furthermore, this trend towards southern concentration in the party also presents a problematic dilemma for the GOP. As Ron Brownstein writes:
That dynamic has threatened Republicans with a spiral of concentration and contraction. Because the party has lost so much ground elsewhere, the South represents an increasing share of what remains -- both in Congress and in its electoral coalition. The party's increasing identification with staunch Southern economic and social conservatism, however, may be accelerating its decline in more-moderate-to-liberal areas of the country, including the Northeast and the West Coast. "Many of the things they have done to become the dominant party in the South have caused them to be less successful in other places," said veteran Democratic strategist Bill Carrick, a South Carolina native.
Therein lies the challenge for the GOP, one that no one could reasonably envy. To moderate the party, as candidates like Charlie Crist might represent, would risk alienating the one demographic group that still remains steadfastly in the Republican Party's corner. Alas, to stay the course risks making it immeasurably more difficult to lure back a coalition capable of attaining a Congressional majority or 270 electoral votes in three years.
It is not an easy call, and it is undoubtedly going to be the source of an endless procession of circular firing squads as the Republican Party stumbles into 2010 and 2012.