A stunning photograph shows a rutted dirt road splitting rows of blooming peach trees like a thick brown knife. Against the neutral sky, the ethereal pink of the peach blossoms seems corrupted by the road; as if someone had spilled something nasty on one of those flowing, pastel-tinted dresses favored by Southern belles in Hollywood's idealization of a place and time that exist only in the American imagination. Taken on a farm in Edgefield County, South Carolina the image's contrasts unwittingly represent those of its region. Google Edgefield County images and you find bucolic rural scenes, an antebellum brick courthouse, and men posing around a dangling black corpse.
Strom Thurmond came from this place located near the Georgia border, the home of nine other state governors. It is symbolic that many surrounding towns have the suffix crossroads--Sullivan Crossroads, Millers Crossroads, Marthas Crossroads-for Thurmond also made himself a crossroad during his century-long life, in the process helping to remake America.
The Southern Manifesto and the Origins of the Counterrevolution
That crossroad lay in a singular document, The Southern Manifesto. To someone probing the American past like anthropologists probe Olduvai Gorge, the Manifesto represents the equivalent of the missing link in the evolution of the Republican Counterrevolution.
While history still associates defense of segregation with the Manifesto, not as well-recognized are its other philosophical underpinnings. What is its most famous sentence laid the groundwork for much of what was to come:
We decry the Supreme Court's encroachment on the rights reserved to the States and to the people, contrary to established law, and to the Constitution.
In her fascinating study of the Dixiecrat rebellion, historian Kari Frederickson persuasively argues that the values preached by Thurmond metamorphosed into the beliefs of the Republican Counterrevolution.
Thurmond and the Dixiecrats represented a reaction to the modern welfare state," she writes, "that over time would reach a broader audience frightened by school desegregation decisions, fair housing laws, and race riots.
There is something else about the Manifesto; it represented an intersection between the long-standing opposition of Big Business to government meddling in its affairs and the South's objection to its meddling in the affairs of the states. If the federal government could tell the South what to do even to the point of marching James Meredith through the front door of the University of Mississippi, could it not do the same at some manufacturing plant?
It is notable that Harry Dent, the Thurmond aide who held a bucket outside the Senate chambers in case Thurmond needed to relieve himself during his record filibuster against the Civil Rights Bill, should become one of the chief architects of Richard Nixon's Southern Strategy and a Nixon Presidential staff member.
While it was Nixon who first courted and cemented an alliance with Thurmond it was Ronald Reagan who truly laid the groundwork for the Counterrevolution. The most prominent photograph at the website for Clemson's Thurmond Institute of Government and Politics shows Thurmond standing with a smiling Reagan. In The Rise of Southern Republicans, Earl and Merle Black make a convincing case, backed by a daunting number of charts and tables, that it was Reagan who truly solidified the South for the GOP.
Reagan's genius lay in taking Thurmond's states' rights philosophy and dressing it in respectable clothes, turning it into opposition to "big government." Employing anti-government rhetoric that mirrored Thurmond, the GOP reversed the country's perceptions about government as a force for equity and turned it into the enemy of the people.
Reagan remade what had been a Southern movement into a national one, creating a new version of the old New Deal coalition by uniting the old laissez-faire business types who had characterized the party for most of the twentieth century, Thurmond's converted Southerners, and the social conservatism of the religious right. From the election of Ronald Reagan to the defeat of John McCain this coalition dominated American politics even during the Democratic Presidency of Bill Clinton.
At its heart lay the beliefs of the Manifesto which in part grew from Thurmond's long-standing opposition to the reforms of the New Deal. Running in his last campaign he would proclaim:
I shall not give up on our mission to right the 40-year wrongs of liberalism.
The Growth of Suburbia
What helped to make the Counterrevolution possible was the most unprecedented, government-sponsored mass social movement in American history--the growth of the suburb. By deliberately condoning the creation of all-white communities that prohibited people of color, the federal government created a fertile environment for the ideas of the Manifesto and later the Reagan Counterrevolution.
Suburbanites became the fourth, and in many ways the most crucial, element of the Counterrevolutionary Coalition. Racist housing policies enabled the Southern Strategy to assume not merely a regional but a national base. Elements of Thurmond's Southern Manifesto that became gospel for the Counterrevolution now had a far-reaching appeal.
An influential 1992 Atlantic article by William Schneider, currently a member of the conservative Hudson Institute who serves as political commentator for CNN, captured it with the title, "The Suburban Century Begins." Schneider cited impressive statistics to bolster his argument. In 1960, the suburbs provided one third of the national vote, voting slightly more Republican than Democratic. By 1988 they accounted for 48% of the vote, with 28% for the Republicans and 20% for the Democrats.
Eerily echoing Strom Thurmond, Schneider described suburban voters as
Suspicious of programs aimed at creating social change rather than providing public services.
The Unraveling of the Coalition
The mortgage crisis stimulated the dissatisfaction of the crucial suburban portion of the coalition. Suddenly as For Sale signs sprouted like dandelions up and down suburban streets the suburbanites who had formed the glue that held the Reagan coalition together began to have doubts.
On top of this were the budget cuts made at both a national and state level that the GOP consciously designed so they put control of government expenses at the local level--a position, by the way, long advocated by one Strom Thurmond. As local school districts and cities were forced to either raise taxes or cut services, suddenly suburbanites saw the consequences of the Counterrevolution at first hand. It was one thing when government cut welfare and other social programs for people of color, but another when it was white suburban schools, police and fire departments.
The first rumblings of this came with the momentum-shifting 2006 election. As the results came in the pundits began to notice that Democrats were making gains in what once had been ceded as Republican territory. USA Today published the relevant data:
Democrats carried nearly 60% of the U.S. House vote in inner suburbs in the nation's 50 largest metropolitan areas, up from about 53% in 2002, according to the analysis by the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech.
They received nearly 55% of the vote in the next ring of "mature" 20- and 30-year-old suburbs, with 45% going to Republicans and third-party candidates. In 2002, the last midterm election, Democrats received 50% of the vote there.
Ironically at the time, many in the GOP fell for the liberal Democratic explanation that this shift was due to the Iraq War and once that was over the Republicans would again be in control. That theory was blown to smithereens by the election of Barack Obama.
Strom Thurmond would have been rolling his eyes at the thought that an African American should capture the suburbs and make inroads into what had once been known as the Solid South.
The Defection of the South
Half a century ago, Fannie Lou Hamer and others had a dream that African Americans could truly become a political force in the South because other than in the Northern inner cities, the main areas where they are a majority or near majority lie in the South. When Hamer and others organized the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, they did so with the idea of creating similar parties in other states that would seize the South from the segregationists.
In November, 2008 Hamer's dream came true in way not even she could have imagined--the election of the first African-American President. Southern states were critical in securing the presidential nomination for Obama. It was in the South that he piled up some of his most impressive primary victories including Thurmond's home state of South Carolina.
In the election he shattered the Solid South winning North Carolina and Virginia. On the eve of the election the Institute for Southern Studies was still classing Georgia and Florida as swing states. In an influential essay "A New South Rising," the Institute spelled out the new realities in the South:
The 2008 elections provided two important lessons about the South, clear to any willing to see them: First, the South is rapidly changing in a way that makes it a more -- not less -- politically competitive region.
And second, despite the fevered hopes of certain wings of the Northern intelligentsia, the South's political clout is rapidly growing -- making the South a centerpiece of any strategy for national political power.
The Institute attributed this to the growing urbanization of the South, a new generation of white voters who no longer bought Thurmond's values, and the realization of Fannie Lou Hamer's dream.
In fact, African-American voters are the biggest reason why this map from The New York Times -- which includes counties which voted more Democratic -- looks like it does, with a strong band of blue running through the South.
This map highlights the ultimate irony in the Counterrevolution, for by embracing the ideology of the Manifesto it now finds itself facing the very real danger of becoming a regional party.
The Religious Right
Ironically this may aid the one element of the Counterrevolutionary Coalition that many people had written off--the religious right. Although GOP arch-conservative Rush Limbaugh avoided any mention of the religious right or the so-called social issues that drive it in his jeremiad to conservative Republicans, they are the main source of strength for the candidate many believe has the inside track for the next election--Sarah Palin.
This February the Pew Institute hosted a forum on the "Religious Vote in the 2008 Election." Reviewing the exit polling data, the Institute concluded:
Weekly attending white evangelical Protestants were the strongest Republican group in 2008, as in 2004.
Barack Obama won a solid victory, particularly compared with the 2000 presidential election. But it shouldn't surprise us that changes were not that large within many religious groups because there just wasn't that much overall change.
If the religious vote did not change, where were all the pundits who had written overwrought pieces about "values voters" as the key to 2004? They did not get it then and they do not get it now. The power of the religious right--and its Achilles Heel--has always stemmed from its bleak view of human nature, that human beings are by nature sinful creatures without grace that will wallow in degradation, perversity, and depravity.
Former GOP leader Tom DeLay captured this quite well:
Simply put, the problem is within ‑ rather than outside of ‑ us, because as the Judeo‑Christian tradition has always taught we enter this world flawed and inclined to do the wrong thing. If one accepts this perspective, then one is also likely to recognize that, as one author recently phrased it, only two forces hold the sinful nature in check: the restraint of conscience or the restraint of the sword. The less that citizens have the former, the more the state must employ the latter.
This view seemed to grip many people after 9/11, but I believe what turned the country around was Katrina. Many on the religious right saw Katrina as God's judgment on this country, which made them seem not only more out in left field than usual but also more cold-hearted. With Katrina it was as if this country were shocked awake from a deep slumber and awoke to realize what had become of their country.
How can a map like the one above change so dramatically in so short a time? One answer is that the map is only temporary and that the Counterrevolution will reassert itself. One way that could happen might come from the fourth member of the coalition--Big Business, but right now Big Business is none too popular.
In many states the GOP is falling back on an old mantra, "Tax and Spend," accusing the newly resurgent Democrats of really being what they used to call "big government liberals." This element in the Republican Party believes that they can regain the advantage by showing that the Democrats' answer to the current economic crisis is an old one of more government programs and more taxes.
The problem with this approach is that it is not for anything, but merely fighting what has always been a straw effigy. They had people believing the effigy was real for many years, but that will not be as easy twenty years after Ronald Reagan said government was the problem because right now for many people government appears to be the only hope.
Political parties have disappeared before in America and the main reason has always been economic or that the party was a splinter group with a narrow agenda. The natural impulse now for Republicans is to take to heart Rush Limbaugh's message and circle the wagons, becoming more ideological. If they do that they will become a minority.
Instead they might draw inspiration from one of their own who in a time of similar economic upheaval won two terms in the White House--Theodore Roosevelt. They might also draw inspiration from another GOP two-termer whose middle-of-the-road philosophy also won him two terms--Dwight Eisenhower.
The peach blossoms are blooming again in Edgefield, which provides a temptation to throw in an outrageous pun about the current outlook for the Democrats, but that pun would neither be accurate nor wise. Democrats should not be so smug about this state of affairs.
The Counterrevolution achieved many of its victories because of the collusion of Democrats. What is still one of the most influential groups in the Democratic Party--the Democratic Leadership Council was created by Southerners who wanted to take the party to the right. Tax cuts, the Iraq War, the Patriot Act, and the repeal of Glass-Steagall were all passed by Democrats as well as Republicans. To some people the Counterrevolution has only been handed off from one party to another. Let us hope this is not the case.
Democrats should also take caution from another reason for the current state of the Republican Party--its hubris. The Party had preached for so long that it was the "real majority" that it began to believe by mistakenly assuming it spoke for the American people.
The Republicans need to decide if they will allow themselves to become a regional and/or narrow ideological party. The Limbaughs and the Sarah Palins may believe the religious right and the raucous right hold the map to the future, but that map leads off a cliff into political oblivion or into a box canyon with no way out and starvation a real possibility. The party of Abraham Lincoln deserves a better fate.