The Southern Strategy

Speaker of the House Michael Johnson is the latest product of Richard Nixon, Kevin Phillips and what we now refer to as “the Southern Strategy.”

Speaker Johnson is an avowed Christian Nationalist, an Evangelical who attributes his election as Speaker to God.

Johnson was formerly counsel to the Alliance Defense Fund–a far-right, Christianist organization deeply committed to the culture wars. (He authored the ADF’s brief in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, representing the baker who argued that baking a cake for a gay couple’s wedding would violate his religious freedom.)

As many media outlets have reported, Johnson was counsel to Louisiana Right to Life before starting his own legal firm, Freedom Guard, to “defend religious liberty, the sanctity of human life, marriage and the family.”

After the Supreme Court decided Obergefell, Johnson wrote for the magazine of the creationist organization Answers in Genesis that Christians would be increasingly “pressured to choose between their conscience and conformity.” He urged readers to read the Bible to discover “how God intends for us to live out our faith in a hostile world.” And “despite the radical secularists’ efforts to convince the public otherwise,” he argued, “it is not ‘bigotry’ to remind people of God’s claims on our lives and biological reality.” He also offered free legal services, through Freedom Guard, to any government officials, like justices of the peace, who feared they would “compromise their faith by issuing marriage licenses or solemnizing marriages under circumstances that conflict with their sincerely held religious beliefs.”

There’s much more (he’s also a Young Earth climate denialist), but why do I connect his  theocracy to the Southern Strategy? Answer: because it is all cut from the same cloth–the conviction that God intended America to be dominated/ruled by White (“European”) Christians.

Jamille Bouie outlined the Southern Strategy in an essay for the New York Times.

Phillips had worked as a strategist on Richard Nixon’s 1968 campaign, the experience of which supplied much of the material for his book. His argument was straightforward: Nixon’s victory wasn’t just a momentary triumph but the beginning of an epochal shift in American politics, fueled by a latent conservatism among many members of the white middle class. These voters were repulsed, Phillips wrote, by the Democratic Party’s “ambitious social programming and inability to handle the urban and Negro revolutions.”

The latter point was key. “The principal force which broke up the Democratic (New Deal) coalition is the Negro socioeconomic revolution and liberal Democratic ideological inability to cope with it,” Phillips declared. “The Democratic Party fell victim to the ideological impetus of a liberalism which had carried it beyond programs taxing the few for the benefit of the many (the New Deal) to programs taxing the many on behalf of the few (the Great Society).”

If one tallied Nixon’s share of the national popular vote, at 43.5 percent, and added it to the share won by the governor of Alabama, George Wallace, at 13.5 percent, then you had, in Phillips’s view, the makings of a conservative majority.

The Republican Party was revamped to wage culture war, to appeal to voters who see the world as an existential struggle between “us” and “them.”  The Southern Strategy defined “us” as White and “them” as people of color, and that racist element remains central, but it has been joined by bigotries against a wide variety of other “thems.” Jews, of course (history’s most durable villains); Muslims, LGBTQ people…Anyone who isn’t a White Christian Nationalist.

Every credible academic study done after the 2016 election confirmed the importance of racism to Trump’s (Electoral College) victory. Every subsequent poll and/or study has corroborated the deep divisions between values held by ordinary Americans and those held by respondents who self-describe as White Evangelical Christians.

During the 1968 Presidential campaign, Kevin Phillips reportedly told the journalist Garry Wills,“The whole secret of politics is knowing who hates who.”

Before he died, Phillips became a fierce critic of the Republican Party he’d done so much to create, but by then, hate had become part of the party’s DNA. As Bouie concluded his essay,

The Republican Party did not just win the white South in the years and decades after Phillips wrote “The Emerging Republican Majority.” Nor did it just become the party of the white South — or at least its most conservative elements. No, what happened is that the Republican Party Southernized, with a politics and an ideology rooted in some of the most reactionary — and ultimately destructive — tendencies of that political tradition.

So here we are– with a Speaker of the House who fully embraces those destructive, reactionary beliefs–a Speaker intent upon substituting White Christian Nationalism for a Constitution profoundly influenced by the Enlightenment.

It’s not a good omen….