President Obama divides with a Nixonian-style ax
In 1968, Richard M. Nixon famously swept to a national election victory, aided in large measure by his infamous Southern strategy — a derisive ploy to win large blocks of votes from southern whites by fomenting fear about the emergence of blacks in American society. The Nixon campaign's plan was both simple and cynical — break-up the durable Democratic stronghold that had dominated Southern politics since the Reconstruction by tying the Democratic Party to a Civil Rights movement that was deeply unpopular with Southern whites.
President Lyndon Johnson’s decision to sign the Civil Rights Act created the opening. Southern Democrats like Robert Byrd and Strom Thurmond were the most vehement opponents of the landmark law, filibustering and fighting and clawing to block its passage, while fanning the flames back home. But LBJ courageously brushed his party’s stalwarts aside, signing the Civil Rights Act and its companion voting rights law against a backdrop of wholesale upheaval from all points south of the Mason-Dixon Line.
It was LBJ’s finest hour.
Four short years later, LBJ was out of the race, but his presidential signature and unashamed support of the Civil Rights Act had irretrievably tied his party to certain political consequences. Nixon knew this, and from this his Southern strategy was born.
Nixon’s execution of the “Southern strategy” was something of a dance. He couldn’t play the role of George Wallace without losing support among white Republican voters in other regions who were profoundly committed to America’s civil rights push.
But Nixon stoked the fires of Southern angst just the same, equating civil rights unrest to something akin to random lawlessness, as he delicately parlayed racial strife and social discord into numerous Southern votes.
Elections in general, and presidential elections in particular, are won by one of two base human impulses — hope or fear. Tricky Dick knew this well. Never a cheery, pixie-dust kinda’ chap, he decided to ride the roiling waves of racial fear and social unrest all the way to the White House.
A lot has changed since the days of Nixon and LBJ, but the fundamentals of winning a national election are the same. There are still two paths to the White House: Harness the better angels of aspiration, or inflame the masses with messages of division and dread.
President Barack Obama, himself as shrewd a politician as has ever graced the national stage, knows this, too. In 2008, he was carried to victory on the wings of his better angels trumpeting promises of “hope” and “change.” Like Reagan and FDR, Obama harnessed the forces of optimism to carry the national election.
But things have changed since then. For Obama, hope and aspiration are rusted relics now.
Crestfallen by the cruel reality that his policies have made a mess of the government, the economy and the republic, Obama has a more cynical plan this time around. Like Nixon in ‘68, Obama in ‘12 will attempt to win with division and discord.
We heard it from the president’s lips during his State of the Union address: If only we can corral the capricious ambitions of the successful in our society, progress will be available to the masses.
The rich are bad, and we are good, sayeth Obama. Let us punish the rich in order to make things right. Obama the divider is in full-campaign form, and the divisive political ax he swings is unmistakably Nixonian.
Like Nixon, Obama will be forced to carefully choose his words as he pits one segment of society against another. After all, he needs a lot of campaign cash from Wall Street financiers in order to castigate Wall Street financiers. But Obama’s underlying strategy, like Nixon’s Southern strategy, will be obvious to the world just the same.
Obama needs a straw-man and a scapegoat, and he has found his target in the rich. Whether it works I guess will depend on whether the public sees Obama’s derisive ploy for what it is: an assault on the American Dream.
But Obama knows there is a very good chance that “divide and conquer” could work. In Nixon’s cynical Southern strategy, the president has ample historical proof.
Josh Penry is a former minority leader of the Colorado Senate. He is a graduate of Grand Junction High School and Mesa State College.