The strange mystery of the Southern GOP

I’ve been thinking a lot about the political “right” these days, and that’s caused me to remember some things from way back. My dad was a Stevenson Democrat and had little use for Dwight Eisenhower. He didn’t do a lot of talking about politics, but he would get riled up sometimes during the televised conventions. He was a labor guy and regarded the GOP as representing rich people, the “silk stockings.” He absolutely hated Richard Nixon, but then, who didn’t in 1960?

Kennedy in Grand Rapids

John Kennedy in Grand Rapids, October 14, 1960.

On October 14th of 1960, John Kennedy was running for President and came to Grand Rapids to campaign and support a Democrat running for governor. The car route went through the far reaches of our neighborhood, so we all walked a mile or so down Silver Street to Burton Street to watch the motorcade as it made its way downtown. Kennedy was mesmerizing, and all of America was in love with him. We weren’t any different, and I’ll never forget that experience. He was perched atop the back seat of a 4-door convertible, and we all had a good view.

It’s occurred to me how far things have swung since those days, when there was a clear political line dividing the haves from the have-nots. The awful deaths of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy in 1968 led to riots everywhere, and Nixon came in as the law-and-order guy. Gerald Ford was definitely of the silk stocking group, and he didn’t last, but events were stirring in the South that would change everything.

First, Jimmy Carter, a peanut farmer from Georgia, was elected President. What a disaster.

Then, the rise of the televangelists in the late 70s and early 80s led to a remarkable shift. There was suddenly no such thing as a “Conservative Democrat” anymore, and moral issues such as abortion and prayer in schools were cleverly exploited by the GOP to build a new allegiance in the South. I played a part in this as Senior Producer of The 700 Club. Turns out the televangelists were also courting the wealthy side of the GOP, further cementing the relationship. You pat my back and I’ll pat yours. That’s not to suggest anything disingenuous on the part of the religious right; it was just very convenient.

Today, I’m afraid that many of my neighbors here in Alabama and in other places I’ve worked since I first set foot south of the Mason-Dixon line in 1979 are still conservative, as they were all those years ago. However, they’ve switched parties now, and I keep wondering when they’ll figure out that “their” party still represents corporate America, the wealthy, and the silk stockings of old. Evangelical Christianity is second nature down here, and one of the most common expressions is “God bless you.” Any politician worth his salt would never challenge the faithful, and that means those awful “liberal democrats” are the enemy. It seems impossible to crack that ignorance, and my dad would be amazed. “Poor people in the GOP? What are they thinking?” It seems to me they are being used by smart people who know what buttons to push publicly while quietly voting to keep the rural poor just as poor as they’ve always been and then blaming the Democrats’ spending.

Let me tell you, friends. There’s such a profound set of lies floating around down here that I just don’t see how it can last.

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