By Rod Miller
Climaxing a 25 year effort begun with the election of Ronald Reagan, with the elections of 2002 and 2004 the Republican party has succeeded in ascending to firm majority status. The Presidency, Congress, Governorships - all are dominated by one party to a degree not seen since Democrat rule during the New Deal. Southerners have been the linchpin, with this region having completed a transition 40 years in the making from solidly Democrat to the most reliably Republican voting bloc in the nation. Absent the South, America today would have politics and government much more like that of our socialist neighbor to the north, Canada. Cultural and social issues, recently coined "God, guns and gays" have been the impetus for this historic realignment and remain the reason for Republican dominance in Dixie. Whether it is gun owners concerned about the First Amendment rights or religious conservatives defensive about homosexual 'marriage,' middle class cultural conservatives make up most of the Republican base in "red states." Long-standing GOP strategy, made famous in the most recent national election campaign by the machinations of "the architect," Bush advisor Karl Rove, has brilliantly fused populist, cultural conservatives to the interests of big business --with electoral turnout of the former being key. Indeed, it is quite plausible to argue that millions of lower and middle class folks have eschewed their economic self-interest to register a vote against gays, and in defense of God and guns.
But just how joined at the hip are cultural conservatives with the agenda of big business? Lately Republican leaders in D.C. seem determined to find out. The first two major pieces of legislation of Bush's second term have been daggers aimed squarely at the lower and middle class. Both the class action and bankruptcy "reform" bills were literally written by corporate lobbyists. In the case of the latter, Congress and the President went out of their way to beat up on those affected by catastrophic medical bills, job loss, or divorce --the root causes of most consumer bankruptcies. In doing so, they utterly failed to address the consumer credit industry's granting of credit with reckless abandon. (And talk about perverse incentives: by making bankruptcy harder, Congress has now reduced what little incentive credit card companies had to pull back on the fast and loose marketing of credit.) Coupled with other factors now facing the middle class, like job losses caused by reckless "free trade" agreements, the skyrocketing cost of healthcare, the lack of health insurance, and the ever-increasing cost of necessities from gas to milk, the end result may be working families who are deeply in debt "going underground" (e.g., working "under the table," moving, or having their phone shut off to avoid merciless creditors). It may also be more home foreclosures, divorces, or even suicides.
Is this what middle class cultural conservatives from America's poorest region bargained for? We voted with the hope of less government, but have seen exponential growth in the size of government. We voted for fiscal restraint, but have seen record deficits. We voted to protect traditional marriage, but have seen no movement to pass the Federal Marriage Amendment. We hope for border control, but in ignorance of the lessons of 9/11 have seen a total failure to address the immigration invasion. Other than the crass effort to politicize the tragic Terry Schiavo case, all we have seen from Congress and President Bush since the election are laws which undermine the middle class while enriching business interests and the wealthy elite.
Whether the Republican party's current ascendancy becomes a permanent realignment or is the party's high water mark will depend on whether the party refocuses on the concerns of middle class, populist conservatives. If the Democrats manage to regroup, drop the far-left activism on social issues and develop a cogent middle class economic program, the GOP could be in for a wake-up call. As Governor Tim Pawlenty (R-Minnesota) has observed, Republicans "need to be the party of Sam's Club, not just the country club." As the middle class continues to get squeezed from so many directions, this distinction will define the fortunes of the Republican party in the early 21st Century.
-- Rod Miller is an attorney in Cleveland, Tennessee.