The “Southern Strategy” rises again

August 6, 2012

Deepa Kumar, author of Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire, explains why Mitt Romney's anti-Palestinian slur wasn't another misspeak.

WHEN REPUBLICAN presidential candidate Mitt Romney stated that Israel's "culture" was responsible for the country's superior economic development compared to other countries of the Middle East, he was simply recycling an argument long used to explain Black poverty in the U.S.

African Americans were poor, it was argued, because of a "culture of poverty" and a "pathology" which leads them to have children out of wedlock or become dependent on welfare. This framework, developed a few decades ago, became a staple part of U.S. political rhetoric, with both Republicans (Reagan's infamous statements about "welfare queens") and Democrats (Clinton's kept promise to "end welfare as we know it") using it to further their electoral campaigns.

So it's not surprising that Romney should chose to rehash this argument in the Palestinian context: It's Arab "culture" that is responsible for the economic misery that Palestinians live under, right? Occupation has nothing to do with it. What we see at work here is not only a rehashing of old Orientalist frames, but the addition of Arabs and Muslims to the Republicans' so-called "Southern strategy."

Mitt Romney at a press conference in Jerusalem
Mitt Romney at a press conference in Jerusalem

Cultivated in the 1960s and '70s, the GOP's "Southern Strategy" was a means by which white voters in the South could be won over by subtler appeals to anti-Black racism. African American men were coded as criminals to be locked up, and a new form of racial control was born. Richard Nixon and later Ronald Reagan exploited the fear of "lawlessness," supposedly brought on by the civil right movements, as a way to position the GOP as "tough on crime" and to win Southern whites away from the Democratic Party. Appealing to white working-class voters' anxieties about what desegregation would mean for them economically, the GOP also argued against welfare.

The election of Barack Obama in 2008, and Democratic victories in Southern states like Virginia and North Carolina that year, signaled a blow to the old "Southern strategy." Yet if Obama's African American roots were no longer going to be as useful to his Republican opponents, his Muslim familial connections would quickly rise to prominence.

Obama was accused during his campaign of being a "secret Muslim," a charge that would come back again and again, reaching a crescendo during the "Ground Zero mosque" controversy in 2010. Around 18 percent of the public believed Obama was a Muslim, --according to a 2010 poll. This figure remains about the same today, but larger numbers of conservative GOP voters (34 percent) identify Obama as Muslim in 2012 than in 2008 (when the number was 16 percent).

THE NEW GOP Southern Strategy now highlights Muslims and Arabs as the key threats to national security and "law and order," even while the old one lingers on. The new strategy is not subtle in its racist appeals in the way that anti-Black racism had to be in the post-civil rights era. It is much more blatant drawing upon a long history of bipartisan attacks on Arabs and Muslims.

Thus, Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) is raising money for his re-election campaign in part by trumpeting the endorsement of a libertarian blogger who claims Obama is Muslim. Similarly, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann's accusation that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's aide Huma Abedin is a Muslim Brotherhood (MB) agent is part of the same approach--of appealing to the Republican base (about 25 percent of the electorate) which holds far-right-wing values.

For this base, Romney is not a candidate they can get excited about (as was evident in the GOP presidential primaries). When Bachmann accused Abedin of infiltrating the government on behalf of the Brotherhood, she was both employing McCarthyite-style fear-mongering tactics and positioning the Republican Party and Romney as a "lesser evil" for Republican supporters. That is, if Romney is not the darling of the far right, he is certainly better than a Democratic Party infiltrated by Muslim agents (be they Obama or Abedin).

Bachmann's attack on Abedin and its ringing endorsement by Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and the far-right-wing media apparatus demonstrated that she could corral this base and bring them along on a Romney-Bachmann ticket. When asked on CNN about her vice presidential ambitions, Bachmann coyly replied that it was not her decision to make. More recently, John Bolton (a key Romney foreign policy adviser) expressed disagreement at the pushback Bachmann was facing and came to her defense.

None of us should be surprised if Romney does indeed make Bachmann his choice for vice president. Yet it is worthwhile to note that it was none other than the 2008 Republican nominee John McCain who began the attack on Bachmann. Perhaps recognizing the pitfalls of his Sarah Palin adventure, McCain seems to be sounding the alarm of including politically inexperienced, verbally inept, far-right Tea Party candidates on a presidential slate. Dick Cheney similarly weighed in, advising Romney not to pick Sarah Palin as his running mate.

Whatever Bachmann's future may hold, anti-Muslim racism is going to play a part in the GOP's strategy this election year. But don't expect Obama and the Democrats to debunk this by taking a principled anti-racist position. Romney has been squealing that Obama has betrayed the country by leaking national security secrets. Obama outflanked Romney from the right by revealing his "kill lists," thereby demonstrating that he can be "tough on terror."

The range of debate at the top of society is going to be stiflingly narrow unless we build social movements that can challenge and speak out against Islamophobia.

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