Let them Die Poor, Lonely and Young, as Long as They Vote Republican

David Paul
8 min readSep 5, 2023

In 2005, Republican Party Chairman Ed Mehlman met with the NAACP at its annual convention, and formally apologized for the Republican Party embrace of Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy and its efforts to amplify racial polarization as a means to gain and hold political power.

One might have imagined that Mehlman should have made a similar apology to the other targets of Nixon’s Southern Strategy, the white working class voters whose prejudices and hatreds Republicans had preyed upon since the 1960s. After all, it was the founder of the Republican Party, Abraham Lincoln, who had implored a nation on the verge of a civil war over the issue of slavery to allow the better angels of our nature to prevail over our deepest fears and prejudices. A hundred years after that speech, the Republican Party chose to turn its back on his words, and embarked on a path to power that deliberately leveraged those fears and prejudices.

Even in the moment, Mehlman’s apology was weak and hypocritical. While his boss, President George W. Bush, may have eschewed the coded racial language that by then had become customary in Republican presidential campaigns, he clearly appreciated the value of demonization and hate as a motivational tool for turning out southern, rural, and working class white voters on Election Day. In his winning reelection campaign just months before Mehlman appeared before the NAACP, Bush had pivoted from the strategy of demonizing Blacks that his father and Ronald Reagan had used to win the Oval Office, to demonizing gays and lesbians; and it had worked like a charm. Among the ironies of the GOP’s effective anti-gay campaign in the 2004 presidential race were that Ed Mehlman, then Bush’s campaign manager, was gay, as was the father of his chief campaign strategist, Karl Rove.

The Southern Strategy was initially developed as an effort to lure southern, rural and working class voters who had been alienated by the civil rights legislation and anti-war activism of the 1960s to the Republican Party. The math was simple: Whites represented a far larger share of the electorate than Blacks, and Republican strategists recognized that the GOP could become the dominant majority political party if it traded its traditional support among Blacks and northeastern liberals for a larger share of the white vote that had for generations been loyal Democrats.

As GOP svengali Lee Atwater explained a few years later, a key to the effective implementation of the new GOP strategy was crafting campaign rhetoric and policy positions that could play to the racial animus of the GOP’s new coalition partners without making the Republican candidates themselves sound overtly racist. This type of coded racial language, which became known as “dog whistles,” has been essential to Republican success over the past half-century. It was the logic behind Richard Nixon’s Law and Order campaign to win southern voters away from the presidential campaign of Alabama Governor George Wallace. Ronald Reagan mastered the use of racial dog whistles with his speeches embracing states’ rights, and his folksy homilies about welfare cheats and young bucks living high on the hog on food stamps, themes that continue to resonate today.

It all begged a question that continues to loom large: what do Republican candidates actually believe? Was Ronald Reagan a racist who believed in the Lost Cause that continues to animate southern politics, or was it all an act to garner votes. There was a time when the Republican Party stood for things, but those days are long gone. Ask your average old school Republican what their party stands for, and they will still prattle on about fiscal conservatism, small government, and American leadership in the world.

But none of it is true anymore, and it hasn’t been for a long time. Donald Trump may have layered on more debt than any president in history, but, as Dick Cheney explained twenty years ago, it was Ronald Reagan who proved that deficits don’t matter. Fiscal conservatism may remain immutably ingrained in the Republican imagination, but as a practical matter, it has become little more than a cudgel used to hammer Democrats.

And there was a time when the Party of Lincoln was the party of civil rights. But who today remembers that the GOP was once the party of civil rights and civil liberties, back when the Democrats were the party of Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan, or that over 80% of Republicans in Congress supported the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, while it was the southern Democrats who resisted to the bitter end.

But that was a long time ago. Back before the Southern Strategy and the Reagan Revolution remade American politics. And the proof was in the pudding: racism worked. In 1960, then-Vice President Richard Nixon lost the presidency to John F. Kennedy in one of the closest elections in history. In that race, Nixon lost the popular vote to John F. Kennedy 49.7% to 49.5%, while winning 51% of the white vote and 32% of the Black vote. Twelve years later, after the full flowering of the Southern Strategy, Nixon ran the table. In a 49 state Electoral College landslide, Nixon won 60.7% of the popular vote to George McGovern’s 37.5%, while winning 68% of the white vote and just 13% of the Black vote.

It was a dark and cynical strategy, but for the millionaires and billionaires whose money funded GOP campaigns it was a stroke of genius. They gave up next to nothing but their political souls as Republicans sought out ever more creative ways to plumb the depths of racial animus in the American psyche and, in return, secured the votes for tax cuts, and industry deregulation and protection, that enriched them beyond their dreams.

For the white working class and Christian evangelicals on the other hand, the political trade was a disaster. Before their migration to the GOP, southern and working class whites wielded considerable power within the Democratic Party and in Congress. For much of the 20th century, those voters constituted its economic populist base. Southern Democrats dominated the powerful appropriations committees in Congress, where they delivered social programs and economic investment that directly benefited their constituents.

That all came to a screeching halt when those voters allowed themselves to be lured by the worst angels of their nature into the Republican camp. Their votes may have powered the Reagan Revolution and Republican majorities over the ensuing decades, but they found themselves part of a political party and political coalition that cared little or nothing for their prospects in life. One does not have to be a Marxist to know that in a partnership between America’s Plutocrats, and its largely less educated working class, the working class was going to get the short end of the stick. In the words of right-wing social critic Sohrab Amari, the GOP strategy enabled “the domination of working- and middle-class people by the owners of capital, the asset-less by the asset-rich.”

The changes in the national economy as the political balance of power shifted to the right saw millions of jobs shipped overseas, helped to turn millionaires into billionaires, and launched an era of global wage competition that contributed to the steady decline in real incomes for less educated American workers, even as those with college and advanced degrees thrived, as illustrated in the graphic here.

The rise of Donald Trump cannot be understood apart from the economic plight of non-college educated workers, and white men in particular, who would become the core of his MAGA supporters. As illustrated in the graphic below, in the 1960s, the labor force participation rate — the percent of a population with a job or looking for one — was uniformly high, 95% or more, across all levels of education. As the economic circumstances in their communities declined from stagnation into depression over the ensuing decades, millions of those less educated white men exited the labor force, as the labor force participation rate among those workers dropped to 70% or below.

And declining labor force participation was just the tip of the iceberg. All of the data on success in the globalized modern economy is now tightly linked to educational attainment. Incomes rise and unemployment rates fall as a function of educational attainment. The ability to find a partner and sustain a stable marriage is increasingly tied to educational attainment. Even life expectancy is linked to educational attainment, as less educated white men can expect to die significantly younger than their more educated peers. Data now suggests that the life expectancy for adults who finished college is nearly a decade longer than those without a high school degree.

By the time Donald Trump arrived on the scene, the voters that he would soon galvanize as the heart of his MAGA movement had become political pariahs. Hillary Clinton deemed them to be deplorable. Mitt Romney was contemptuous of them. And Jeb Bush, the presumptive Republican nominee early on in the 2016 presidential race, labeled them as losers in life. In contrast, Trump’s rallies were filled with raucous joy as he declared that he loved them, as he rained contempt on Jeb Bush and the Republican establishment that had shipped middle class jobs overseas, and let immigrants into the country to take their jobs.

If the economic plight of non-college educated workers and their families laid the groundwork for Donald Trump’s rise, it was the GOP embrace of racist language and imagery — however coded — that ultimately sanctioned Trump’s embrace of those who marched in Charlottesville. One can draw a direct line from Ronald Reagan’s imagery of welfare queens in 1980 to the lyrics of Oliver Anthony’s viral MAGA World anthem “Rich Men North of Richmond.”

Today, billionaire GOP donors are panicking. They don’t believe Trump can win, and seem a bit skittish about publicly endorsing him, with the indictments and all. But they are delusional if they think it is their Republican Party anymore. Today, more than 60% of Republicans are non-college educated whites, up from less than 50% a decade ago. They are now firmly in charge, they are angry, and there is no one elsethey trust. Give it time, those donors will come around.

Would things have been different if the Republican Party had changed course twenty years ago? Should Republicans have recognized that the white working class were also victims of the Southern Strategy, and apologized more profusely for the perfidy of their strategy. Perhaps, but they never did. Do those voters now know the truth, that Republican bigwigs never cared one whit about them? They needed their votes to get their tax cuts, and did not care if they died poor, lonely and young along the way.



David Paul

Financial advisor to city and state governments. Lifelong Red Sox fan (don't hold it against me).