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Blinded by the right

My brother put the figure at $250,000 a year. If his income ever reached that level, he conjectured, it would be in his interest to vote Republican. On CNN's Crossfire, former NBA power forward Charles Barkley said he once joked with his grandmother about party affiliation. He asked her, "Why are we Democrats?" and when she responded that Republicans are only for the rich, he shot back: "I'm rich."

Since the Gilded Age, the Republican Party has been known as the party of wealth, and under President George W. Bush it is more aggressive than ever in serving the interests of the monied classes. Bush may use his State of the Union address to sell Congress on making his tax cuts permanent by crying crocodile tears for the "millions of families" that would lose a $300-per-child tax savings, but the populist rhetoric is cover for real beneficiaries of Bush's tax relief: people for whom $300 is a nice Christmas tip for the parking attendant at the club.

When tax cuts eliminate estate taxes on multimillion-dollar inheritances, reduce capital gains and dividend taxes and provide an average of $51,000 in income tax savings in 2003 alone for the nation's top 1 percent of earners, $300-per-child is nothing more than a pathetic bone tossed to the middle class so they will ignore how a starved federal Treasury is bleeding red ink.

When Bush is long gone, we'll wake to an America where grandma gets kicked out of the nursing home because Medicaid can no longer pay; Suzy can't afford college because Pell grants and loan guarantees have evaporated; the national parks cost as much to enter as Disney World; and Medicare doesn't have the funds for any "care" at all.

The ascendance of Republicans in control of all branches of the federal government has put the "We've Got Ours" party in charge. Wealth is to be preserved and hoarded, and as to sharing the bounty for the common good, well, the Grand Old Party doesn't mingle with anything "common."

So how did we get here? How did an elitist party of the privileged generate the popular support to go from controlling 11 state legislatures in 1982 to overtaking 21 today, as well as the entire federal government?

Just ask Richard Nixon.

In 1968, Nixon rode to office by slyly exploiting the residual bigotry of rural, white, Southern voters. His so-called Southern Strategy or "positive polarization" as the Nixon team called it, was based on dividing whites and blacks. By using code phrases from the Old Confederacy like "states' rights," and demonstrating antagonism toward civil rights, Nixon tapped into the anger white Southerners felt toward the Democratic Party.

The transformation of the South into a Republican stronghold was solidified when Ronald Reagan and other party leaders added religion to the mix. They morphed a party that used to believe in smaller government into a behemoth calling for government in the bedroom, in the womb, in the bookstore; and looking to install the church in public schools and statehouses. The success of using culture war issues to appeal to white Southerners culminated in the 2000 presidential election when Tennessean Al Gore didn't carry a single Southern state, not even his own.

Howard Dean has been at the forefront of trying to change this paradigm. His notorious line about wanting to be the candidate for "guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks" was an insightful point unartfully made. In an earlier speech, he added "their kids don't have health insurance either, and their kids need better schools, too." Dean is right that white Southerners can and must be made to understand that their long-term interests lie with the Democrats. The bread and butter domestic issues of jobs, education, health care, decent working conditions, a fair and progressive tax burden, and a social safety net for the elderly are at the core of the Democratic agenda. These concerns are consonant with those of any Joe Six-Pack, North or South, much more so than the overriding Republican interest in protecting capital.

But the South's tendency toward overt religiosity handicaps Democrats. The Democratic Party's tolerance for individual choices will probably never be attractive to the South. The region is obsessed with (outward) moral conformity. But maybe there's a chance at getting through by going beyond abortion and gays. Sen. John Edwards, to his credit, has been taking a shot at speaking in moral terms of the common values Democrats hold.

Edwards waxes over the virtue in honest labor and contrasts that with the craven actions of CEOs "who give themselves massive raises while cutting jobs." He reminds voters of how this president benefits the wealthy to the detriment of workers: "President Bush has a war on work. You see it in everything he does. He wants to eliminate every penny of tax on wealth, and shift the whole burden to people who work for a living. . . . It's wrong to tax millionaires less for playing the market than we tax soldiers for keeping America safe."

How can this not resonate with middle- and working-class Southern white voters? How can they continue to throw their support behind a party that represents their peripheral issues _ as Dean says, "race, guns, God and gays" _ but allows the undermining of our national tax system? This is the demographic group that has slipped furthest behind economically over the last 25 years. These are the people most likely to depend upon Social Security and Medicare _ the very programs that will need strong federal revenues in the future to survive.

If Southern white voters don't see through the Southern Strategy scam, wealthy Republicans who are indifferent to the plight of daily-grind wage earners, will once again successfully use appeals to racial fears and religiously grounded intolerance to pit people with common economic interests against one another. And they will be laughing all the way to the bank.