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Politics in the South often based on fear

Want a formula for winning elections in the South? Fear + Hate - Transparency and Realism = Victory.

Candidates for governor and other high offices in the old South typically won elections by scaring the daylights out of the white majority.

The Talmadges, Herman and Gene, crisscrossed Georgia warning that Yankee carpetbaggers and homegrown blacks were working to destroy "our way of life." Only the Talmadges could stop the coming pillage, the pair warned. They were masters at turning out the trembling white vote.

Forget that life at the time was characterized by poverty, illiteracy, malnourishment and corrupt government.

In his last statewide radio speech in 1948, former Gov. Gene Talmadge talked for more than 20 minutes and never mentioned that Georgia needed better schools, better highways, more jobs and a vision for improving the general well-being. Instead, old Gene spoke about the threat to racial segregation laws, which, he said, were our Rock of Gibraltar against outsiders and Negroes (though he used another word for "Negro").

The Talmadges' racial playbook was so successful that even progressive politicians used it to gain an edge for victory.

The good-guy candidates for governor (Carl Sanders, Ernie Vandiver, Ellis Arnall) would begin almost every stump speech with a renewed promise that they could not keep: to maintain a successful legal defense of racial segregation. Without that empty pledge, progressives opened themselves up to becoming known as "race mixers."

When fear and loathing of black people finally wore thin - and Sen. Herman Talmadge won an award from Morris Brown College for helping blacks - political consultants searched out new bogeymen. Communists, gays, women preachers, some college professors, Mexicans and Asians all worked just fine as shadow enemies to get out the votes. Of course, fear of blacks continued - and continues - to be a successful tactic.

Lately, the Southern-centered national Republican Party has turned to another old standby for spooking voters: socialism.

One can seldom pick up a newspaper or listen to one's favorite radio nut without being subjected to a tirade against the evils of socialism, with Democrats portrayed as its main promoter.

We're not talking about Russian communism or Marxism here. We're speaking of socialism; think Sweden, Denmark and even Israel.

Looking to re-energize American Republicanism, the new GOP warns darkly of socialized medicine, socialized banks, socialized manufacturing, etc.

The fear of socialism is apparently working, because more and more self-proclaimed conservative leaders are using the term to turn voters against Obama and breathe life into zombified elephants.

The bad news for Republican chieftains is that socialism has already established a firm beachhead. Antisocialists are a little late on the scene.

Where were you in 1934 when the Social Security Act was signed? Now that was genuine socialism, but it was just the beginning.

Medicare, Medicaid and the entire defense industry were fine examples of socialism at work. So were the old and orderly EMCs and TVA, the GI Bill and the Federal Housing Administration. The farm subsidy program, which made our governor and many other farmers rich-rich-rich, could have flowed from the pen of the late socialist leader Norman Thomas. It was - and remains - pure socialism.

More than 70 years ago, President Franklin D. Roosevelt singled out the South for special attention and federal economic aid. Early in his administration, FDR declared that the region had been neglected and exploited and needed significant federal help. The former Confederacy received federal assistance, though not nearly enough. Hardly anybody of note charged FDR was turning Dixie red. Instead, the South moved slowly to near the front of the line in national growth. FDR, a New York blueblood, became a Southern idol.

The antisocialist movement was replaced in the 1950s by anticommunism, and then more recently by the twin fears of terrorism and fundamentalist Islam. Now we're headed back toward alarm at onrushing socialism and perhaps of Barack Obama, renamed Chairman Obama, Comrade Barack and, of course, the anti-Christ.

Today's fresh Republican orators conveniently forget to tell us that the renewed fear of socialism developed from the GOP's irresponsible federal budgets that ran up a trillion-dollar tab in less than six years - and then the Republicans called on the Red Chinese to help pay it.

The new breed of GOP consultants soon to take over the party will, of course, bring more to the table than a promised war against socialism. At least I hope they will. My roll call of government trends to despise and dread is long and varied, from the Man on the White Horse to armed brown shirts running amok.

But if we're supposed to be scared of socialism, it's not because of anything new. Socialist-type policies have supported large elements of our new way of life for decades now - with virtually everyone's consent and to most people's benefit. More terror is struck in our hearts by the persistent fearmongering of domestic politicians than by the policies against which they inveigh. If "terrorism" means actions designed to disrupt our national psyche, it could be that a good bit of the real terrorism we face today begins at home.

Syndicated columnist Bill Shipp writes on Georgia politics. E-mail him at shipp1@bellsouth.net.