Wednesday, January 22, 2003

A Brief History of the Southern Strategy

I thought I'd offer some more selected excerpts from Joseph Aistrup's The Southern Strategy Revisited: Republican Top-Down Advancement in the South, which despite its academic veneer reads like a strategic handbook for Republicans. It contains a fairly comprehensive history of the Southern Strategy, which I'll recap here.

According to Aistrup, the Southern Strategy actually originated with Barry Goldwater and his “Operation Dixie” campaign, then evolved in the hands of successive party leaders: Nixon, Reagan’s and Bush. As he describes it:

The Southern Strategy was developed to take advantage of the upheavals of the southern structure (Bass and De Vries, 1976, 22-33). The major goal of the Southern Strategy was to transform the Republicans’ reputation as the party of Lincoln, Yankees, and carpetbaggers into the party that protects white interests (Klinkner 1992; Bass and DeVries 1976; 22-23). Thus, subtle segregationist threads are sewn in to the tapestry of the Southern Strategy. As a response in part to the GOP’s new image and the liberalizing changes in the national Democrats’ party positions, the Southern Democrats evolved from a party that depended on race-baiting, white supremacists to a party that needs and depends on black support to win elections (Lamis 1988).

Significantly, the GOP began a conscious effort to recast their Southern image after Nixon’s loss in 1960. Under the influence of Goldwater and his allies, the Republican National Committee’s program “Operation Dixie” (Klinkner 1992) changed to openly promote a more conservative states’ rights and segregationist policies and to recruit candidates of this ilk. Republican segregationist candidates made respectable showings in the 1962 South Carolina U.S. Senate elections, where William Workman received 43 percent of the vote, and in the 1962 Alabama U.S. Senate election, where James Martin was seven thousand votes shy of unseating Democratic Sen. Lister Hill.

Even with the subtle change toward accepting candidates who were more in tune with the predominant white Southern party at that time, it was not until the 1964 presidential campaign that the Republicans’ new image became solidified. The key event that highlighted the Republicans; new strategy and led to the Democrats shedding their old segregationist image was the national Democrats’ support of civil rights and Goldwater’s and the Republican party’s support of states’ rights (Bass and De Vries 1976, 29). This election, more than any other (Carmines and Stinson 1989), drew clear lines of division and provided a glimpse of the future of party politics in the South and the rest of the nation. The battle was defined in the South as segregation versus desegregation. However, it was the Republicans, not the Democrats, who promoted segregational politics.

... In tandem with the Southern Strategy issue orientation, a number of Republicans attempted to use subtle segregationist suggestions to win elections. Southern Republicans developed a set of policy positions that reinforced their racially conservative policy orientations. Republicans opposed forced busing, employment quotas, affirmative action and welfare programs; at the same time, they favored local control and tax exemptions for segregated private schools (Lamis 1988, 24). Segregationist policies became more abstract, a Reagan official explained: “You’re getting abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes ... [these policies] are totally economic things and a by-product of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it” (Lamis 1988, 26).

Incidentally, a number of Goldwater’s fellow Republicans -- mostly the old Northeastern progressive wing -- raised serious objections to his efforts:

The insertion of numerous segregationists into the Southern Republican candidate pool represents a significant precedent for the “party of Lincoln.” In addition, the moderate-to-strong showing of these segregationist Republicans provided Goldwater with evidence supporting his strategy for GOP presidential success in the South.

Significantly, pursuing the Goldwater strategy conflicted with the earlier efforts by Potter [the first head of “Operation Dixie”] to create a non-racist party. This change in issue emphasis sowed the seeds of discontent and intraparty rivalry between economic conservatives and racially oriented social conservatives, which to this very day tears at the heart of GOP unity in some Southern states.

In this sense Republican support for this strategy was far from consonant. Indeed, there was much dissension in the RNC over the adoption of Goldwater’s Southern Strategy. Republican heavyweights such as former RNC chair Meade Alcorn and New York Senator Jacob Javits felt the party should not abandon its historic commitment to civil rights to the votes of Southern segregationists (Klinkner 1992, 24). Kentucky Senator John Sherman Cooper agreed with Alcorn and Javits, emphasizing the amoral dimension of this strategy: “But in the long run, such a position will destroy the Republican party, and worse, it will do a great wrong because it will be supporting the denial of the constitutional and human rights of our citizens” (Bailey 1963).

The strategy reached fruition under Nixon, and consequently overtook the GOP itself:

Undaunted by Wallace’s potential usurpation of the states’ rights mantle, Nixon cut a deal with Republican Sen. Strom Thurmond (S.C.) to continue promoting policies consistent with a states’ rights orientation. Murphy and Gulliver describe the meeting: “Richard Milhous Nixon ... sat in a motel room in Atlanta in the early spring of 1968 and made his political deal. Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina was there. There were others. The essential Nixon bargain was this: If I’m president of the United States, I’ll find a way to ease up on the federal pressures forcing school desegregation or any other kind of desegregation. Whatever the exact words or phrasing, this was how the Nixon commitment was understood by Thurmond and other southern GOP strategists.”

Since this time, the racially conservative issue appeal of the southern Strategy has evolved from advocating states’ rights and opposing busing in the 1960s and 1970s to opposing large segments of the civil rights policy agenda, including affirmative action and quotas in the 1980s... The key to deciphering the Southern Strategy and understanding its evolution is found by revealing how its policy rhetoric appeals to its target audience, Southern whites. Many of the public words and deeds of the Southern Strategy have hidden meanings to adherents. Seemingly ambiguous political language has important, specific connotations for various groups in society. ...

Aistrup then provides several key instances from Nixon in which he deliberately used phrases that echoed many Southerners’ complaints about desegregation, adopting many of the themes of George Wallace: attacking the busing issue, pounding at “law and order,” and decrying welfare.

Unstated, but understood, was the racial tone of this line of attack: whites, once again, were being forced to pay the costs of liberal programs to help poor blacks.

The trend was refined by Reagan, who as Aistrup points out did not have a Southern Strategy per se, but whose conservatism was easily tailored rhetorically to the sentiments of racially oriented white Southerners. He points to a long passage from Reagan’s 1983 State of the Union Address, and remarks:

What do these references to “truly needy” and “greedy” mean within the context of Southern politics? The stereotype of a welfare recipient in the South and the rest of the country revolves around race. ... Reagan never overtly paints a picture of who is the “undeserving poor” or “greedy”; rather, it is his ambiguity and his past characterizations that allow individuals to envision that image of welfare recipients for themselves. For example, during Reagan’s 1976 and 1980 bids for President, it was not uncommon for him to stereotype welfare recipients in terms of the welfare queen with multiple children, large house and a Cadillac (Edsall and Edsall 1992). Whom do the Democrats “spend, spend spend” taxpayers’ money on? The unstated impression left on Southern whites’ minds is blacks. Polling data and focus group sessions show how these seemingly race-neutral statements are interpreted in a racial manner by many whites, especially those who were once the backbone of the Democratic coalition.

A passage here is important for understanding how the Southern Strategy continues to operate today:

When a GOP presidential candidate’s campaign strategy emphasizes racially conservative appeals, he identifies not only himself but his party as the one that protects white interests. The identification of the GOP, instead of the Southern Democrats, as the protector of white interests, combined with the large infusion of blacks into the Southern Democratic parties, opens the door for Southern whites to abandon their historic ties to the Democrats.

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