The Myth of the Southern Strategy

It is taken as a fact by many people, that after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Republican party engaged in a racism driven “southern strategy” that started during the election of 1968. Whereas Richard Nixon did have a strategy to court southern voters, it was not based on racism, but on appealing to southern voters on conservative values that they shared with the Republican party. Nixon appealed to southern voters patriotism, anticommunism and their respect for law and order, none of which is an appeal to racism. Some have argued that campaigning on law and order was a racist “dog whistle”, but one has to wonder who the racist is here? The president that wants to cure societies ills, or the journalist that pushes the stereotype that all black people are criminals. One also has to wonder what a president is supposed to strive to achieve if it’s not law and order? Is he supposed to push for crime, anarchy and disarray? Several questions need to be asked to see if the racist southern strategy myth is fact or fiction.

Was Richard Nixon a racist?

Since the theory is posited that the southern strategy was created by Nixon, it would only make sense to see if Nixon governed in a racist manner both before and after he was elected president. When Nixon was vice-president under Eisenhower, he presided over the senate, and he helped shepherd through congress the Civil Rights Act of 1957. In 1953 Eisenhower, through an executive order, created the Presidents Committee on Government Contracts to combat racism in government contracts. Nixon chaired this committee and worked with civil rights leaders to end discrimination among contractors retained by the federal government. The Republican party had a long history of pushing for equal rights starting with Abraham Lincoln until the present day, Republicans passed the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments as well as the Civil Rights acts of 1875, 1957 and 1960. Republicans also asked for several civil rights laws between reconstruction and World War II, including multiple attempts at an anti-lynching laws, but they were thwarted by Democratic filibusters. The Republicans had an unbroken history of pushing for civil rights and Nixon had a laudable record in that area, so why would southern racist believe that they had a friend Nixon? It is obvious that they wouldn’t.

Did Nixon pursue racist policies as president?

If Nixon had courted southern voters through a racist southern strategy in 1968, it would only make sense that he would put forth policies while he was president to further solidify these voters as future Republican and to hold them for his reelection campaign in 1972. When Nixon became president, 80% of schools in the south were still segregated, by the end of Nixon’s first term only 8% of southern schools were segregated. Nixon also signed the Voting Rights Act of 1970, that nationalized the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which had been so cleverly written that it only applied to a handful of southern states. In 1972 Nixon signed the Equal Employment Opportunity Act, which gave the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission greater enforcement power to stop workplace discrimination. If racist southerners voted for Nixon in 1968, he certainly didn’t deliver the type of presidency that they would have desired, so they would have had little to no reason to trust other Republican candidates in the future.

Would southern racist have reason to believe that Republicans were now racist?

Not only did Republicans have a long history of voting in favor of civil rights before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, they voted in favor of the Act in much higher numbers than Democrats did. Republicans also voted in favor of the follow up Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Civil Rights Act of 1968 in much higher numbers than Democrats as well. Even if southerners thought that Republicans were communicating to them in some type of secret language through the use of code words, as has been charged, wouldn’t southerners have looked at the actions of those Republicans? Why would anyone, when looking at the actions of Republicans, believe that they had been converted to a party of racist?

Would it have even made sense for Republicans to build their party on a racism driven solid south?

One does have to ask if it would have even made sense for Republicans to build their party around racist policies to appeal to southern voters? The Democratic party had done this since its inception in the 1820s until Harry Truman broke the trend with his civil rights platform in 1948. Were the Democrats successful building their party around pro Jim Crow policies? Not on the national stage. From Abraham Lincoln in 1860 through Herbert Hoover in 1928, Democrats only elected two presidents, Grover Cleveland and Woodrow Wilson, and Wilson only won the presidency because Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft split the Republican vote in 1912. Even in the rare instances that Republicans won a former confederate state, it generally didn’t matter. The Democratic appeal in the south hurt them elsewhere, as they generally won few states outside of the solid south and the border states. The reason that the Democratic party had become dominant in the 1930s was that Franklin Roosevelt had effectively blamed the Republicans for the Great Depression. Why would the Republicans want to adopt a strategy that had been so futile for so long for the Democrats? The racist southern strategy was a proven loser, no reasonable person would have adopted it.

Why did Democrats abandon their “solid south” strategy?

The Democratic party was built as a pro south party by Andrew Jackson in the 1820s, and it held sway over the federal government until the election of Lincoln in 1860. The south, seeing that it was no longer the main power broker on the federal stage, tried to leave union. Even after the civil war, the Democratic party was still a pro-slavery party. In fact, Lincoln had to offer political positions and government jobs to lame duck Democrats in the House to get enough of the to vote for or simply abstain from voting on the 13th Amendment to abolishing slavery. Democrats opposed Reconstruction and favored black codes and Jim Crow laws until the end of the World War II. So why did the Democratic party change it’s stance on civil rights? Because they wanted to win national elections and they knew they couldn’t stop the tide of civil rights. In 1948 Harry Truman did a study on what it would take for him to win reelection, and one of the items was that he would have to win votes of northern blacks. Basically Truman had to risk losing in the south to have any chance of winning the more populous states in the north that he needed to be victorious. Lyndon Johnson, who had a long record of voting against every civil rights law his first twenty years in congress, including votes against several anti-lynching laws, explained his “change of heart” to his fellow southerners thusly: “These Negroes, they’re getting pretty uppity these days, and that’s a problem for us, since they’ve got something now they never had before: the political pull to back up their uppityness. Now we’ve got to do something about this, we’ve got to give them a little something, just enough to quiet them down, not enough to make a difference.”, Johnson also worked, as Senate majority leader, to weaken the Civil Rights acts of 1957 & 1960, once he knew he couldn’t stop their passage. After signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 Johnson said “I’ll have those niggers voting Democrat for the next 200 years”. When asked about losing southern support, Johnson said of the south “those states may be lost anyway.” Knowing that the Democrats came to the pragmatic conclusion that they couldn’t rely on a racist southern strategy to win national elections, why would anyone believe that the Republicans would come to the exact opposite conclusion, especially after Johnson’s sweeping victory in 1964?

Did the south suddenly turn Republican?

If southern voters switched to the Republican party because it had turned into the party of racism, then one would have expected an immediate conversion of racist voters. The fact is that the Republican party started making inroads into the south as early as the election of Herbert Hoover in 1928. Hoover won five of the eleven former confederate states and all of the border states that year. Eisenhower won four former confederate states in 1952 and five in 1956, even after he desegregated the federal government and the military. Even after passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Lyndon Johnson still won six former confederate states, the same as John Kennedy in 1960 and Adlai Stevenson in 1956. Nixon won less southern states in 1968 than Johnson did in 1964, as the south was carried by the Democratic segregationist George Wallace. The fact is the solid south had been broken, it was no longer a monolithic voting block, and this happened before the Civil rights Act of 1964. Democratic candidate Jimmy Carter won every former confederate and border state except Virginia, does this mean that he was a racist? Of course not! No reasonable or fair minded person would accuse Jimmy Carter of racism or of intentionally appealing to racist. Even in his two elections in the 1990s, Bill Clinton won four former confederate states and all four border states both times.

Did the Republican and Democratic parties “switch places”?

It is true that the Democratic party had a radical change, but it didn’t happen overnight and it didn’t “switch places” with the Republicans, it leapfrogged over them. The Republican party is more liberal today than it was when the Democrats were the “conservative party”. The Democratic party started moving to the left with William Jennings Bryan, who lost three presidential elections in 1896, 1900 and 1908, with his “Cross of Gold” speech and support of big government activism. The Democrats continued to go to the left under Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt, but it wasn’t until Harry Truman that they started to shed their racist past. Outside of his human rights policies, Woodrow Wilson was far more liberal than the Republicans that preceded and succeeded him in office, William Howard Taft and Warren Harding. Not only did the parties not “switch places” but there was no radical and sudden shift of the Republican party.

Did racist southerners flock to the Republican party?

If the Republican party “switched places” with the Democratic party, to become the party of racism, then there should be proof in both the voting habits of southerners in electing representatives to congress as well as in racist Democratic politicians switching over to the Republican Party. Of the twenty-one Democratic Senators that voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, only one, Strom Thurmond, switched over to the republican party. The other twenty remained in office or were replaced by other Democrats, and on average those seats remained in Democratic hands for over twenty-five years. Republicans wouldn’t gain a majority of southern seats in the House of Representatives until the 1994 election, in which Republicans used the “Contract with America” to flip the control of House for the first time since the 1950s. Several high profile racist stayed in the Democratic party for a long time. Senator Robert Byrd from west Virginia was elected President Pro-Temp of the Senate in 2007, a position that put him fourth in line for the presidency, until his death in 2010. Robert Byrd was a prominent member of the Klu Klux Klan and he rose to the position of exalted cyclops and he recruited an entire Klan chapter total over 150 men. George Wallace, the governor of Alabama that stood in the school house door in defiance of a segregation order and he unleashed Bull Conner, who used attack dogs and firehoses on peaceful civil right protesters, was still the Democratic governor of Alabama as late as 1987. Wallace famously stated in 1963 “segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever”. In 1972, right before he was paralyzed in an assassination attempt, George Wallace led in national polling for the Democratic nomination for President. If the Republican party had become the party of racism, how could the segregationist governor from Alabama be leading in the Democratic primaries? If there was a radical and sudden shift in both of the parties, shouldn’t there have been a massive change in politicians between the two parties?

Why did voting pattern change in the south?

Without Democrats pushing and supporting Jim Crow laws, the last reason many southerners had to vote Democrat was gone. Many of these people voted Democrat in order to preserve Jim Crow laws because of fear that was ginned up by the politicians that they were voting for. They would convince voters that blacks would steal their jobs and rape white women if they weren’t kept in check. Once the Democratic party came over to support civil rights, there was no real difference between Democrats and Republicans on race issues, so voters looked to other issues when voting. Democrats also ran candidates that were unpalatable to southerners. George McGovern, who lost handily in 1972, was even labeled by his Democratic rivals as the candidate of Amnesty, Abortion and Acid. The Democrats also ran far left candidates in 1984 (Walter Mondale), and 1988 (Michael Dukakis). When Democrats opted for moderate candidates in Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, they were competitive in the south. The reason? The south itself has also changed. Their has been an influx of investments and migration of citizens into the south. Racism no longer defines the south as it once did. Even Barack Obama, a black president, won three former confederate states in 2008.

Where did the myth come from?

The Democrats, wanting to absolve themselves of their racist past, did so by saying that the Republicans were the true racist. Not only did this deflect their complicity in past racist policies, but it helped to drive minority voters to their party. The myth also gave the Democrats an excuse as to why they lost the 1968 election without having to admit that the American people had simply rejected Lyndon Johnson’s policies. Members of the media and historians, two groups that are 85%-90% Democrats, helped perpetuate this myth because it favors the party that they support. When one Considers that the timing of the racist “southern strategy”, it couldn’t have been worse. The presence of segregationist governor George Wallace in the 1968 presidential race, a candidate with truly racist credentials, left little to be gained by Republicans in pursing such a strategy. As author Kevin Williamson stated: “If southern rednecks ditched the Democrats because of a civil-rights law passed in 1964, it is strange that they waited until the late 1980s and early 1990s to do so. They say things move slower in the South, but not that slow.”

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