Wednesday, July 10, 2013


This is a repost of an older piece I did in 2010 about dog whistles, the southern strategy, and conservatism.
"Sounds like sour grapes to me"

Every so often on different blogs, when discussing matters with a leftist, they will spew something about the "southern strategy" and Republican racism. This is typically offered in lieu of a reasoned, factual argument or rebuttal to some criticism of Democrats - the implication being "that may be true but look at how racist Republicans are!" as if that's some sort of ultimate trump card. Corruption, arrogance, condescension, perversion is all eclipsed by the ultimate sin of racism, in the eyes of this sort of leftist.

Generally speaking, these sort of posters are twits and intellectual juveniles, educated enough to keep up with a conversation, but stunted in their mental advancement enough that they are unable to engage in genuine rhetorical effort and can only offer pre-packaged talking points and carefully taught attack patterns, learned in college. Not all leftists are like this, in fact I'd hazard that few are, but the ones you tend to run into on right-leaning blogs usually are.

The "Southern Strategy" is an alleged deliberate effort by the Republican Party under President Nixon to cultivate southern voters by appealing to their innate racism. It is presumed that being from the south makes you a massive, neanderthal racist so that the best way to get votes from that region is to use racist appeals and secret racist code (I've written about the "dog whistle" of racist language only those in the know can hear and recognize in the past). Their evidence for this is as follows:

-In 1970 former Nixon strategist Kevin Philips told the New York Times (May 17, 1970):
From now on, the Republicans are never going to get more than 10 to 20 percent of the Negro vote and they don't need any more than that... but Republicans would be shortsighted if they weakened enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans. That's where the votes are. Without that prodding from the blacks, the whites will backslide into their old comfortable arrangement with the local Democrats
-Republicans began to appeal to "state's rights" which was considered a code word for support of racial segregation and opposition to federal intervention in civil rights issues.

-Ronald Reagan in 1980 specifically stated he was for state's rights in the same county where 3 civil rights workers has been killed almost 3 decades earlier.

-In the book Southern Politics in the 1990s professor Alexander Lamis claimed that Lee Atwater said
You start out in 1954 by saying, "Nigger, nigger, nigger." By 1968 you can't say "nigger" — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I'm not saying that. But I'm saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me — because obviously sitting around saying, "We want to cut this," is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than "Nigger, nigger."
-In the 2004 presidential election campaign, President Bush apologized several times to black leaders for his party's use of the "southern strategy."

-Now, GOP chair Michael Steele is repeating the old lines about southern strategy and why blacks don't want to vote for the party of Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.

-And finally, the belief that only by appealing to racism could a Democratic Party stronghold possibly fall into Republican voting patterns.

Now clearly some of these are kind of weak (such as Reagan talking in a county where something happened decades earlier), but some seem a fairly strong case that Republican party leadership deliberately was trying to use southern bigotry and opposition to civil rights legislation to sway southern voters - who to this day still register as Democrats far more than Republicans. So is it true? Was the GOP deliberately racist to win political power?

The truth is a bit more complicated than that.

Undoubtedly, some Republican politicians did leave the party over racial issues - as did some Democrat politicians. In fact the Dixiecrats originally split from the Democratic Party over racial issues. When the topic of racist politicians comes up, inevitably the Dixicrats show up - southern Democrats who refused to sign on to their party's civil rights efforts. Men such as Strom Thurmond, Robert Byrd, Al Gore sr, and George Wallace formed the State's Rights Democratic Party which was essentially left leaning socialist Democrats who were opposed to the civil rights legislation of the 50s and 60s. They were strong supporters of LBJ's New Deal and expanded federal government power, but did not support the attempts to break segregation and disenfranchisement of blacks in the south.

Some of those Dixiecrats left their party after the 1967 civil rights legislation passed; of the 19 who did, 3 became Republicans (Strom Thurmond, Jesse Helms, and Mills Godwin) and the rest stayed in the Democratic Party. These men are held up as proof that the Democrats weren't racist, but GOP is, because they left to become Republicans, the fact that 80% of the Democrats stayed and one (Robert Byrd of West Virginia) is held in such esteem by the party sort of pokes holes in that theory. The truth is many if not most individual party were racist - the bulk being at least somewhat, but few very strongly so, as most politicians in both parties were at the time.

However, when you look more closely at the data from the time, the "southern strategy" isn't as clear as the left wants to portray it. For example, that Atwater quote was part of a longer interview in which he also said:
Questioner: But the fact is, isn't it, that Reagan does get to the Wallace voter and to the racist side of the Wallace voter by doing away with legal services, by cutting down on food stamps?

Atwater: As to the whole Southern strategy that Harry Dent and others put together in 1968, opposition to the Voting Rights Act would have been a central part of keeping the South. Now [the new Southern Strategy of Ronald Reagan] doesn’t have to do that. All you have to do to keep the South is for Reagan to run in place on the issues he's campaigned on since 1964 and that's fiscal conservatism, balancing the budget, cut taxes, you know, the whole cluster.
The presumption by the professor writing that book was that cutting back on unconstitutional federal welfare programs is racist because he believes that it targets blacks. Atwater doesn't hold to that presumption, he in fact is saying that whatever the strategy was in the past, fiscal conservatism is a winner everywhere, so Reagan doesn't need to appeal to anything else.

Now, he then goes on to say the first quote above, which seems to imply he thinks that the appeals to smaller government are a secret, more abstract appeal to racism, but the fact is even if that was true, nobody was hearing it. When you talk about small government and constitutionality, that appeals to people on its own merit, not based on how that is some double secret magic racism only a southern bigot can hear. In a 2006 New York Times article by Clay Risen we learn a bit more about the shift in voting in the south, and it had nothing to do with bigotry:
In their book “The End of Southern Exceptionalism,” Richard Johnston of the University of Pennsylvania and Byron Shafer of the University of Wisconsin argue that the shift in the South from Democratic to Republican was overwhelmingly a question not of race but of economic growth. In the postwar era, they note, the South transformed itself from a backward region to an engine of the national economy, giving rise to a sizable new wealthy suburban class. This class, not surprisingly, began to vote for the party that best represented its economic interests: the G.O.P. Working-class whites, however — and here’s the surprise — even those in areas with large black populations, stayed loyal to the Democrats. (This was true until the 90s, when the nation as a whole turned rightward in Congressional voting.)

The two scholars support their claim with an extensive survey of election returns and voter surveys. To give just one example: in the 50s, among Southerners in the low-income tercile, 43 percent voted for Republican Presidential candidates, while in the high-income tercile, 53 percent voted Republican; by the 80s, those figures were 51 percent and 77 percent, respectively. Wealthy Southerners shifted rightward in droves but poorer ones didn’t.
The fact of the matter is that the south grew more wealthy and as they did, they turned away from the Democrats toward Republicans because their economic strategy was more appealing. Racism does not play a part in this analysis, even if it did in the lives of these voters. Another powerful issue was in play. Lyndon Johnson was concerned that his support of and his party's push for the Civil Rights acts in the 60s would hurt them in the south - and it did, Republicans simply pushed for more support there.

The Southern Strategy was less about appealing to bigotry and more about pandering to southern voters - whites at first since effectively blacks could not vote when it first was implemented - and attempting to exploit frustration and annoyance with the Democratic Party's leftward slouch. See, while there was still a lot of institutionalized racism in America's south by the middle 20th century, what frustrated most Democratic Party voters was the party abandoning their strong state's rights and federalist positions which they'd held since Thomas Jefferson was active in the party.

They believed that, whether correctly used or not, states had the right to their own destiny except where the US constitution said otherwise. That means that they can do stupid or foolish things - or brilliant and wonderful things - and the federal government may not interfere except where the US Constitution permits. Starting with FDR and through the 60s, the Democratic Party abandoned its previous position supporting this and increasingly began expanding federal power and influence in the states in areas the constitution does not permit. This started alienating southern Democratic Party voters from their party - although they'd never change parties - and ultimately resulted in the Republicans trying to exploit that alienation starting in the late 40s. By the 1960s, the south had become enraged with how the federal government was treating them and with how broad and expansive it had become.

The treatment of minorities in the south was reprehensible and abhorrent, even evil at times. Their institutionalized, legal policies attempting to keep blacks from voting, holding office, even walking on the same sidewalk and drinking from the same fountains as whites was ghastly and wrong. That was starting to change even before the legislation in Washington DC was crafted to impact it, but it was slow to change. That civil rights legislation didn't make anything happen that wasn't already, it just forced the issue decades ahead of when it would have naturally. Probably the US Civil War did the same thing with slavery, stopping it when it was already on its way out, just a lot sooner.

However, one of the repeated and insistent themes of the founding fathers and their writings was that the Constitution absolutely and positively prevented the federal government from interfering in the internal workings of individual states, even if they were doing something really bad. For good or ill, that was the way the nation was set up, and the founders fought long and hard to make it so. The US Constitution is either the law of the land or it is not - if you say it is, except when things are really nasty and then we can ignore it, then you're saying that something else is the law of the land (in this case, leftist ideology). The Southern Democrats disagreed - as do I.

See, the presumption that it was race-based anger which led the southern Democrats to vote Republican (and Republican racist strategy to get them to) not only presumes a virulent hateful racism in southern voters which is irrational, but it ignores some pretty significant facts about the Republican Party about that time.
  • The 1957 civil rights act wouldn't have passed without VP Richard Nixon casting the vote which broke the Democrat filibuster. That bill was signed into law by Republican president Eisenhower.
  • Also in 1957, President Dwight Eisenhower deploys the 82nd Airborne Division to Little Rock, to force Arkansas to integrate public schools
  • The civil rights act of 1960 was Eisenhower's bill, and it passed only after overcoming 125-hour filibuster by the Dixiecrats.
  • In 1964, Republicans condemn 14-hour filibuster against 1964 Civil Rights Act by U.S. Senator and former Ku Klux Klansman Robert Byrd (D-WV) It is finally approved by a strong majority of Republican congressmen and a small majority of Democrats
  • In 1965, the Voting Rights act passes; 94% of Senate Republicans vote for landmark civil right legislation, while 27% of Democrats oppose
And ultimately, the southern vote did not actually make any difference in several key instances of Republican victories. In 1968, Nixon lost a majority of southern electoral votes; his 1972 victory, both Reagan victories, and the victory of George H. W. Bush in 1988 would have happened without winning a single southern state.

If it was anger at civil rights legislation and disagreement with mere federal attempts to break institutionalized racism and segregation in the south, then the Southern Democrats would have condemned Republicans as well. The tipping point, then, was economics and southern opposition to government expansion and socialism.

In the end, whatever racism was behind the Southern Strategy - and likely it was more a case of GOP strategists presuming racism rather than any personal animosity toward blacks - the fact remains that it was effective for other reasons, not any supposed appeals to bigotry. Its hard not to see the Democrats stamping their foot in frustration at losing an easy, lock solid voting bloc in the south, so they respond with screams of racism and hate to try to win power again.

And ultimately I have to sit back and shake my head at the condemnation of this strategy. As bad as it may have been, these events happened in the 50s, 60s and 70s as much as fifty years ago. I understand that its useful for the left to cling to this as a bludgeon to hit the Republican Party with and scare minorities to vote Democrat, but how long does that statute of limitations last? Why is it that the gross bigotry and racism of the Democrats runs out in a matter of weeks, but perceived racism of Republicans stains the party for more than a quarter century? Many voters today weren't even alive when these events took place.

Certainly Democrats have a great deal of bigotry and racism in their past to be ashamed of, even to that time period. Why is it that Republicans are held accountable for a questionable crime when Democrats are given a total pass? Minority voters need to wake up to this contradiction and look at the facts. The GOP used to be the party of the black voter, men such as Martin Luther King jr were strong, proud Republicans. The Republican Party has a long history of fighting for civil rights, appointing blacks to positions of power and authority, and standing for equality, liberty, and justice for all as this satirical list demonstrates.

I'm not trying to boost the GOP here, I just think that both parties have reason for both shame and pride when it comes to racial issues.  The problem is that the popular culture seems to think all the shame goes with one party and all the pride to another - especially among minorities. That's simply not the truth.

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