Earlier this month, a white supremacist, attending a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, intentionally drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, leaving a 32-year-old woman dead. The incident, an act of domestic terrorism, shocked the nation and laid bare a long, tragic history many would like to see erased. Rather than a moment of reflection, the reaction has instead has been a continuation of that history: denial. Two days after the incident, Prager University, a for-profit, non-accredited college, posted a video on Facebook from July featuring controversial Vanderbilt political science professor Carol M. Swain denying that the realignment of the South had anything to do with race.
“Fabricated by left-leaning academic elites and journalists, the story went like this,” Swain begins. “Republicans couldn’t win a national election by appealing to the better nature of the country; they could only win by appealing to the worst…this came to be known as the Southern Strategy’ it was very simple: win elections by winning the South. Win the South by appealing to racists.”
But it isn’t just left-leaning academics and journalists who pushed this idea that the GOP needed to win the South through the racist vote. In a New York Times interview in 1970, Nixon’s political strategist, Kevin Phillips, spoke candidly about the plan.
“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,” Phillips began, explaining that “Republicans would be shortsighted if they weakened enforcement of the Voting Rights Act” because “[t]he 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,” he added. “Without that prodding from the blacks, the whites will backslide into their old comfortable arrangement with the local Democrats.”
Years later, Nixon’s former domestic policy chief, John Ehrlichman, who served time for the Watergate Scandal, told Harpers writer Dan Baum that “[t]he Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people.”
“You understand what I’m saying?” he asked. “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin. And then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders. raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
Republican strategists since the Nixon administration have been spilling the beans on the worst kept secret in American politics. In 1981, GOP strategy guru Lee Atwater, whose protegees include Karl Rove and former President George W. Bush, told political scientist Alexander Lamis of Case Western Reserve University, that not only was there a plan to take the South through the racist vote, but that it had evolved.
“You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘N**ger, n**ger, n**ger,’” he explained.
“By 1968 you can’t say ‘n**ger’—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… ‘We want to cut this,’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than ‘N**ger, n**ger.'”
Despite these quotes straight from the horse’s mouth, Swain makes the argument that the partisan realignment over the issue of race “is a myth.”
Republicans became competitive in the region long before the Southern Strategy’s implementation in the 1960’s, she claims.
“Republicans actually became competitive in the South as early as 1928 when Republican Herbert Hoover won over 47 percent of the south’s popular vote,” she explains, neglecting to mention that Hoover publicly called for a “lily white party.” (Once he was elected he purged black Americans from leadership positions in the south.)
Even so, this was not enough for Hoover to overcome the generational bias against the party of Lincoln in the region. He lost virtually every deep southern state by wide margins with the exception of Alabama. In Louisiana, for example, Democrat Alfred Smith won 76.29 percent of the vote compared to Hoover’s 23.70. In Mississippi and South Carolina, the contrasts were even more stark: 82.10 to 17.90 in the former and 91.39 to 8.54 in the latter.
Swain’s other examples of pre-1960’s GOP southern viability are the 1952 election in which President Eisenhower won Tennessee, Florida, and Virginia, as well as the 1956 election where he picked up Louisiana, Kentucky and West Virginia.
“And that was after he supported the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education that desegregated public schools,” Swain states matter-of-factly. “[A]nd after he sent the 101st airborne to Little Rock Central High School to enforce integration.”
While it is true that Eisenhower cracked the Solid South, four years before the 1952 election, Democratic President Harry S. Truman ordered the desegregation of the armed forces. That move resulted in a walkout at the 1948 DNC by the southern Dixiecrats.
It was after this protest that Republicans like Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater began to see real cracks in the Solid South. Campaigning on “law and order,”Goldwater drew the connection between integration and crime. That the Senator had voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 because of his opposition to Titles II and VII which prohibit discrimination in places of public accommodation and in employment, only added to his southern bonafides. He became the first Republican since Reconstruction to capture electoral votes in the deep south.
Swain’s next arguments—that the majority of elected southern Democrats remained in the party instead of switching their registration, and that the GOP did not suddenly dominate the South following the implementation of the Southern Strategy—are both reliant upon the same misrepresentation of how people make their voting decisions.
Partisan realignments do not happen overnight because party affiliation isn’t based on rational analysis of policy or a party’s performance. It is much more akin to a religion, built upon associations with social groups. Such were the findings of political scientists and authors of “Partisan Hearts and Minds” Donald Green, Bradley Palmquist, and Eric Schickler.
The southern shift took time because of generational loyalty to the Democratic Party. Older southerners had to die off, and others had to be convinced over time.
So, Swain is correct when she points out that Democratic candidates like Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter were able to pick up southern states, but again, context is important.
Both of those candidates appealed to people’s memories of the Democratic Party of yesteryear. Carter mobilized Evangelicals while Clinton punched left, criticizing black America, embracing Reagan’s domestic agenda—including racially charged policies like welfare and criminal justice reform—and distancing himself from the “big government” days of Johnson. Clinton’s was the first Democratic platform not to include civil rights since the Voting Rights Act.
And of course, racism was not the only factor at play in the realignment. The New Deal was popular in the South for jumpstarting its modern economy. It was southern support that gave Roosevelt the political power he needed to implement his agenda.
As Earl Black, author of “The Rise of Southern Republicans,” told William McKenzie of Dallas Morning News in 2012, perhaps the biggest one driving the partisan shift was the emergence of the southern middle class. When asked if President Johnson had accurately predicted that the Civil Rights Act had lost the Democrats the southern states, Black said the following:
He said that, but it didn’t happen in 1964. It was part of the equation over the longer haul. The bigger problem for Democrats in Texas and the South has been the rise of a big, urbanized, educated middle class. That laid the foundation for a competitive political environment in the South.
Dallas is a big example of that. The difference between metropolitan Dallas today and the one of the 1950s and 1960s is the difference between a modest middle class and a much larger one today. College-educated, white Christians are the heart of the GOP in Texas and other Southern states. Republicans didn’t have that base in the 1950s.Other factors aside, however, there is no doubt that racism played a central role in converting white southerners from Democrat to Republican.
Professor Swain’s video asks viewers to believe two things. The first is that racism is no longer a problem in the south. The second is that the defenders of it—those Confederate flag carrying Trump supporters—are card-carrying Democrats. In light of recent events and history, neither passes the smell test.
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