The Myth of the “Southern Strategy”


Today’s Uncommon Knowledge segment with Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi has produced a couple of comments about the GOP and the “Southern Strategy.” The basic question: In appealing to the South, did the GOP play on racism? Back in the Fifties and Sixties, GOP backed a few unsavory candidates. But the work of historian Gerard Alexander–superb, searching work, thoroughly documented–demonstrates that the basic answer is “no.” For a brief example of Alexander’s work, take a look at his 2004 essay in the Claremont Review of Books.

An excerpt:

The mythmakers typically draw on two types of evidence. First, they argue that the GOP deliberately crafted its core messages to accommodate Southern racists. Second, they find proof in the electoral pudding: the GOP captured the core of the Southern white backlash vote. But neither type of evidence is very persuasive. It is not at all clear that the GOP’s policy positions are sugar-coated racist appeals. And election results show that the GOP became the South’s dominant party in the least racist phase of the region’s history, and got—and stays—that way as the party of the upwardly mobile, more socially conservative, openly patriotic middle-class, not of white solidarity.

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  1. Profile Photo Member

    Thanks for sharing. The section on electoral patterns is particularly persuasive. That answers many of my questions.

    Incidentally, I think many outsiders come to the South, hear how often ethnicity is mentioned in casual conversations and mistake that for old-rooted racism. They fail to see that we can be friends and good neighbors even while acknowledging cultural differences… in fact, because of that acknowledgment.

    In my experience, 90% of the time people speak of race, what they’re really talking about is culture.

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  2. Profile Photo Inactive

    As I remember another feature of the older generation that Governor Barbour describes was a powerful dislike for Republicans; the older the more powerful the dislike. In other words the same people most likely to harbor racist attitudes were also the least likely to be attracted to Republicans.

    On the other thread Aaron Miller, born in 1980, mentioned that he has always known southerners to be “across the line conservatives.” I suspect his father and grandfathers did as well. There was once a solid group of conservative Democrats, but in this period their party moved away from them. A candidate like George McGovern must have left many feeling alienated. Younger southerners could make a party switch that their older neighbors couldn’t stomach.

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  3. Profile Photo Member

    I think that Alexander’s analysis in the CRB piece is very much worth reading, but it is the beginning of a discussion and not the end of one. Republicans — electorally — have a tough road to walk on racial issues and the Democrats have their “strong” talking points. Talking points that only begin with the Southern Strategy, and the exaggerated extended claims resulting from it.

    Republicans, and conservatives, must wrangle with how to inform people that it is free market principles — and not “hand out” programs — that most empower the disadvantaged. They need to demonstrate how Democratically governed communities, like South Central Los Angeles and Los Angeles generally, have far worse conditions for racial minorities than Republican communities.

    It is very hard to compete with the “vote for us and we’ll give you stuff, and the other guys want to stop giving you free stuff” rhetoric.

    It’s a hard path, but one that needs to be undertaken.

    But we must also undertake the task of actively engaging with those who are racists in our midst. It is undeniable that there are a small number of people whose conservatism waxes racist.

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  4. Profile Photo Member

    Nathaniel, I had a discussion not long ago with my conservative father, raised in Mobile, about Republicans and “the black vote”. I argued that Republicans are fools to simply cede urban blacks to the Democrats, especially as issues like gay marriage highlight the social values on which blacks are overwhelmingly conservative. My dad replied simply that pursuing that voting block is a fool’s dream… that they’ll always vote Democrat for the handouts.

    We’ve had that conversation multiple times, and I’ve wondered how much his response is due to his generational experience. On the other hand, however, my mother grew up in Mobile as well (and a small town near Atlanta) and agrees with me that many more blacks can be persuaded to the Republican side.

    One might think Republicans’ greatest hurdle is blacks who lived through segregation, but are blacks in Philadelphia or Compton any less devoted to Democrats?

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  5. Profile Photo Member

    I once had a job that took me into many homes of poor blacks in Philadelphia. Most of them had a photograph or painting of Martin Luther King on a wall.

    Many also had pictures of John F. Kennedy.

    That puzzled me. I wasn’t aware of anything in particular that JFK did for black people. Quite the opposite, he saw the civil rights movement as a political annoyance.

    Later, I read that blacks were devoted to JFK because he’d written a letter of support to King while he was in the Birmingham jail.

    An awfully slender reed, but it’s hard to get folks to change parties when they have the icon of their party loyalty hanging on their dining-room wall.

    (If anybody should be honored on those walls it would be Lyndon Johnson, but from an aesthetic point of view, that’s a non-starter.)

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  6. Profile Photo Member

    Good luck with getting that argument through for at least another generation, Peter. The current Left is absolutely in love with the “Racist Southern Strategy Theory.” It plays perfectly into their own prejudices and belief in their own moral superiority. It’s like telling a Leftist economist that the New Deal prolonged the Great Depression and getting an outraged response; they simply can’t process an argument so diametrically-opposed to their internalized dogma.

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