What Was The Southern Strategy?

After the passage of the Civil Rights Act, many southern Democrats rebelled against the party. Alabama Governor George Wallace ran against Johnson in the Democratic primary, but lost. By 1968, Wallace had left the Democrats and ran in the general election on the segregationist American Independent Party ticket, earning 9.9 million votes, 13% of the popular vote, almost all from the south.

By 1972, Richard Nixon had coopted much of this movement, putting the blatant racial animus on the back burner but running on a promise to restore law and order after turbulent protests roiled the country in the late 1960s and 1970s. The Southern states had been trending to the Republicans after the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964, but Nixon was the first Republican to win all of them.

Republicans continued to appeal to the disaffected white, southern racist vote with the nomination of Ronald Reagan in 1980, who infamously concocted the story of welfare queens in the inner city living off of the largess of the welfare state.

And his vice president, George H.W. Bush, while not as blatant an exploiter of this divisive brand of politics as Reagan or Nixon, did employ political strategist Lee Atwater, who explicitly detailed the “southern strategy”:

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.”

The right has less and less been able to exploit this strategy in the modern era. The majority of white voters do not agree with it anymore, and those that do are frankly dying off. Still, in blatant Republican admissions that they are pushing voter ID laws to minimize minority votes, we can see that it is still a tool in their arsenal.

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