The Republicans’ “Southern Strategy” Unmasked?

When we got wind of Michael Steele’s recent comments about the Republican Party continuing a “Southern Strategy” for the past 40 years, we turned to an expert on southern politics for insight into Steele’s allusion to the Nixon-era strategy of racial exclusion. Michael Perman is author of Pursuit of Unity: A Political History of the American South, which traces the history of politics in the South from Jefferson to Clinton. In the book, Perman explains that the South’s longtime propensity toward one-party politics differentiated the region from the rest of the country–until the Voting Right Act of 1965 started shaking things up. In this post, Perman addresses the new kinds of political exclusions that arose after widespread African American enfranchisement.–ellen

Once again, Michael Steele, the Republican Party chairman, has been taken to task by members of his own party. This time, they are reacting to a talk he gave last week at DePaul University here in Chicago when he acknowledged that the Republicans’ southern strategy had been to ignore African Americans in their creation of a Republican presence in the region since the mid-1960s.

But this is hardly a revelation. In full public view and over a period of four decades, the Republican Party has managed to become the majority party in a region where it had been marginalized and treated with contempt ever since Reconstruction. And this remarkable rise from the ashes was accomplished by means of a very simple electoral formula, or strategy, that the party has executed without deviation since the 1960s, when the Voting Rights Act shattered the preexisting one-party system of the Solid South.

In the wake of the Voting Rights Act, the Democratic Party of the South and of white supremacy was forced to reconstitute itself, as newly enfranchised black voters quite naturally threw their support to the party that, under President Lyndon Johnson’s leadership, had enabled them to regain the right to vote. In response, the conservative, segregationist whites began to flee from a party that was likely to become either the region’s first bi-racial party, or worse, a party controlled by African Americans and their white allies.

Under these circumstances, the Republicans were faced with a choice that was really a no-brainer if they were to have any future in southern politics. They could try to become a party composed of moderate whites and a sizable component of blacks, which was what the Democrats would have to become in order to keep their black-white coalition together (and the Republicans could predict how difficult that might be to pull off, even for the Democrats). Or the Republicans could provide a very different alternative, a real opposition to the bi-racial Democrats, by offering an updated version of the South’s traditional Democratic Party, which of course had been conservative and white in composition.

For a conservative and preponderantly white national party like the Republicans, this was exactly the kind of opposition party they could readily create in the South and feel comfortable with. And naturally, in order for this project to succeed, African Americans could not be encouraged to join or else those former segregationist Democrats would refuse to come over to the Republicans. Should that happen, the party they envisaged would not even get off the ground.

So, there was only one possible course for the Republicans to pursue. No other serious possibility presented itself. They embraced the idea of a conservative white party and proceeded  to create it. Although it took longer than they may have anticipated to make this new party a majority in the South, they nevertheless succeeded brilliantly in implementing their southern strategy.

Since the Republican Party they built in the South consisted overwhelmingly of conservative whites, just as the party leaders had planned, why is it thought to be heretical, or impolitic, to say so? This is the puzzling feature of the reaction to Steele and to others over the years who have suggested that the Republicans had a southern strategy, a secret game plan, to recruit whites and ignore blacks. What I think is behind this reluctance to acknowledge the obvious is that the Republicans do not want to be seen as a party that, in its party-building activities in the South, appealed blatantly to racial prejudice and pandered to race hatred. This is especially true now because they would like to have a cadre of blacks in the party to give it a multiracial aura and not have it look lily-white. Colin Powell, Condoleeza Rice, and yes, Michael Steele himself, are now considered precious assets and good PR. And the party would like to have many more in the ranks and in evidence at their conventions.

By contrast, the “Southern Strategy” that the Republicans want to repudiate was Richard Nixon’s package of anti-black pledges and pro-southern-white initiatives that he unveiled during his first term. Several commentators at the time referred to this as the Republicans’ “Southern Strategy.” For example, two influential Atlanta journalists, Reg Murphy and Hal Gulliver, wrote in their 1972 book, The Southern Strategy, that Nixon’s gambit was “a calculated appeal to white segregationist sentiment.” Nixon’s initiative contained commitments to halt school busing, get tough on urban protest and crime, and take a passive approach to blacks’ economic and social problems by pursuing a policy of “benign neglect.” And this appeal culminated in a determined, but unsuccessful, attempt to put a southerner with segregationist credentials on the Supreme Court. When both nominees were rejected decisively, the president explained that this was evidence of the country’s animus against the South.

Nixon’s overture to whites, especially those in the South, was a desperate attempt to outbid George Wallace for the southern white vote as the Republican president’s 1972 reelection campaign was getting underway in 1970-71. But a “Southern Strategy” of this kind was never repeated because no crisis like Nixon’s occurred again, since the Republican Party’s lock on the southern white vote was never again challenged from the right, from a more pro-white and anti-black rival candidate or party. The Republicans did not therefore need to sell the South’s conservative whites a package of racially-reassuring pledges in order to convince them to support the GOP. Conservative whites had already decided that question and were affiliating with the party, as would most of the millions of northern migrants who came south in the 1970s and 1980s and also the Religious Right during the Reagan years. So the party’s widely known plan to make conservative whites its voters and its public image was working out extremely well. It was unnecessary therefore to indulge in crudely racist “Southern Strategies” when the party’s long-term and politically rational strategy for winning the South, its real southern strategy, was obviously succeeding.

Michael Steele’s mistake was to employ the dreaded phrase “Southern Strategy” to describe how his party had built a successful party organization in the South. Instead of the racist plot that “Southern Strategy” implies, the Republicans preferred for their success in creating a viable party based on conservative whites to be understood simply as a matter of politically rational party building. Although that’s not exactly rewriting history, it’s certainly an attempt to downplay the racial exclusiveness at the party’s founding and in its subsequent growth.

Michael Perman
University of Illinois at Chicago
author of Pursuit of Unity: A Political History of the American South