The Political Impact of the Southern Strategy

by Tyler Williams


ILLUSTRATION: DAVID GOTHARD. (Wall Street Journal: Opinion)


Everyone is getting politically aware nowadays, especially after the 2020 election. However, have you ever wondered how Democrats and Republicans came to be the political parties they are today? Conservative pundits and personalities say the Democrats were the racist ones and Republicans were advocating for equal rights for African Americans in the past, after the Civil War. Liberal pundits say that Republicans are the racist ones now and Democrats are the freedom fighters. They use these talking points to downplay the hypocrisy of their respective political parties. The reality is both parties are mostly corrupt, but what caused the shift of the present political agendas of the Democrats and Republicans?


Mainly, this shift can be attributed to the Southern strategy. This strategy is widely known as a Republican strategy to increase support from southern white voters in the United States by appealing to racism against Black people during the 1960s to the late 1980s. Although this strategy did not start in the 1960s, it actually started in the 1880s, after the Civil War.


After the Union won the Civil War against the Confederacy, Reconstruction was developing and Democrats were in control of the Southern states. According to the Texas Politics Archive, for every election year during the mid-1860s to the early 1900s, Democrats did everything in their power to discourage African Americans from voting. Similarly, it discouraged thousands of poor white people as well. Many Southern states reduced Blacks from voting by enacting poll taxes, literacy tests, Jim Crow laws, and intimidation from the Ku Klux Klan.

[Depicted standing atop a black Civil War veteran are a “Five Points Irishman,” Ku Klux Klan founder Nathan Bedford Forrest, and Wall Street financier and Democrat August Belmont. Thomas Nast/Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (neg. no. LC-USZ62-121735)]


Despite the nefarious efforts to suppress, Boris Heersink and Jeffery A. Jenkins argues that in 1880–1928, Republican leaders at the presidential level adopted a "Southern Strategy" by "investing heavily in maintaining a minor party organization in the South, as a way to create a reliable voting base at conventions". During that period, Republicans gave Black people a voice and political power in order to combat the Southern Democrats. “A group of 17 African-American Representatives who served from 1870 to 1887 symbolized the triumph of the Union during the Civil War and the determination of Radical Republicans to enact reforms that temporarily reshaped the political landscape in the South during Reconstruction. These pioneers were all Republicans elected from southern states.”, according to this essay.


While all this was going on, the demographics started to shift thanks to the Great Migration. This movement led the largest exodus of African Americans moving from the South to the North to “escape” racism. According to this source, during and after World War II, another 1.5 million African Americans left the South. The migration continued at roughly the same pace over the next twenty years.


Due to the dramatic population shift and the decision to allow African Americans to integrate in the military, Democrats were split between civil rights for African Americans and it became a regional split, as oppose to a political split. The Northern Democrats were pro-civil rights and Southern Democrats (aka Dixiecrats) were against it. According to the Georgian Encyclopedia: “Although the Dixiecrats immediately dissolved after the 1948 election, their impact lasted much longer. Many white voters who initially cast Dixiecrat ballots gravitated back toward the Democratic Party only grudgingly, and they remained nominal Democrats at best. Ultimately, the Dixiecrat movement paved the way for the rise of the modern Republican Party in the South.”


This rise began in the 1960s and the civil rights movement was getting aggressive. From protests, lynchings, and riots, there was civil unrest between civil rights activists and Jim Crow advocates. Dixiecrats and southerners favored states’ rights and segregation in order to override federal intervention. When the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law, the political culture began to shift, thanks to Strom Thurmond. He is one of the first, if not, the first person to change political parties from Democrat to Republican. Thurmond claims why he left the Democratic party: “The Democratic party has abandoned the people,” he asserted. “It has repudiated the Constitution of the United States; it is leading the evolution of our nation to a socialistic dictatorship.” Senator Thurmond urged other Southerners to join him in a fight to elect Senator Goldwater and to make the Republican party ‘a’ party which supports freedom, justice and constitutional government, stated in this New York Times article, THURMOND BREAK IS MADE OFFICIAL; He Will Work as Republican for Goldwater Election.


Upon the Democrats losing the voter’s support from the South, Richard Nixon came into the picture. “Many national Republican politicians, Richard Nixon among them, also saw an opportunity in the racial dislocation of conservative Southern Democrats.”, according to a New York Times article titled, "A Dream Undone."


Nixon campaigning during the 1968 election (Wikimedia Commons/Ollie Atkins)


During the mid to late 1960s, Democrats began to shift their focus in a progressive fashion after signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965. At the same time, deception and ambiguity began to creep in the Republican party. Racial tensions were high and violence was rampant. It was not only about Black people’s civil rights, it was the opposition against the Vietnam War and the counterculture that was gaining popularity with the younger generations which made older generations concerned and unsafe.


In response to this, Nixon’s call for “law and order” and it became not only an issue but, many believed, a code word for African American repression, according to Britannica. White House Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman noted that Nixon "emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognized this while not appearing to".

(reagan.utexas.edu cites "1981".)


Furthermore, in the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan began to rise to power and it caught a lot of attention to southern white voters when he advocated for states’ rights, which implied racial bias against African Americans and racial discrimination. One may wonder why Reagan and Nixon were so indirect with their position regarding civil rights. In an 1981 interview, Lee Atwater, American Political Strategist, who advised former presidents Regan and George H.W. Bush in their political campaigns, explained the evolution of the G.O.P.'s Southern strategy:

"You start out in 1954 by saying, 'N***er, n***er, n***er.' By 1968 you can't say 'n***er' -- 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 taxes...we want to cut this,' is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than 'N***er, n***er."

In 2005, New York Times opinion columnist Bob Herbert wrote: "The truth is that there was very little that was subconscious about the G.O.P.'s relentless appeal to racist whites. Tired of losing elections, it saw an opportunity to renew itself by opening its arms wide to white voters who could never forgive the Democratic Party for its support of civil rights and voting rights for blacks". Joseph A. Aistrup, author of The Southern Strategy Revisited: Republican Top-Down Advancement in the South described the transition saying that it has "evolved from a states' rights, racially conservative message to one promoting in the Nixon years, vis-à-vis the courts, a racially conservative interpretation of civil rights laws—including opposition to busing. With the ascendancy of Reagan, the Southern Strategy became a national strategy that melded race, taxes, anticommunism, and religion".


All in all, this is why these political ideologies are present to this day. In short, when demographics, legislation, and culture in society shift overtime, the political climate will adapt to its respective political supporters.


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