When President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he told an aide that Democrats had “lost the South for a generation,” anticipating a white backlash in the South. Since the end of Reconstruction, the South had been dominated by the Democratic Party. The national party’s efforts to promote civil rights at the national level weakened its grip on the South, and the Civil Rights Acts, as Johnson predicted, resulted in the deep red now visible across the South in electoral maps.
The so-called ‘solid South’ did not become solidly Republican overnight. Republican strategies began to stoke racial resentment and antipathy to civil rights. For example, Nixon campaign advisor Kevin Phillips and RNC Chairman Lee Atwater admitted appealing to white resentment to civil rights and even white racism. They did so not only by criticizing federal civil rights legislation and impugning federal desegregation orders, but by railing against busing, government dependency, and welfare, or by espousing such seemingly race-neutral ideas as “states rights” and “local control” as signals to preserve Jim Crow from federal intrusion. Even without making explicitly racist comments, the “dog whistle” was clearly heard by those who were its intended recipients. These strategies, combined called the “Southern Strategy”, was designed to create a national Republican majority, built, in part, on white resentment.
The dog whistle worked because it was heard and understood by the conservative white base, yet not by more moderate and northern whites. It meant activating racial resentment for one part of the population while denying that fact to the rest. The Southern Strategy married the conservative politics antipathy to marginal tax rates and civil rights, labor, and environmental regulations of corporate elites with culturally conservative antipathy towards civil rights, women’s rights, and gay rights.
The Southern Strategy worked. The South flipped from solidly Democratic to solidly Republican within a decade. As the right-wing became more brazen, they asserted that it was the Democratic Party who was divisive on race and was the party of special interests, meaning civil rights and particularly blacks. The Republican strategy matured into a broad attack on a federal government that was seen as pushing the issue of social inclusion and in support of taxes that were seen as taking from “good, hard-working Americans” to support the undeserving.
Occasionally, Democrats would try to make the dog whistle audible and assert that the Republicans were engaged in racially divisive politics inconsistent with the emerging ideal of racial fairness embraced, if not acted upon, by an increasing number of Americans of all perspectives. But more often than not, Democrats quietly capitulated to the right-wing’s assertion of being divisive, and began using their own dog whistle.
Whether in the context of affirmative action, busing, welfare, or housing, blacks were painted as not belonging in elite schools, nice neighborhoods, or as being “real Americans.” The Democratic dog whistle functioned differently than the Republican one. It not only produced messages meant to distance leading Democrats from blacks, but also the adoption of policies to appeal to the anti-black resentment the Republicans had nurtured so well.
Blacks were painted as both undeserving and not belonging. Any program designed to help blacks was seen as suspect. If there was something wrong with America, it was not that we were doing too little for blacks, it was that we were trying to do too much. The goal here was to send a message to culturally conservative elements of the New Deal coalition, known as “Reagan Democrats”, that the Democratic Party could also be hard on these undeserving blacks, while not driving blacks too far away. Besides, where would they go?
Why would working-class whites, with modest income, care about marginal income taxes on the rich? One might suggest that they are concerned about a slippery slope: first the rich, then us. It is more likely that the concern is about taking from the “real Americans,” and giving to the 47% of undeserving “takers” who don’t truly belong. The hostility to this imagined group of “others,” the takers, is not just because they want stuff, but because they represent an existential threat — they are perceived to undermine the meaning of being American. The anxiety about the other, whether racial, gay, immigrant, or another identity, is not just about the distribution of material goods, but also about who we are as a nation.
The Southern Strategy ensured that the nation, especially at the level of federal policy, was anemic on issues of inclusion and civil rights, pushing the country rightward, not just on social issues, but also on economic matters as well. The attack on federal power, whether through regulation or taxes, served to expand the power of corporate elites. Social issues and race were wedges to facilitate reactionary economic policies and deregulation.
2012 as watershed
The country now is in the midst of a profound realignment. The 2012 Presidential election marks, if not the end, a radical recalibration of the Southern Strategy for winning national elections. Even with 62% of the white vote, Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney could not win a majority of the popular vote, let alone the electoral vote. Eight-eight percent of Romney’s support came from white voters, yet Romney only won 48.1% of the overall vote. Part of the reason for this is that the President won huge majorities of the non-white vote. Obama won 93% of the African-American vote, 71% of the Latino vote, 73% of the Asian vote, and 38% of the white vote.
Much has been made of the demographics shifts that have contributed to the President’s re-election. For the first time, the Southern Strategy failed to generate a majority for Mitt Romney. Although Romney won 9 of the 11 states in the former Confederacy, only 12% of Romney’s overall support came from non-whites. In contrast, the President secured large voter support from all groups. The key exception appears to be southern white males, where he received 35% of that vote. Obama won the female vote, but not the majority of white females where he garnered only 42% of the vote.
As Charles Blow noted, there appears to be an inverse relationship between Obama’s white support and the percentage of non-whites in that state. Obama won Iowa decisively, a state that is 93% white. Mississippi, Alabama, and North Carolina have the 1st, 7th, and 8th largest African-American populations by percentage of the total population in the United States, and also feature among the lowest support among whites. For example, in Mississippi, the President garnered only 10% of the white vote.
Republican strategists and pundits have already acknowledged that the Republican Party will have to do more to reach non-white voters. However, three caveats are in order.
First, interim elections have much lower turn-out than Presidential elections, around 40% compared to 50-55% for Presidential elections. In the interim election, voters tend to be older and whiter. The Southern Strategy may still be an effective way to win elections during the interim years, and 2014 in particular.
Second, just three days after the re-election of Barack Obama, the United States Supreme Court agreed to hear a challenge to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, as reauthorized in 2006. It strains credulity to view the timing of this decision to accept certiorari as a coincidence. The President has repeatedly cited the Voting Rights Act as instrumental and a precondition for his election to the Presidency because of the voters it gave access to the polls
In recent years, the pre-clearance provision of the VRA, section 5, has been invoked numerous times to prevent the implementation of restrictive voting rules or gerrymandering of districts. As recent voter ID rules and other voter suppression efforts attest, the preclearance provision remains as important today as ever. Yet, the conservative members of the Court and other Republican elites may view these challenges as a way to forestall a new alignment or change the rules of the game.
Third, although many Republicans acknowledge the need to find ways to appeal to non-white voters, they focus almost entirely on Latino or Asian voters, rather than reaching out to blacks. African-Americans are, for the moment, the largest non-white voting group at 13% of the total electorate in the 2012 election, and yet remain invisible or largely ignored in the post-election discourse. So why have the Republicans largely ignored this group? It might be argued that blacks tend to be more liberal than other groups, yet that may not be the case. Blacks in the South may be as culturally conservative as many southern whites. When one understands the role that racial resentment played in creating the modern Republican coalition, abandoning this approach entirely would require the party to virtually rebuild from the ground up. One might also note how little attention blacks have received from Democrats as well.
What about the political clout of Latinos and gays? Much of the Republican elite opposition to these groups as well as blacks has been strategic. Until now, political strategists could activate their right-wing base, stoke the fires of resentment, keep moderate whites in play, and win. This worked for a good while. Now, it is at best an incomplete strategy. The question is whether Republicans can reach out to Latinos, and even gays, and keep much of their culturally conservative base in play. This may strain the bonds of the Republican coalition because much of the culturally conservative position is based in principle against undocumented immigrants and gays, while the elite position is largely strategic. Any new strategy may require continuing to marginalize or ignore black voters.
While Republican elites frantically search for a new alignment, Democrats are largely mute on this issue and equally responsible. There are reasons to believe this will continue. In his second inaugural address, on the day marked to celebrate the life and work ofDr. King, President Obama, in an emboldened call for inclusion, only alluded to King’s name, and did not explicitly mention African-Americans.
One can hope that new race-based strategies of Republicans fail, such as strategically trying to peel away a few Latino voters. But to just hope is not enough. If we are to have a truly inclusive society, we cannot continue to embrace the politics of resentment and write-off or ignore large parts of our population.