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  • Emma Behrens

How Racists Won: A Brief History of the Southern Strategy

One cannot begin to understand the modern Republican party without first learning of Richard Nixon. He was the thirty-seventh President of the United States, the only to resign his post, a frequent thrower of peace signs, and allegedly “not a crook.” But arguably one of Nixon’s greatest contributions to American politics was his use of rhetoric. Nixon changed the way Republicans approached racial discourse, disguising the heinous as the politically correct.

But to fully understand Tricky Dicky, we must look back to 1854, or the formation of the Republican Party. The party of Abraham Lincoln, the GOP formed with the primary goal of preventing the expansion of slavery into the newly-acquired Kansas and Nebraska territories, a goal staunchly opposed by Southern Democrats. The Civil War solidified the North’s Republican standing as it did the South’s Democratic, Reconstruction fraught with party tension marked along geographical lines.

However, the end of Reconstruction marked a shift in the Republican agenda. Government spending during the Civil War had made many northern businessmen exorbitantly wealthy, and gradually, these financiers entered leadership roles in the Republican party. Fighting for black rights in a mostly-white country was no longer viewed as a tenable nor profitable position, so the Republican agenda deviated from one of racial justice to one of fiscal conservatism.

For the decades surrounding the turn of the 20th century, Republicans held the majority of executive power, but the stock market crash of 1929 sent shockwaves through the current party system. Disillusioned with Republicans’ fiscal conservatism and lack of government aid during the Great Depression, Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected in 1932. His New Deal and progressive agenda shaped the modern Democratic party, and brought stability to a nation ravaged by poverty and the Second World War.

Republicans however opposed Roosevelt’s rapid expansion of government powers, Republican opposition to big government still a core tenet of the party today.

When the presidential election of 1964 came about, the Civil Rights Movement was in full swing. Democratic nominee Lyndon B. Johnson had signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law in July of that year. Republican nominee Barry Goldwater staunchly opposed the legislation, viewing it as an unlawful expansion of government power. In a June 1964 speech, he rallied against the bill, labeling it not as an appeal for “general welfare,” but a “special appeal” for “special welfare.” Goldwater considered the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the act that prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, sex, religion or nationality, “special” treatment.

Such marked a major shift in political party demographics. People of color began to side with their advocates the Democrats, but white Southerners, opposed to big government, started to vote Republican.

It is this demographic shift that brings the southern strategy into the rhetorical picture. Although Goldwater lost the presidential race, he was successful in capitalizing on white Southern voters’ racial fears, a strategy that Nixon perfected throughout his campaigns of 1968 and 1972 and during his five and a half years as President.

Nixon’s Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman describes in a 1969 diary entry how the “President emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.”

Thus, the southern strategy was born.

Reagan advisor Lee Atwater describes this morphing of language in explicit detail in a 1981 interview (TW: Harsh Language):

“You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘N*****, n*****, n*****.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘n*****’—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, ‘forced busing,’ ‘states’ rights,’ and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites. [...] ‘We want to cut this,’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than ‘N*****, n*****.’”

States' rights are still a major Republican talking point to this day, a notion that Atwater explicitly labels as a dog whistle. Further, the GOP's platform today contains goals such as “preserving American values and traditions” and “maintaining national security,” both common dog whistles for racism and xenophobia.

The coding of these messages allows them to remain politically correct while signaling ideas that are anything but.

While many politicians are now opting for more explicit racial rhetoric, they stand on the shoulders of dog whistling southern strategists. Recognizing the recurrent use of this technique in modern political rhetoric is vital, for what politicians say and what politicians mean is often a mutually exclusive pairing.


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