Yesterday, in a discussion of race at the DNC on CNN, the pundit with the regrettable job of having to defend and support Donald Trump and the Republicans felt the need to remind everyone that the “Republicans are the party of Lincoln.” This pundit, Jeffrey Lord, also had the audacity to criticize the Democrats for not apologizing for slavery during the DNC.
It’s infuriating, but it’s also hard to argue against. Republicans are the party of Lincoln, and Democrats are largely responsible for Jim Crow laws. Republicans also got angry the other day because ABC’s George Stephanopoulos did not correct Congressman Keith Ellison (D-Minn) for referring to George Wallace as a Republican. Yes, one of the — if not the most racist governor in the history of this country — was a Democrat, and that was only 60 years ago. Some of you may remember Strom Thurmond, too. He ran for President as a Dixiecrat — basically the Democrat’s version of the Tea Party — in 1948 and won four Southern states. He ran against Truman, because Truman desegregated the army and pushed to end Jim Crow laws and he supported drafting federal anti-lynching laws.
How does this square with the fact that Democrats like JFK and LBJ — responsible for the Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s — won not only in the South but New England, back before the Electoral College split roughly along the Mason Dixon line?
Given what we know about modern politics, it doesn’t make sense that relative to the history of this nation, Democrats were the party of racism until recently. In fact, until Bill Clinton’s presidency, most people in Arkansas and much of the South considered themselves “yellow-dog Democrats, i.e., they’d vote for a “yellow dog” before they’d vote for a Republican.
Why did it change?
Richard Nixon, Barry Goldwater, and Ronald Reagan, that’s why.
It was called the Southern strategy. Richard Nixon and Barry Goldwater had primed the South for the strategy in the late 60s and 70s by appealing to white conservative voters in the South (and winning a lot of the former Confederate states), and Reagan’s 1980 push completely realigned the electoral map into what it is now, 36 years later.
What was the Southern strategy? It was a successful attempt by the Republicans to appeal to white southerners’ racial resentments, to tap into the backlash against the Civil Rights Acts, and to sacrifice the black vote to do so. Initially, Republicans sought to appeal to white conservatives in the South by opposing the Voting Rights Act in the 1960s. That was too obviously racist and it backfired (see Goldwater’s 1964 campaign, where he lost the electoral college 486 to 52). However, by 1980, they’d come up with a new strategy, a way to appeal to racist fears without actually spelling it out: They called it “states’ rights.”
States’ rights allowed Nixon and Reagan to argue that the power should be put back into local and state governments, and in the South, those local and state governments were resentful of the federal Civil Rights laws being imposed upon them. “States’ rights” was what Democrats Strom Thurmond and George Wallace ran on. It was basically an end-around the Civil War. If the South couldn’t secede, then by damn, they ought to be able to make their own laws and not be subject to those of the Union.
Reagan also attacked the “welfare state,” and “welfare queens,” and stoked resentment toward African Americans by using coded language to appeal to white conservatives. This way, he got to have his cake and eat it, too. He could claim to be the party of Lincoln and appeal to voters above the Mason Dixon line, and he could win the South by turning majority whites against African Americans.
From a purely political standpoint, it was genius. Reagan dominated. From a cultural standpoint, it was immeasurably destructive. Reagan divided the nation along racial lines. He turned presidential elections into whites vs. blacks. He fucked us.
George H. Bush continued to employ the Southern strategy against Michael Dukakis with the Willie Horton attack ads in 1988. Horton was an imprisoned, African-American felon whom Michael Dukakis allowed to have a weekend furlough, and during that time, Horton committed assault, armed robbery, and rape. By repeating the name Willie Horton over and over and over again, and tying Dukakis to him, Bush reinforced Southern white fears about African Americans. Up until the Willie Horton attack ads, in fact, Dukakis was leading in the polls, but by stoking racial resentments, Bush convinced Southerners to vote for a stuffy, wealthy, Ivy-educated, blue-blood elitist (ironic now, isn’t it?)
The Southern strategy was a huge success for Republicans. The bad news is: The GOP has a lock on the South now. By stoking racial resentments, fears about gay marriage, and Second Amendment, the GOP has a virtual lock on the Deep South. Trump, as we have all seen, continues to prey upon those same fears, although he has added Muslims, Mexicans, and immigrants into the mix.
However, the good news is — as the country continues to diversify — that same strategy that worked in the South is alienating much of the rest of the country. Hopefully, this will be the year that the Southern strategy undoes the party of Lincoln. Moving ahead, the only way the Republicans can continue to win nationally is by abandoning the strategy completely and casting a wider net. Ultimately, I think, that will be good for the country, because presidential candidates will be forced to win over voters based on issues and not based on race, gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation.
At least, that’s what I hope.