Let’s recite the myth together. Richard Nixon, on the campaign trail in 1968, visits a Southern state and is shocked by the enthusiastic reception he receives. His campaign team scrambles to build a strategy that will tap into Southerner’s rage over the Civil Rights Acts of 1964-65. That cynical strategy evolves into a grand, successful scheme to flip the “solid South” and make the GOP competitive there.
Untangling myth from history in the story of the South’s great political switch is challenging. Participants in that history have little incentive to be candid. Many competing factors were in play and we always struggle to avoid conflating institutional and individual actions in our history. Truth is buried deep beneath layers of self-interested distortion and complexity.
Adding difficulty to the effort, Nixon’s political aides did in fact construct and attempt to implement a Southern Strategy. Their efforts are well documented. They even adopted the term itself.
What makes the Southern Strategy a myth is that it confuses correlation with causation. What makes it dangerous is the way it whitewashes the forces behind our current political dysfunction.
The Southern Strategy was not a successful Republican initiative. It was a delayed reaction by Republican operatives to events they neither precipitated nor fully understood. Republicans did not trigger the flight of the Dixiecrats, they were buried by it. That is the unacknowledged reality of the Great Dixiecrat Migration which continues to haunt our politics in the present.
Racist Southern Democrats began their ugly break from the Democratic Party twenty years prior to the Southern Strategy. Their move was sparked by Truman’s desegregation of the military and it was led by Senator Strom Thurmond. The history of the South’s switch from one-party rule under Democrats to one-party rule under Republicans starts in 1948 with Thurmond’s third-party campaign for the White House and ends in 2014 when the Southern states returned to full one-party control.
Republicans’ first tried to exploit this split in 1964. Titled “Operation Dixie, Goldwater experienced some success in his effort to win Electoral votes in the South. That effort had little impact farther down the ballot.
Party switching started with a trickle in the early ‘60’s, led by Thurmond himself, but it remained a top-down phenomenon for another twenty years. Established Democratic Party figures already in office that possessed a standing pipeline of money and infrastructure led the break one by one. Those coming up through the ranks remained largely loyal and solidly Democratic. Party switching was a privilege of those who were already in power.
In 1989, a young Democratic State Legislator named Rick Perry switched to the GOP to run for Texas Agriculture Commissioner. He was riding a fresh wave that would gain momentum over the next few years reaching much deeper into the Dixiecrat ranks. These younger politicians were taking advantage of a new political cover and institutional groundwork created by religious fundamentalists.
While Mainline Protestants North and South had lined up fairly consistently in favor of Civil Rights, Southern evangelicals, especially the powerful Southern Baptist congregations, had been solid defenders of segregation. Within a decade after their decisive failure to protect Jim Crow they had emerged from their defeat under a new brand.
The Moral Majority and other groups mobilized initially to block the desegregation of religious schools but very quickly adapted their rhetoric behind an officially race-neutral “culture war.” Starting in the late ‘70’s they were the first to begin organizing precinct-level activism inside the Republican Party in the South.
Before the fundamentalists began to mobilize inside the GOP, the grassroots structure of the party in the South was practically empty. By the mid-80’s, the party had been able to elect Senators and even a few Governors in Southern states, but the absence of ‘feet on the street’ made it nearly impossible to compete for most state and local positions. The Southern Strategy assembled by Nixon’s strategists did nothing to fill that gap.
Local party officials, where there were any, were mostly business figures, a few Taft Republicans and Birchers, and a collection of migrants with Northern Republican roots. The party was commercially oriented, anti-union, and quietly sympathetic to Civil Rights in a manner similar to Republicans elsewhere. Fundamentalist activism in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s began to change the character of the party and led to clashes with the so-called Republican “establishment.”
By the early ‘90’s those clashes reached a crescendo as the new religious wing took over major grassroots Republican organizations. In Houston the fight was particularly ugly and prolonged, lasting half the decade. Fundamentalist extremists eventually assumed full control of the party there and began to impose religious restrictions and a newly rigorous discipline on party chairs. That pattern continues there today.
Dixiecrats’ migration to the GOP was boosted by the 1994 wave election in a way that defined the party’s future direction. National factors in ’94 created a massive Republican bloc-vote in places where the party had never before been competitive, giving rise to the Stockman Effect. Named for the outlandish Republican Congressman Steve Stockman, the Stockman Effect, far more than the Southern Strategy, explains what happened to the Republican Party over the course of the Dixiecrat Migration.
Most state and local offices on the ballot across the South in the 1994 Republican primary had been uncontested. Almost no one who was serious about public service as a judge or commissioner or sometimes even a Congressman would bother seeking the Republican nomination. Republican ballot positions were often filled by whatever local oddballs and perennial candidates happened to sign up.
In November 1994 those oddballs were swept into office.
Some of them remained in office a long time. Many of them like Congressman Steve Stockman, were so transparently dysfunctional that they were quickly swept back out. Very few of them went away.
Cloaked in the minimal legitimacy gained by their period in office they went on to influential roles in the party structure. Stockman’s wife became a national GOP delegate. Stockman himself would return to Congress a few years later. He would have remained there, making an idiot of himself in the manner of a Louie Gohmert or Steve King but for his bizarre decision to challenge John Cornyn for Texas’ Senate seat.
’94 was a signal year in the South’s pivot from one-party white Democratic rule to one-party white Republican rule. George W. Bush became Texas’ Governor. It was the last election in which Texas Republicans would lose a statewide office. Between 1994 and 2002 the switch in Texas was complete. The last southern state (apart from Virginia) would be in Republican hands by 2014.
In a moment of unusual candor, Nixon and Reagan political operative Lee Atwater explained the Southern Strategy to reporters in 1981. His comments have become the accepted standard of how Republicans allegedly drew Southern Democrats into the party and continued the fight against Civil Rights using new rhetoric:
You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—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 “Nigger, nigger.”
Atwater’s statements are electric, but as an explanation of what drew the Dixiecrats into the GOP they are entirely misleading. It’s not that Republicans learned to couch their language and conceal their racist motives. What happened was that Southern segregationists found new language and a largely empty Republican political structure through which to express it.
You would be hard-pressed to find a Republican figure anywhere in the country in 1954 who engaged in the kind of race-baiting Atwater described. The evolution he outlines did in fact occur, but it was the Dixiecrats fleeing the Democratic Party, not traditional Republicans, who brought that legacy and underwent that transformation.
There’s hubris in characterizing Republicans as having “courted” Southern voters into a new alliance. In reality, late 20th century Republicans hoping to shape an appeal in the South were foolishly trying to ride an avalanche. What’s left of the Republican Party as it once existed is buried somewhere beneath tons of noxious debris as the active racism of Jim Crow’s defenders has become the quiet racism of the culture wars.
Our myths of the Southern Strategy are dangerous for the way they obscure the Republican Party’s central problem – its new, unintended role as the vehicle of white supremacy in the 21st century. History denied is history repeated. Republicans will not shake this burden without first confronting it.