In a previous article, I discussed how the parties flipped policies and constituencies in 1964. The passage of the Civil Rights Act opened the south to the Republicans. They developed a Southern Strategy to capitalize on this chance.To understand this strategy as a whole, we will look at the description of the policy from a Republican insider who was a player in the implementation thereof. Lee Atwater was an adviser to Presidents Reagan and Bush, as well as the RNC Chairman
In 1981, Lee described the policy in an interview with Alexander P. Lamis. At the time, his name was supposed to be kept off the record. However, it was later revealed to be Atwater. Furthermore, an audio recording of the interview confirmed this fact. Here is how he described the Southern Strategy.
Lee Atwater on the Republican Southern Strategy.
As to the whole Southern strategy that Harry S. Dent, Sr. and others put together in 1968, opposition to the Voting Rights Act would have been a central part of keeping the South. Now you don’t have to do that. All that you need to do to keep the South is for Reagan to run in place on the issues that he’s campaigned on since 1964, and that’s fiscal conservatism, balancing the budget, cut taxes, you know, the whole cluster.
If you’re a Republican schooled at the feet of Limbaugh, or other right wing talk show hosts, you see a problem here. Rush has taught you that Republicans were responsible for passing the Civil Rights Act. This is true. However, when southern Democrats turned on the party, Republicans capitalized by opposing civil rights legislation. Not because the Republican Party itself was racist, mind you. They were simply attempting to cash in on the racism of voters that they were trying to reach.
At this point I must warn you. If that casual discussion of racist behavior made you uncomfortable, the next part will sicken you. However, we must address it to understand where we are today. Atwater went on.
The Southern Strategy gives birth to the dog whistle.
Y’all don’t quote me on this. You start out in 1954 by saying, “Ni**er, ni**er, ni**er”. By 1968 you can’t say “ni**er”—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. 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. 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 this”, is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Ni**er, ni**er”. So, any way you look at it, race is coming on the backbone.I chose to edit the “n word” because I don’t want that language on my blog.
The dog whistle.
In politics, a “dog whistle” is a direct appeal to a group using language that the target audience will hear and recognize without overtly saying controversial things. So notice, Atwater says that they couldn’t use the n word anymore. Thus, they would say “forced bussing” or “state’s rights”. Some Republicans still use the latter term to try to deny that the Civil War was about slavery.
The dog whistle progressed, as the GOP incorporated their strategy into their policy agenda. Hence, cutting taxes and welfare programs were innocent, or even positive sounding ideas to the public. However, in the south folks would hear that you’re taking welfare from the blacks and giving it back to the whites.
To be clear, tax cuts and welfare reform are ideas that have their own merits. Furthermore, as Atwater attests to, these were Regan’s policies based on their merits. I, as a young Republican, subscribed to these ideas on their merits. The cynical thing here is how the party used them intentionally to reach out to racist voters.
Moving on from the Southern Strategy.
By the mid 1990’s the Republicans had a lock on the south in Presidential elections. Hence, the party started to move away from courting voters on racial issues. In 2000, they won the White House with George W. Bush. After September 11th, he gave a great speech reminding us that Islam is a religion of peace. Thus, we were not to hold peaceful Muslims accountable for the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
In 2008, Republican Presidential Candidate John McCain further advanced this notion. He confronted a voter who thought that Barack Obama was a Muslim.
“He’s a decent family man [and] citizen that just I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what the campaign’s all about. “Vox
Political Correctness and beyond.
For very good reasons, voters who were attracted to the Republican Party by the Southern Strategy were put off by this generation of Republican leaders. Now remember, Reagan’s policies were marketed in the south as being “white friendly”. Hence, by their pushing for his ideas some Republicans were hearing the dog whistle. However, there was nothing behind it. The Party had moved on from reaching out to southern whites.
Voters who felt spurned by this lamented “political correctness”. In other words, Bush wasn’t saying nice things about Muslims because he meant them. He said them because it sounded good. He was reaching out to minorities, the way the party had reached out to them.
Political correctness became “virtue signaling”. Now, not only were anti-bigotry statements by Republicans disingenuous, but they were trying to signal a fake virtue to others. Hence, a portion of the Republican base felt not just betrayed, they felt belittled.
The Tea Party and the Forgotten Americans.
In 2008, insult would be added to injury. The Democrats nominated Barack Obama, a black man with a Muslim name. For some Republicans, this was more than they could handle. There was a void in the party. An opening was created for the reintroduction of the Southern Strategy. Hence, politicians rushed in to fill the void.
As a Republican at that time, I fought the worst instincts of the party from the inside. I began to vote in primaries to ward off the Tea Party voters. I spoke out against their anger to my fellow Republicans. However, in 2016 it became apparent that my side had lost the battle.
Donald Trump campaigned on the Southern Strategy. However, he defied even some of the constraints that Lee Atwater expressed. He openly called for banning all Muslims from entering the country. Furthermore, he called for a wall on the southern border specifically because the Mexican people trying to come here are bad people that we don’t want. Moreover, the racist element in the GOP felt emboldened like never before. They went so far as to have rallies like “Unite The Right”, which was a white supremacist rally organized by the campaign manager of a Republican senatorial candidate.
Racism or pandering?
Because of President Trump’s involvement in reviving the Southern Strategy, it’s easy to call him a racist. However, that is missing the point of what is happening here. One doesn’t have to be a racist or bigot to support President Trump. One simply has to be willing to tolerate his pandering to racists and bigots.
To be clear, there are rewards for their tolerance of intolerance. As a former Republican, I’m quite happy with Justice Gorsuch, and several of the judges that he nominated. Furthermore, I’m happy with the funding that the military has received. However, I’m deeply disturbed by the culture that the President stokes. The open bigotry expressed by many of his supporters. Unfortunately, they are often responding to bigoted things said by the President himself.
Further complicating the matter is the fact that President Trump isn’t actually conservative. Hence, we get the negativity of his words without the positivity of his actions. Yes, he cuts taxes. However, that’s only half of the equation. He continues to spend lavishly. Thus, we’re seeing trillion dollar deficits.
For what shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?
Has the GOP lost it’s soul?
I would argue that they have. The Southern Strategy is no longer an evil necessary to advance conservative governing principles. Moreover, conservative governing has fallen victim to perpetuating the Southern Strategy. The bigoted talking points aren’t the side dish anymore. They’re the main course.
Ronald Reagan was a great Conservative. However, he would be trounced in a Republican Primary today. Why? He was a staunch capitalist. He opposed socialism. Reagan favored small government and state’s rights. However, Reagan opposed a fence on the border. He supported educating the children of illegal immigrants and granting amnesty to their parents. Furthermore, he even supported reasonable gun control measures.
For Republicans in the 70’s and 80’s, the Southern Strategy was a means to an end. It was how they rose to power. For Republicans today, it is the end game. It is a governing strategy. It’s not a way to get bigots to vote for them. It’s a way to implement bigoted policies. The dog whistle has become open bigotry. The bigoted statements have become bigoted policies. Moreover, the bigotry has become the point of governing.
Republicans don’t say “terrorists” to excite Islamophobic voters. They say it to try to keep Muslim refugees out of the country. No longer do they say “illegal immigrants” to excite those who fear the growing Hispanic population. They say it to attack legal migration like assylum claims, refugees, and family reunification. Moreover, they don’t say “immorality” to excite homophobic voters. They said it to push for the “right” of businesses to discriminate against gays and transgender. The hate is the point.
Where does this leave people like myself?
I am a former Republican. I knew about the Southern Strategy, but this is the first time I have addressed it. If you feel like I deserve criticism for that, you are probably right. Perhaps I’ve been attacked by the beast that I tolerated in my own party.
That said, I have drawn the line. I realize that I am voting against my political views by supporting Democratic candidates. So why do I do it? Because what should it profit me to gain an ideal government while losing a good and moral society?
Morality isn’t having a straight neighbor. It’s loving your neighbor, and behaving in a way that you can be loved. Excluding people who worship differently than you doesn’t make a society moral. In fact, it makes it immoral. Every bit as immoral as the debt we are leaving our children by abandoning conservative governing in favor of fighting culture wars.
My hope is that President Trump can be defeated in 2020. Then, perhaps Republicans can be lured back into conservative governance and away from culture wars. If so, I may rejoin them again in the future. If not, then I will have to continue to support candidates with vastly different governing ideas than mine. At the end of the day, I’d rather live under a liberal government than in a hateful culture. We don’t always have a choice, but that is what I will fight for.