The “Southern Strategy”: Exploiting Racial Tension… Will it Backfire? The 2016 election cycle has been one for the ages.
The 2016 election cycle has been one for the ages.
Just when you thought you’ve seen it all, with the overt racism and ill-treatment of America’s first African American president, Barack Obama, we have begun to see the evil resurgence and ugly reprisal of a deliberate and well-thought out strategy that has historically and effectively played upon the racist fears of White people in this country – the “Southern Strategy” is back.
The “Southern Strategy” is a technique birthed in the 1960s by the Republican Party as a way to exploit anti-African American sentiments and highlight select issues that placed fear in the hearts and minds of southern White voters about Black people by using racial rhetoric, masked with coded language, to solicit the support of those White voters, primarily in the South.
The strategy, which was successfully used by Republican Senator Barry Goldwater and Republican President Richard Nixon, helped Republicans win many traditional southern Democratic states, and caused many electoral votes to shift to the Republican Party. Although the “Southern Strategy” seemed to have become a thing of the past, it has picked up steam all over again since President Barack Obama was elected in 2008.
“We want our country back!”
“He’s a Muslim, not a Christian”
“Show us your birth certificate”
These are just a few of the many phrases that exploded onto social media, on the internet and on mainstream media outlets across the country after the election of President Obama, to seek to discredit him, indicate he was not an American and that the country had been somehow hijacked.
During the 1960s, former Alabama governor and racist Democrat George Wallace had no problem spewing whatever racist rhetoric he wanted when it came to openly berating Black people and minorities, in order to gain the undying support from his loyal Southern White voters. He did not care or apologize for his actions or rhetoric. Today the landscape has changed, but the underlying racist views have not. Same thing, different day.
As we look at what is happening in America today, especially during this 2016 election campaign, we see that Republican frontrunner Donald Trump has figured out a way to allow coded messages, buzz words and dog whistle politics to provide a fresh new and revised look to the “Southern Strategy” with an even more sinister and dangerous effect.
Trump seemed to have taken the “Southern Strategy” to new heights by using more modern buzz words and coded messaging to appeal to the inner-racist within those who have not had the open freedom to express it – until now.
“Make America Great Again”
“Barack Obama’s birth certificate is a fraud”
“It’s Time for the Silent Majority to Rise Up”
These are but a few of the many coded messages that Trump has been spewing, even prior to his announcement that he was officially running for the highest seat in the land.
At nearly all Trump events and rallies, it has become commonplace to see unprovoked assaults on Black people and minorities, hear racial slurs being thrown around like footballs and other vile rhetoric that is reminiscent of the time when the “Southern Strategy” was at its peak.
Instead of Trump doing anything to curtail it, he embraces it and encourages it by saying he would “pay their legal fees” if they physically assault someone who disagrees with him. Instead of Trump disavowing an endorsement from one of the most hate-filled and violent American hate groups of all time, he pretended to act as if he didn’t know who the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and its former grand wizard David Duke was.
Just when you thought the country was headed in the right direction after the election of President Obama, this activity has picked up full steam, which makes you wonder where America is really headed, and whether Trump and the Republican Party are helping to fan the “Southern Strategy” flames all over again.
In an interview that appeared in a 1970 New York Times article, Nixon political strategist Kevin Phillips broke down the spirit of the origination of the “Southern Strategy” technique, saying:
“From now on, the Republicans are never going to get more than 10 to 20 percent of the Negro vote and they don’t need any more than that… but Republicans would be shortsighted if they weakened enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans. That’s where the votes are. Without that prodding from the blacks, the whites will backslide into their old comfortable arrangement with the local Democrats.”
Phillips admitted that they were not instituting the use of the “Southern Strategy” technique merely because they loved White voters in the South, but he knew that if the “Southern Strategy” proved effective, it would allow the Republican Party to not only win the presidency, but would also help take control of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, along with all statewide offices in the South. They had a deeper and more long-term approach for using this technique, and it did prove effective. The Republican Party developed grass roots political organizations across the South, with dedicated efforts in place to support candidates for city, state and county positions, in addition to candidates seeking elected office on the local school boards.
Expounding even further on the sinister spirit of the “Southern Strategy,” New York Times columnist Bob Herbert, wrote a report about a 1981 interview published in Southern Politics in the 1990s by Alexander P. Lamis. That report spoke to the true heart of the “Southern Strategy.”
In that interview with Lamis, Lee Atwater, former Chairman of the Republican National Committee, discussed politics in the South, stating:
“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 forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a by-product of them is [that] 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 ‘Nigger, nigger’.”
In that same column, Herbert wrote:
“The truth is that there was very little that was subconscious about the G.O.P.’s relentless appeal to racist Whites. Tired of losing elections, it saw an opportunity to renew itself by opening its arms wide to White voters who could never forgive the Democratic Party for its support of civil rights and voting rights for Blacks.”
Running for president in 1988, supporters of George H.W. Bush used racially-charged commercials featuring the menacing mug shot of criminal Willie Horton, who is African American, to invoke fear in White voters.
During the 1990 re-election campaign of Republican U.S. Senator Jesse Helms, he attacked his opponent’s alleged support of “racial quotas,” most notably through an ad in which a White person’s hands are seen crumpling a letter indicating that he was denied a job to a Black person because of the color of his skin.
The Republican Party began trying to distance itself from the ‘Southern Strategy’ and once again appeal to black voters, but experienced minimal success.
Following George W. Bush’s re-election in 2004, Ken Mehlman, Bush’s campaign manager and Chairman of the RNC, held several large meetings with several African American business, community and religious leaders across the country.
In his speeches, Mehlman formally apologized for the Republican Party’s historic use of the “Southern Strategy” as it relates to politics. When asked about using the “Southern Strategy” as a strategy and a means to build the Republican Party’s dominance in the South, Mehlman replied:
“Republican candidates often have prospered by ignoring black voters and even by exploiting racial tensions…by the ‘70s and into the ‘80s and ‘90s, the Democratic Party solidified its gains in the African American community, and we Republicans did not effectively reach out. Some Republicans gave up on winning the African American vote, looking the other way or trying to benefit politically from racial polarization. I am here today as the Republican chairman to tell you we were wrong.”
As a result of the “Southern Strategy” technique, the Republican Party has lost their once loyal and dedicated group of voters and there are no signs that they will be able to get them back anytime soon. Over 90 percent of Black voters tend to vote and side with the Democratic Party.
Time will tell whether the Republican Party sees the African American voter as a sought after demographic or whether it has officially closed the door on pursuing that demographic anymore.