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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

No, the GOP’s “Southern Strategy” Wasn’t a Myth

One of the most tiresomely mendacious memes out there arose this week in congressional testimony, so I tried to blow it up one more time at New York.

There is a revisionist historical theory you hear now and then among conservatives — particularly African-American conservatives who are understandably a mite defensive about their position as a minority of a minority — holding that everything we think we know about the partisan politics of the post–civil-rights era is untrue. And it was enunciated again by the recently famous African-American pro-Trump activist Candace Owens, who was brought in by House Republicans to mock and disrupt a hearing Democrats convened on white nationalism, as the Washington Post reports:

“Owens, who tried to diminish the rise of white nationalism as an invention by Democrats to ‘scare black people,’ said there had never been a Republican effort to use racism to the party’s political advantage.

“‘Black conservatives are criticized for having ‘the audacity to think for themselves and become educated about our history and the myth of things like the Southern switch, the Southern strategy, which never happened,’ she told lawmakers.

I do not know if Owens subscribes to the fully developed right-wing theorythat white racist Lyndon Johnson concocted the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts and the Great Society program as part of a white racist conspiracy to ensnare African-Americans in the “plantation” of dependency on government. But I wouldn’t be surprised. It’s hard otherwise to deny the basic facts that southern white racists steadily moved, from the early 1960s to the 1980s, from their old stronghold in the Democratic Party to their new home in the GOP — the “southern switch” — or that Republican pols in and beyond the South pursued this development as a “strategy.”

And of course Republican pols, racist or not, promoted this development as a strategic masterstroke. In a 1970 interview with the New York Times, Kevin Phillips, the prophet of The Emerging Republican Majority and wonder-boy Nixon strategist, put it this way:

“From now on, the Republicans are never going to get more than 10 to 20 per cent 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.”

Nixon himself was famously in thrall to old-school southern segregationists like Strom Thurmond, who was given a veto over the 1968 vice-presidential nomination and over the administration’s Supreme Court appointments. His landslide reelection in 1972 was in no small part attributable to the capture of the entire 1968 George Wallace vote. Ronald Reagan beat Jimmy Carter in 1980 in part by convincing conservative white southerners finally to abandon Democrats once and for all. And the southern strategy was avidly pursued by later GOP strategists from Lee Atwater to Karl Rove.

Now a lot of people don’t know much about political history, and followers of a president who doesn’t read and routinely disregards facts probably can’t be expected to document their own myths very carefully. But they need to be challenged regularly.

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