Georgia Today: Will 2020 Spell The End Of The Southern Strategy?
For years, the Southern Strategy has been used by Republicans to great effect, but could 2020 spell the end of it? Angie Maxwell, co-author of "The Long Southern Strategy," joins host Steve Fennessy on Georgia Today.
Steve Fennessy: This is Georgia Today. I'm Steve Fennessy. It's Friday, Oct. 30, 2020. For at least a half century, white Southern voters have been courted by presidential candidates from both parties who appeal to their fears and concerns about race, about religion, about the roles of women in society. It's called the Southern Strategy. And Donald Trump is just the latest politician to tear a page from its playbook.
Donald Trump: The unhinged left-wing mob is trying to vandalize our history, desecrate our monuments, our beautiful monuments.
Steve Fennessy: But now, just days away from the election and with President Trump trailing in the polls, are we seeing the end of the Southern Strategy or will another Trump upset confirm it as a Republican political tactic for years to come? Today, my guest is Angie Maxwell, a University of Arkansas professor and co-author of the book The Long Southern Strategy: How Chasing White Voters in the South Changed American Politics. So, Angie, when we talk about the Southern Strategy, it seems like different people have different ideas of what it is. What is the Southern Strategy?
Angie Maxwell: Well, I like to call it the Short Southern Strategy and make a distinction between kind of the common knowledge of what it is and what my research has shown. So, short version is: after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which LBJ, Democratic president, signed, the Republican Party decided to try to capitalize on that white kind of racial angst over those civil rights changes and break up the southern bloc in hopes of building a path to an Electoral College, you know, victory. And they kind of played to those feelings and emotions, and their nominee Barry Goldwater picks up five Deep South states and then their nominee Richard Nixon tweaks that strategy. And lo and behold, the South turns red. That's the short version.
Steve Fennessy: And so — so stretching back into even deeper history in the South. You know, it was hard to find a southern white person who identified as a Republican, you know, before World War II. I mean, that was the party of Lincoln, the party that defeated the South.
Angie Maxwell: Absolutely. After Reconstruction ends and the troops pull out, it's not long before there's very little left of the Republican Party, you know, in the region. And once kind of southern white Democrats got back into control, they really locked down the one-party system in every way that they could. And it stays, you know, solidly blue until we start seeing some cracks in the late 1940s.
Steve Fennessy: And the late 1940s brings us Strom Thurmond running as a Dixiecrat. What's a Dixiecrat?
Angie Maxwell: Well, the Dixiecrats were a third-party effort by southern Democrats who were really upset that the National Democratic Party was moving towards a slightly more pro-civil rights platform. Harry Truman had been the first president to speak at the NAACP. He had integrated the military by executive order. And when he was renominated to run again in ‘48, you know, southern Democrats were very upset. And they thought that if they kind of pulled out and ran as a third party, they would either keep Truman from winning or keep anyone from getting an Electoral College majority, throwing the election into the House of Representatives and the national Democratic Party would kind of come crawling back. But, as you know, Truman squeaked out a victory and that left those southern Democrats in kind of a purgatory of sorts. Kind of in search of a party. They're going to try to pull the Democrats back and then they're going to start kind of flirting with Republicans, too.
Steve Fennessy: I think one of the things that I took away from your book is that party affiliation is sort of secondary in the South. It's more which party is more hewing closely to what I want. And so I guess that's what my question for you is: What are those things that matter most?
Angie Maxwell: That's a great question. For southern whites, because the South has had kind of a one-party system, whether it was a Democratic system or a Republican system, you know, there just hasn't been, you know, long periods of two-party competition. Perhaps we're in one of them now. And so when you're not competing about party, it turns into what, you know, famous political scientist V.O. Key called, you know, a politics of entertainment and kind of personality. So "Who is most like me? Who is the most Southern?" And that has become who promotes kind of the racial status quo, the gender status quo, and a kind of increasingly Christian nationalist kind of energy. And those three things, that kind of trifecta, is then what the Republican Party, as it kind of rebranded itself in the Southern image, has really played to, despite a lot of people in that party not liking that they're doing that.
Steve Fennessy: Right.
Angie Maxwell: That's where they've gone.
Steve Fennessy: So you mentioned the 1964 election in which Barry Goldwater sort of made the first overt efforts to bring into the Republican Party disenfranchised southern white voters. Is there one person whose idea that was? What did your research show?
Angie Maxwell: You know, it's never one person. But when you start digging more deeply into how Goldwater emerges, what you find is, you know, a beginning kind of faction and divide within the Republican Party. It's strange bedfellows. There's anti-communists who are hardcore and think that, you know, Eisenhower is a little bit soft on communists. There's anti-labor folks who do not like the New Deal, you know, workers’ rights and the decades that came after that and the growth of unions. And then, of course, there's like a nativist streak that don't — you know, are not responding well to increased immigration efforts. At the Republican National Convention in 1964, as two factions fought within the Republican Party on the issue of civil rights, Barry Goldwater, in his acceptance speech for the presidential nomination, refused to denounce kind of extremism in terms of racial violence.
Barry Goldwater: I want to remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.
Steve Fennessy: And one of the things you mentioned in your book was 1968 and Richard Nixon is running for president against not Lyndon Johnson, but Hubert Humphrey. And he met — Richard Nixon did — in Atlanta with Strom Thurmond, who by that time obviously was an established political leader in the South. Kind of a new Republican, though; had just switched parties a few years earlier. And what were they talking about? Because Nixon clearly knew that he would probably need the South.
Angie Maxwell: Absolutely. Well, you know, Strom Thurmond, the second that Barry Goldwater got the nomination, you know, Strom Thurmond —
Steve Fennessy: In ‘64.
Angie Maxwell: Switched his — yeah. In ‘64, he switched. And so Strom Thurmond was kind of seen as the guy in the South that held, you know, some power that might get some Democrats to kind of convert over or could pull some of those voters. But George Wallace was also running.
Steve Fennessy: George Wallace, the segregationist governor from Alabama in the 1960s.
Angie Maxwell: Yeah the segregationist governor of Alabama. And what Nixon knew is that, you know, he was going to have to get Strom Thurmond away from endorsing Wallace and instead fighting and endorsing him. And Nixon appealed to Thurmond's strategic side about — look what happened with Goldwater. He went so far right that he got the Deep South and lost the rest of the country. Right. This is how we have to do that. And we need surrogates who will spread the message because Nixon's going to have to code it.
Steve Fennessy: And how did he code it?
Angie Maxwell: So if you look at Nixon when he ran in 1960, he runs a very pro-civil rights campaign.
Richard Nixon: I want to talk to you for a moment about civil rights, equal rights for all our citizens.
Angie Maxwell: It's like night and day. And then come 1968, he’s creating a sense of urgency about protesters and things need to quiet down.
Richard Nixon: It is time for an honest look at the problem of order in the United States. Dissent is a necessary ingredient of change, but in a system of government that provides for peaceful change, there is no cause that justifies resort to violence.
Angie Maxwell: Law and order. There's riots in the streets. And, you know — and these are being instigated by African Americans in the Civil Rights Movement who are getting increasingly aggressive.
Reporter: Mr. Nixon is appearing in the doorway now, preceded by members of his staff and members of the Secret Service.
Richard Nixon: Having lost a close one eight years ago and having won a close one this year, I can say this: Winning is a lot more fun.
Angie Maxwell: Even though Nixon wins the South, the South goes right back to blue when Jimmy Carter runs in ‘76. I mean, he sweeps the entire South.
Steve Fennessy: Well he’s in Georgia.
Angie Maxwell: Absolutely. He's one of them.
Political Advertisement: Jimmy Carter knows what it's like to work for a living. Until he became governor, he put in 12 hours a day in his shirtsleeves during harvest at his farm.
Angie Maxwell: But Republicans at that point, you know, after you lose an election, what do Republicans do there? You know, doing what any party does when it loses. You know, dissect it. "Why do we lose?" There was a big argument about should they keep pursuing that southern bloc or were they just going to lose those folks every time, right? And they realized that the civil rights urgency has kind of passed and they're going to have to either create that sense of urgency again about race or find other kind of cleavages in the southern electorate. So Phyllis Schlafly, that's when she kind of comes to prominence…
Phyllis Schlafly: … And then ERA is a big attack on the rights of the homemaker. The laws of every state make it the obligation of the husband to support his wife, to provide her with a home, to support their minor children. The woman in the home can draw Social Security benefits based on her husband's earnings, even though she's been a homemaker all her life. Now, all these things will be lost when you apply a rule that says that everything must be equal. Now until you can make it equal for men to have the babies just like women, then it is a double burden to the women to say that the rules from family support should be equal on the husband and the wife.
Steve Fennessy: And Phyllis Schlafly, of course, most of us recall her as drumming up a lot of the opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment and — which ultimately failed in large part because of that opposition, right?
Angie Maxwell: Yes, absolutely. So Schlafly, she'd been a Republican kind of operative before then in pushing to move the party to the right. When the Equal Rights Amendment passes through the House and the Senate with like 90 percent of the vote in the fall of ‘71 and spring of ‘72, Schlafly starts getting organized. And in the first year the ERA is, you know, ratified in 30 states. And that's when she comes on the scene and she makes a partnership with Lottie Beth Hobbs of the Southern Baptist Convention. And they, you know, activate a lot of southern white women and tell them that the ERA, if it passes, is going to force them to work and force them to put their kids in government day care. And, you know, there just wasn't an infrastructure very much for working women in the South. White women. And because of that, it scared those women a lot. And they marched and organized and helped kill it. And Schlafly worked with Ronald Reagan, too. And that's when Reagan's team, they pull 40,000 American women. They divide them into 64 categories. They call them Nancys, Bettys, Helens. They give each one a name and they realize that the women that they need in those Southern states are very upset about the ERA. And so after 40 years of having it in their platform, the Republican Party drops it. It's not that the effort to kind of maintain white racial hierarchy or appeal to that white racial angst went away. They just added to it and they morphed it, honestly. So the law and order gives way to Ronald Reagan's push for colorblindness. It was a deliberate effort for "How do you deny structural racism," right? That's what colorblindness does. I mean, most people are not aware that's what they mean when they say that. But Southerners were eager to kind of move past race. White Southerners were. And so colorblindness sounds really good. But what it also does is it means the federal government doesn't need to spend any money on programs that help dismantle structural racism. It means money that is spent can even be construed as reverse racism, right? And there is a definite effort to mask some of the appeals to white Southerners with fiscal conservatism and with, you know, colorblindness. And that — that works.
Ronald Reagan: In Chicago, they found a woman who holds the record. She used 80 names, 30 addresses, 15 telephone numbers to collect food stamps, Social Security, veterans' benefits for four nonexistent deceased veteran husbands, as well as welfare. Her tax-free cash income alone has been running $150,000 dollars a year.
Angie Maxwell: The welfare queen, the abuse of the money being used, the no longer — it’s no longer needed. All of that is an effort to continue to appeal to those voters.
Steve Fennessy: And I recall in the 1980s, the ascendance of Lee Atwater as sort of a prime operative in the GOP. What role did he play in sort of taking the Southern Strategy to a different level?
Angie Maxwell: The Strategists, including Lee Atwater who, you know, comes out of South Carolina.
Steve Fennessy: Right.
Angie Maxwell: They saw what some national Republicans kind of didn't see. And that's if you were in the South, what was effective was a technique called positive polarization. You don't necessarily define who you are as a politician or party, but you define what you're not. And when you do that, you combine all of those people who don't want to be that. That was effective in building coalitions, you know, in the South. In this famous 1981 recording, Atwater described what Republicans can do to appeal to racists without sounding racist. He uses the N-word, which has been bleeped out.
Lee Atwater: You start out in 1954 by saying [BLEEP] [BLEEP] [BLEEP]. By 1968 you can’t say [BLEEP]; that hurts you, it backfires. So you say stuff like "forced busing," "states' rights" and all that stuff. And you’re getting so abstract now, you’re talking about cutting taxes and all of these things you’re talking about are totally economic things, and the byproduct of them is, Blacks get hurt worse than Whites.
Angie Maxwell: But it took 40 years of infrastructure building and it took issues related to race, but also to gender and also to religion. That trifecta is necessary for, you know, Republicans to build a majority in those areas.
Steve Fennessy: Just ahead, how the Southern Strategy is shaping up to work — or not work — leading up to this year's presidential election. This is Georgia Today.
Steve Fennessy: This is Georgia Today. I'm Steve Fennessy. I'm talking with Angie Maxwell, author of The Long Southern Strategy. Angie, all of a sudden in 2020, Georgia is now a battleground state. President Trump's been here. He was here in Macon not long ago.
Donald Trump: I love Georgia. I love being with you. This is Georgia. This is Macon, Georgia. We won Macon, Georgia; we’re gonna win it again. It's great to be back in the heart of this incredible state with the thousands of loyal, hard-working, unbelievable American patriots. Thank you very much.
Steve Fennessy: Was he an expected or an unexpected progression of the Southern Strategy?
Angie Maxwell: I will say: This did not have to be Trump. But I gave a series of talks in 2016 called “The Inevitability of Donald Trump.” Not that he was going to win the general, but it was more about that he was going to win the primary. And in the beginning, people thought I was crazy. But I was watching the list of people and I was realizing how many Southern states for the Republican primaries are winner-take-all and how it was such a crowded field. And who is playing towards that racial resentment and that kind of what we measure is modern sexism and a Christian nationalism? Because that's gonna get you about 30 percent and 30 percent in a crowded field is what wins. And so I just saw that and I thought, "This is amazing, how is this person going to portray that?" And, you know, he's from New York and a billionaire, you know, or a millionaire, whatever.
Steve Fennessy: And not a religious person by any measure.
Angie Maxwell: He's a wealthy person. Wealthy person, definitely by Southern standards, right? But those three markers built kind of an identity bridge with those southern white voters. And you kind of start realizing that Trump's the one that's sounding all those notes. Now, it's not a majority, but of the Republican Party in the South it's a big enough piece that in a crowded field, it wins. Our effort is to get beyond this argument that you hear all the time about, “Why do these, you know, poor white Southerners vote against their economic self-interests,” right? Thinking they're kind of, like, dumb. When you feel like your economic situation is not going to get better no matter which party is in charge, you know, when people don't really feel like there's going to be an option for things to get better, then they vote on their values. And so they're not necessarily rational economic voters from an outsider's perspective, but they’re rational identity voters. And it's not dumb, right? It's completely logical if you kind of really see where people are.
Steve Fennessy: You gave some talks a few years ago about the inevitability of Donald Trump. And here we are a few days away from an election where he is trying to get a second term. And if you were to look at the polls, certainly here in Georgia, they're neck and neck. And in fact, some of the polls have Biden running a few points ahead of Trump at this point. Are we seeing a natural perhaps end to the Southern Strategy or is it just taking on a new gradation?
Angie Maxwell: You know, there's a cost to playing the Southern Strategy this hard. It's the comparison between George Wallace and Nixon. George Wallace, who ran hardcore, and explicit and overt on a lot of these issues, and Nixon, who kind of, you know, packaged them and made them more palatable and sounded more moderate, and used some coded language. And so there is a part of it that Trump has gone so far that you — you can lose a few points in the middle. Absolutely. Or from independents. But there's also, in states like Georgia, you know, there's been a multi-election-cycle effort for Democrats to rebuild their infrastructure. I mean, we know when you're in power for as long as Democrats were in the South and then you're not — and the Republican Party's been busily building its infrastructure, you know, a lot of state Democratic parties were kind of hollowed out, like they had not had to compete. And they've had to rebuild that. And that takes time and effort and a lot of campaigns that come close and lose and building on that data, building on those relationships and networks —
Steve Fennessy: And the demographic shifts, too.
Angie Maxwell: Absolutely. Generational change also. And so I think that the Southern Strategy can go too far. But I don't think it's enough alone. I think you have to have a demographic shift and you have to have strong organization and a multi-cycle plan.
Steve Fennessy: Right.
Angie Maxwell: But I'm — I'm — the thing I'm looking to see, the thing I'll be watching on election night is the southern white women and their vote because, you know, 75% percent of white women in Georgia did not vote for Stacey Abrams for governor. And they — Hillary Clinton won white women outside of the South by four points, but she lost them in the South by 30. And so they have been a real stronghold for the Republicans. And I know we keep hearing pundits talk about suburban women are moving away from Trump. And I just will be interested to see if that also holds true in the South. If it does, Republicans have a real problem because that has been a really solid piece of their base. But I think Democrats need to make more effort to reach those women and understand those women in order to try to compete for that demographic. So we'll see if those women move as well.
Steve Fennessy: My thanks to University of Arkansas professor Angie Maxwell. She's co-author of The Long Southern Strategy. You can follow election night coverage on GPB, radio and TV and online at GPB.org. I'm Steve Fennessy. This is Georgia Today, a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. You can subscribe to our show at GPB.org/GeorgiaToday or anywhere you get podcasts. Please leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts. Have a story idea? Connect with us at GeorgiaToday@GPB.org. Our producers are Sean Powers and Pria Mahadevan. Our intern is Eva Rothenberg. Thanks for listening. We'll see you next week.
Transcript by Eva Rothenberg