The GOP ‘Southern Strategy’ Reconsidered

W. James Antle III Managing Editor
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When Ken Mehlman was chairman of the Republican National Committee, he apologized for the “Southern Strategy.”

According to the Washington Post, this strategy “started under Richard M. Nixon in 1968, and described Republican efforts to use race as a wedge issue.”

Mehlman — whose party had other things to be sorry about at the time — should have taken a look at his boss’ electoral map. In 2000 and 2004, George W. Bush won the majority of his electoral votes from Southern and border states. He carried all 11 states of the old Confederacy both times.

When Nixon was re-elected he won New York, Connecticut, Hawaii and Minnesota. Ronald Reagan carried Massachusetts twice. Both men won California twice. They were both re-elected in 49-state landslides. Nixon broke and Reagan approached 60 percent of the popular vote.

From modest beginnings in 1968, the GOP of Nixon and Reagan grew into a bigger and broader national majority than the party that eked out two terms for George W. Bush. Bush’s father beat Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis in the greater Boston suburbs despite losing the state.

In his new book about Nixon’s rise from the political grave, “The Greatest Comeback,” Patrick Buchanan argues “Nixon brought the South into the Republican column not because he shared their views on segregation or civil rights. He did not.”

Contends Buchanan, “What we shared was the South’s contempt for a liberal press and a hypocritical Democratic Party that had coexisted happily with Dixiecrats for a century but got religion when conservative Republicans began to steal the South away from them.” (RELATED: Pat Buchanan Was Right)

Martin Luther King, Jr. praised Nixon for his “assiduous labor and dauntless courage” in helping to get the Civil Rights Act of 1957 through the Senate. Nixon also supported the Civil Rights Acts of 1960, 1964 and 1968 as well as the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

It is often wondered what might have been if the Republican Party had nominated Nelson Rockefeller for president in 1964 instead of Barry Goldwater, who had been one of only six Republican senators to vote against that year’s Civil Rights Act.

But if Nixon had won the presidency in 1960 — when he took nearly a third of the black vote, a percentage no GOP presidential candidate has since come near — the landmark civil rights legislation of the 1960s might have been signed by a Republican president.

While no less a liberal than Adlai Stevenson shared the 1952 Democratic ticket with John Sparkman, a future signer of the segregationist Southern Manifesto, Nixon’s running mate in 1968 was Spiro Agnew, who was elected governor of Maryland as an opponent of racial discrimination in housing.

Agnew defeated Democrat George P. Mahoney, who had campaigned on the anti-open housing slogan “Your home is your castle!” Nixon associated Mahoney with segregationists George Wallace and Lester Maddox, excoriating the Democratic Party of “Maddox, Mahoney and Wallace.”

Even when Agnew denounced the riots that burned Baltimore and called on civil-rights leaders to reject extremists — frequently decried as racist dog-whistling about “law and order” — he asserted, “I publicly repudiate, condemn and reject all white racists.”

During the 1966 congressional campaign in which Republicans made major gains, the Washington Post ran a front-page story by David Broder headlined “Administration Challenged by Nixon to Repudiate Racists Seeking Office.”

Nixon himself wrote in the Post that “Republicans must not go prospecting for the fool’s gold of racist votes. Southern Republicans must not climb aboard the sinking ship of racial injustice. They should let Southern Democrats sink with it as they have sailed with it.”

Leave it to the Wallace Democrats, Nixon continued, “to squeeze the last ounces of political juice from the rotting fruit of racial injustice.”

Didn’t many of those Wallace Democrats, after backing the Alabama governor’s third-party presidential campaign in 1968, eventually join Nixon’s “new majority?” They certainly did, but that fact doesn’t discredit the Nixon-Reagan coalition.

The 11 states of the old Confederacy, then thoroughly dominated by segregationist Democrats, had been part of the liberal New Deal coalition. The contradictions were still evident when Hubert Humphrey — the man whose civil-rights push prompted the Dixiecrats to walk out of the 1948 Democratic National Convention — was forced to proclaim segregationist Maddox “a good Democrat.”

Nixon was able to get supporters of an open segregationist to instead cast their ballots for a president who would leave office with over 70 percent of Southern schools desegregated, compared with only 10 percent at the end of the Johnson administration. Support for Wallace’s American Independent Party atrophied from 13.5 percent of the popular vote in 1968 to just 1.4 percent in 1972.

For his part, Wallace remembered Nixon’s support for desegregation efforts during the Eisenhower administration, saying the Republican “put bayonets in the backs of the people of Little Rock.”

The Republican Party is not without sin on race. Many arguments for federalism and constitutionally limited government have been appropriated by racists.

But Republicans shouldn’t apologize for a political strategy that left overt racists and segregationists with less political power than they had at the end of the New Deal era.

As Buchanan reminds us, that new majority made the GOP a national rather than regional party.

W. James Antle III is the editor of The Daily Caller News Foundation and author of the book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped? Follow him on Twitter.