The Myth of the “Myth” of the Southern Strategy

Southern Strategy

Right-wingers, as we’ve observed, are obsessed with rewriting history to cast themselves in a more favorable light. Inevitably, this includes trying to whitewash the movement’s core of racism and white nationalism — and in the process diverting attention elsewhere and saying “no, it’s really the other guys who are racists”. In this connection, they focus on the fact that 150 years ago or so, it was the Democratic Party that championed slavery, and the Republican Party that fought to eliminate it. What they ignore is that the two parties bearing those names back then bore no resemblance to the respective parties thus named today. Actually, they don’t just ignore this; they vehemently deny it when someone brings it up. Two particular phrases, closely connected, have been the targets of their denial: “party switch” and “Southern Strategy”.

“Party switch” refers to the idea that the G.O.P. of today more closely resembles the Democratic Party of yore (particularly on matters of race), and vice versa. In an effort to poo-poo this, right-wingers have narrowly defined “party switch” as the act of having a large number of politicians literally switch parties in a short space of time. And this, they correctly point out, did not happen.

Trouble is, that’s not really what “party switch” refers to in this context.  It means that the respective parties began to change their platforms to attract different kinds of politicians and different kinds of voters. And that definitely did occur. Prof. Kevin Kruse of the Princeton University history department has a concise and informative thread or two on Twitter documenting this shift.

For Democrats, this reversal had begun in earnest at least by 1947, with President Truman and other Democrats committing to civil rights. And arguably it reached its turning point in 1964 when a Democratic president, Lyndon Johnson, signed the watershed Civil Rights Act. Of course, the revisionists also like to cite this law and gleefully remind us that a larger percentage of Republicans than Democrats in Congress voted for it. But that doesn’t tell the whole story. Democrats had a commanding majority in Congress; and Congresspersons who represented the South, of either party, overwhelmingly opposed the Act. But breaking down the vote by geographic origin yields a  more meaningful result. Not only did a larger percentage of Northern Democrats than Northern Republicans support the bill in each chamber, but even a larger number of Southern Democrats than Southern Republicans. (In fact, a total of zero Southern Republicans voted for the bill, compared to 9 Southern Democrats.)

Civil Rights

For the Republicans, this realignment came about largely via the so-called Southern Strategy, which was a campaign to woo support in Dixie by appealing to segregationist sentiments. Right-wing revisionists are now claiming that this never occurred, historical evidence be damned. Typical of this denial is a little video from the right-wing revisionist organization PragerU. The speaker in the video is Carol M. Swain — even though she herself acknowledged the influence of the Southern Strategy in a book she wrote in 2002.

She’s a former professor of political science and law at Vanderbilt; she’s also African-American — both of which are supposed to give her words some weight. But what this video really shows is that teachers and African-Americans are human; and thus, there are always some of them out there who are willing to sell their souls for a prominent place in the right-wing pantheon.

Another relevant thing about Swain, by the way, is that she isn’t exactly playing with a full set of marbles. But that’s pretty much par for the course.

Carol Swain

And that trait comes through full-bore in her comments during the video in question.

Fabricated by left-leaning academic elites and journalists, the story went like this: Republicans couldn’t win a national election by appealing to the better nature of the country; they could only win by appealing to the worst. Attributed to Richard Nixon, the media’s all-purpose bad guy, this came to be known as “The Southern Strategy.” It was very simple. Win elections by winning the South. And to win the South, appeal to racists. So, the Republicans, the party of Lincoln, were to now be labeled the party of rednecks. But this story of the two parties switching identities is a myth.

She even makes the curious claim that the Little Rock Central High School episode of 1957 somehow took place before the 1956 election.

While she doesn’t explicitly say so here, the general idea that these revisionists put forth is that it was years, and even decades, after the fact that the “leftist myth” of the Southern Strategy was concocted, by those “left-leaning academic elites and journalists” . If so, somebody forgot to inform the journalists covering it in real time. Here, for example, is a newspaper clipping from 1962.

Joseph Alsop

So the term Southern Strategy was appearing in print at least by 1962. Are those leftist time travelers who went back and planted it there the same ones who planted a phony Obama birth announcement in a Hawaii newspaper?

Still, this was a journalist using the expression and not politicians themselves. Maybe those journalists were just hallucinating about all the actions by Republicans that would fall under the heading of Southern Strategy. If so, Republicans were hallucinating too. Here’s a letter from one G.O.P. strategist to another:

Southern Strategy 1
commentary by Angie Maxwell

So the Republicans themselves were bluntly using the term by at least 1969. But the question isn’t just a matter of whether they were actually using the words Southern Strategy. Even if somebody else had coined that term and the politicians themselves never had uttered it at all, they could be just as guilty of practicing it. And indeed they were. The Kevin Phillips referenced in the above passage was a political strategist who worked with Nixon. Here he is crowing in print about the success of the Southern Strategy.

Southern Strategy 6

Clearly, the G.O.P. learned how to implement the Southern Strategy without appearing overtly racist. In a notorious 1981 interview, notorious strategist Lee Atwater not only uses the term Southern Strategy but acknowledges that certain campaign words were coded appeals to racism. Today’s revisionists often deny the existence of “code words” among their ranks. But here’s the godfather of G.O.P. strategists himself freely acknowledging their use:

In other words, so what you had was two things happening that totally washed away the Southern strategy, the Harry Dent-type southern strategy. That whole strategy was based—although it was a more sophisticated than a Bilbo or a George Wallace—it was nevertheless based on coded racism. The whole thing. Bussing. We want a supreme court judge that wouldn’t [inaudible] rights. Anything you’d look at could be traced back to the race issue and the old Southern strategy.

And Atwater wasn’t done yet. A few years later, he worked on the campaign of the first George Bush, and was quite successful in rousing up the racist base with the infamous Willie Horton ad — which may have been responsible for completely turning the election around in favor of his candidate.

In 2005, Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman even apologized to the NAACP for his party’s history of exploiting the Southern Strategy — a history that was not yet over, and indeed is still not today.

And yet, writing for the Tennessee Star, Carol Swain responds to Professor Kruse’s critique of her video, calling his analysis an “attack”. In fact, she uses the word “attack” five times in the article — a good indication of a significant part of the right-wing problem, namely viewing everything in combative terms, us against them unto the death. Her bottom line is that “After carefully reviewing his data and its claims [wink wink], I stand behind the substantive message of my Prager University video.” In other words, “la la la, I can’t hear you.”

She doesn’t even attempt to discredit the irrefutable documentation that Kruse and others have presented about the Southern Strategy, except to suggest, quite falsely, that it consists of nothing more than cherry picking a few cases of Republicans being racist. For the most part, she just argues that the Southern Strategy couldn’t possibly be real because Republicans were capable of winning without it.  And for good measure, she throws in some staple right-wing lies and talking points, like claiming that the Supreme Court banned prayer in public schools; she even invokes the chimera of “black on black crime”, and the “Ivory Tower” of leftist academia. She irresponsibly parrots a quote attributed to LBJ that is almost certainly fake. And for sheer mind-blowing, jaw-dropping stupidity, it’s hard to top this:

I believe the emergence of the alt-right is a direct result of the Democratic Party utilizing identity politics to pit racial and ethnic groups against each other..

That’s right: if all else fails, you can always play the “librulz made me do it” card. Oh yeah, and she says that Candace Owens and Kanye West are “awakening” young people. No, really. This, mind you, is an esteemed professor at an American institution of higher learning. She seems to be on a mission to singlehandledly validate the unsavory image she and her fellow right-wingers are trying to paint of Ivory Tower academics. Sorry if calling out your bullshit and lunacy sounds like an attack, Dr. Swain.

So let’s see. We have journalists discussing the Southern Strategy while it was being implemented. We have Republican operatives discussing the Southern Strategy while it was in full swing. We have key Republican strategists bragging about its success, and explaining how it worked. We have Republicans apologizing for it. We even have a prominent revisionist (who normally talks in dopey soundbites) admitting its success herself during one of her more honest and lucid moments. Not bad at all for a mythical pursuit.

Yet the official spin from right-wingers is that it never existed, and the “party switch” never occurred. And that it is they who are the real champions of racial equality. Even as they cozy up to neo-Nazis, demonize Black Lives Matter and fiercely defend the Confederacy.


  1. POP,

    I have known about this false Republican talking point for years, but I thought it was just another outrageous piece of propaganda that, once disproved by Republicans and acknowledged, would be dropped by the GOP’s leaders. I am sure I have heard Republicans use it in the past, but only quite a while ago. Apparently, it’s still lurching forward even today, just like the undying zombie that it is.

    In one debunking article the author said we need to think in terms of conservatives and Liberals, not Republicans and Democrats, since many conservatives were not in favor of civil rights legislation and some Democrats—even southern Democrats—were. What is completely factual though, is that Republicans and Democrats of today, are as different as rain and snow. So Is this maneuver about easing the conscience of Southern Democrats who would then consider voting Republican not to be such a terrible thing?

    Thanks for the breakdown of the 1964 Civil Rights bill votes, since thinking in terms of percentages of southern Democrats and southern Republicans etc., makes the facts much clearer.

    I was only 12 years old when this legislation passed, and I was not aware at that time of how many Dems vs Republicans voted for it, much less knowing how southern Democrats or southern Republicans voted. What I was aware of though were things like my parents being in favor of the bill, and about watching live coverage of the famous March across the Edmund Pettit bridge, where non-violent protesters were attacked with Billy clubs, tear gas, and barking, biting, dogs. Not to mention brutal punches thrown by police officers, some of which landed on elderly women! My mother virtually screamed out loud and said something like “Why are they attacking those people?!!” Fortunately, live television coverage revealed just how low the police would sink. And this was the decisive factor for her as well as many of my neighbors that something very unjust and perverse took place in Alabama and expressed itself through ugly and willful hatred.

    My dad was a hardworking man who might have been a redneck, but he never said one harsh or demeaning thing about Black Americans or any ethnically different human beings. He just did not think he had the right to judge or feel superior about anyone.

    It is amazing to think that Republicans are still clinging to the worn-out meme about Dems being the biased ones, simply because Lincoln was a member of a quite different and young Republican party. Yes, it meant something quite different in those days to call oneself a Republican.

    I also knew the GOP lies, and misinforms like the political weasels many of them are, but I was not aware of the lengths to which they would go to try and rewrite history?

    Today Republicans will do and say anything to vilify their opponents. But it’s just so damn blatant to try and rewrite important history like some all-seeing Big Brother. And, if they sense that some kinds of criticisms aimed at them, are being effectively used against them, they pick up on their mojo and use to claim that it’s all those democrats who are (truly) being sinister?

    When Democrats were saying correctly, that Trump and his cronies project their faults onto Democrats, soon I heard Trump and his supporters start saying the same thing about Democrats, and there seems to be no limits to the depths Trump and his administration will sink, just to seek power and brainwash his supporters–so thoroughly in fact, that they are now willing to believe, or support virtually anything he says? If he said that purple Unicorns exist by the thousands and that they are occupied by the spirits of ungodly Democrats, I have no doubt that soon his supporters would be saying the same thing.

    POP, I am now a member of Twitter and have posted a few of your articles there. They are effective ways to debunk the kinds of tweets being posted on social media today. Is that OK? I always make sure to paste the URLs for your articles, so Readers will know what you write about and where you write it.

    Peter W. Johnson

  2. What we still don’t have is a single shred of evidence that the Southern Strategy was about appealing to racists voters.! Your quote from the 80s interview is referring to the fact that race issues exist and are important to black voters and should be addressed in order to appeal to black voters , not racists. Nice try.
    Something else we do have though is the signature racism of this Liberal author who impunes a credentialed African American professor in multiple ways, not the least of which is the disgustingly racist manor in which the author falsely and baselessly accuses the distinguished African American professor of being a liar who sold her soul. Wow! Especially considering the fact that the author has presented absolutely ZERO EVIDENCE of Racism as the Southern Strategy. Only words that she twists into a false context in order to manufacture evidence since , again, she has no actual evidence. At least the professor has a soul, unlike some people.

    • I don’t know if your reading comprehension is so poor that you overlooked the bald admission of racist intent in that interview you mentioned, or if you’re just indulging in denial. But if you are seriously unable to see the evidence that the Southern Strategy was all about racism, I wonder what your explanation is for the head of the RNC apologizing to African-Americans for it. Come to think of it, I have to wonder how you’d explain why reactionary revisionists like Prager and Swain try so hard to deny that the Southern Strategy ever existed at all. And if you think it’s racist to call out the bullshit of someone who happens to be African-American, then you have a very feeble grasp of what racism really entails.

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