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.)
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.