The Southern Strategy is a Republican electoral strategy designed to increase political support among white voters by appealing to their racism and bigotry. Likewise, the Trump administration’s electoral approach has adopted the same divisive ideology — which has been quite useful thus far. By playing on those same racial tensions, Trump has been successful in driving a wedge between rural white voters and people of color.
As I’ve discussed many times in my work, the racially-charged, divisive approach to politics that we see today isn’t new. Much of the language that is a constant in our society became popularized with the Southern Strategy employed by Republicans in the 1960s. It’s not hard to notice the similarities in the rhetoric as the motivations behind the rhetoric are also similarly clear.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the civil rights movement and the dismantling of many Jim Crow laws deepened the existing racial tensions in much of the Southern United States — later spreading among rural voters nationally. At the time, Republicans such as Senator Barry Goldwater and then-presidential candidate Richard Nixon developed region-specific strategies that contributed to the political realignment of a large portion of white conservative voters who had traditionally supported the Democratic Party. It also helped push the Republican party further to the right. A push that continues today.
As with the Trump administration, the Southern Strategy presented narratives that suggest Republican leaders consciously appeal to the racial grievances of white voters. This top-down strategy is generally believed to be the driving force that transformed Republican politics during the civil rights era. While others challenge this narrative, suggesting a more bottom-up strategy — which recognizes the centrality of the racial backlash in the South that contributed to party realignment — thus proposing that the backlash was a defense of de facto segregation in the suburbs rather than overt resistance to racial integration. Either way, the racial backlash in America at the time was a story where both narratives fueled the flames of racial tensions respectively.
Because of this electoral strategy, the Republican Party has continuously failed to fight off the image that they are the party of White Supremacy. This maneuvering has made it difficult for Republicans to win back the support of Black voters in recent decades. In 2005, Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman formally apologized to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for exploiting racial tensions to win elections while ignoring the Black vote altogether.
“Republican candidates often have prospered by ignoring black voters and even by exploiting racial tensions […] by the ’70s and into the ’80s and ’90s, the Democratic Party solidified its gains in the African-American community, and we Republicans did not effectively reach out. Some Republicans gave up on winning the African-American vote, looking the other way or trying to benefit politically from racial polarization. I am here today as the Republican chairman to tell you we were wrong.” — Ken Mehlman, 2005
The Southern Strategy’s main focus was based on attacking social justice reforms such as the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. In the 1970s and 1980s, much of the politically active public would come to realize that the use of terminology like “states’ rights” was coded language for returning race relations to local control. Therefore circumventing federal civil rights law and desegregation laws. Although Reagan had used such terminology to appeal to the racial tensions of white voters as well, by the mid-1980s using “states’ rights” language as part of a political strategy had become unacceptable due to its historic racial undertones.
Mehlman’s apology would later prove to have fallen on deaf ears. Despite his less than sympathetic words, the actions of the Republican party at-large would continue its pursuit of exploiting racial tensions for political gain. By 2009, the election of Barack Obama provided a catalyst for traditionalists to undermine the need for civil rights laws.
Conservatives began to use the idea that Obama’s election meant racism was no longer a hindrance to the advancement of North American society. As Thomas Edge explains in the Journal of Black Studies in 2009, “Their purpose, it is argued, is to launch Southern Strategy 2.0, which seeks to use Obama’s victory to attack some of the results of the civil rights movement that helped make his rise possible. At the same time, it still plays on some of the overt racism of the first Southern Strategy, using Obama’s racial identity and politics to challenge whether he is “American” enough to lead the nation. Thus, conservatives use Obama’s image as a sign that racism is dead, while simultaneously attacking him with the same race-based tactics that have played such an important role in the recent history of the Republican Party.”
The only significant difference between the modernization of the Southern Strategy and its original platform is the language as it has evolved over the decades. The strategy, which has had nearly a half-century to take hold, is what drives a lot of the ignorance we see in America today. As these beliefs get passed down from generation to generation, fundamentalists are there screaming the same things as their predecessors. These generational commitments validate and help reinforce the same beliefs while allowing them to evolve as time passes.
The term “Southern Strategy” is now a bit of a misnomer due to its application having the inevitable effect of exposing the racial tensions of Northerners in the 1970s. But most academics still refer to it as such because this particular strategy is still in play — and remains unchanged despite the longevity and expansion of the cause.
“Thus, conservatives use Obama’s image as a sign that racism is dead, while simultaneously attacking him with the same race-based tactics that have played such an important role in the recent history of the Republican Party.” — Thomas Edge, 2009
Since the election of Barack Obama, those who are unaware of the history behind such gruff racist language have seen it first-hand. Watching it grow from the post-racial perception many Americans were consumed by, to the horrors of the repugnant rhetoric from a sitting president who regularly shocks the population at large. Not realizing the hateful rhetoric he employs has always been there. In the background. Growing and festering in conservative circles. By ruthless old white men who are all too content exploiting racial tensions in America.
The Southern Strategy is in full effect with no signs of slowing down anytime soon as it still seems to be the Republican’s primary strategy. In other words, they have willingly alienated people of color and have abandoned all hope of capturing our vote while focusing solely on the racial anxieties of conservative white voters.