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  • Writer's pictureJohn Brage

Here's What's Up - part 2

The presidential election of 1964 provided a preview of how the new arrangement of political constituencies would look. Although the Republican candidate lost the election, he won 5 states from the former Confederacy. With the passage of VRA65, that success was placed in jeopardy. The infusion of new, Southern black voters (who were expected to support the Democrats by a broad majority) could serve to offset the Southern white voters who had voted Republican for the first time in U.S. history. The Republican party sought a method to not only maintain the loyalty of white Southerners, but to draw even more Southern whites into the fold. This begat what has been called "The Southern Strategy".

It is crucial to understand what the Southern Strategy was, and what it wasn't. It wasn't a migration of Southern politicians from the Democrats to the Republicans (although that did happen to a certain degree). It was a plan by Republicans to attract Southern white voters and get them to vote consistently for the Republicans - something that had never happened in any significant numbers. As the Republicans had noted in 1964, the key to that was race.

The Southern Strategy employed a lot of "dog whistles". A dog whistle is a statement that, on its face, appears benign but actually carries an implied message the target audience will understand. Republicans began to talk about the importance of "state's rights". It is important to note that states don't have rights. People do. The emphasis on state's rights was a suggestion that the relationship between the federal government and the state governments needed to be rearranged, giving the states more authority. Specifically, authority over civil rights. Republicans didn't overtly argue that civil rights weren't important, instead they argued that civil rights should be protected by the states as a matter of federalism. The problem with this, of course, was that the history of defense of civil rights by the several states was an absolute disaster. That was the scheme when we had slavery and Jim Crow. And that was exactly the connection the Republicans wanted Southern whites to make. If Southern whites would support the GOP, the GOP would work to push things back towards the way they were prior to CRA64 and VRA65. The first test of this strategy would come in the 1968 presidential election. However, that election would involve a twist, but it was a twist that demonstrated that the Southern Strategy was going to work.

The twist was the candidacy of George Wallace, the governor of Alabama. Wallace was an overt segregationist. During his inauguration speech after his election as governor in 1963, he pledged to support "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever." When the University of Alabama attempted to admit two black students for the first time in 1963, Wallace stood in the doorway at the front of the school in a theatrical attempt to prevent the students from registering. President Kennedy had to federalize the Alabama National Guard in order to get Wallace to remove himself.

After the votes were counted, Wallace had won 5 states (AK, LA, MS, AL, and GA). Once again, race was the principal issue motivating Southern white voters. The voters in those 5 states had supported the candidacy of an avowed segregationist. However, those 5 states proved to be meaningless as President Nixon rolled to a convincing victory over Hubert Humphrey by carrying 32 states. In 1972, when Nixon crushed George McGovern, Nixon won 49 states (including every state in the former Confederacy). Southern white voters were now members of the Republican constituency. The voters who had opposed the enforcement of CRA64 by voting for Goldwater, and the voters who supported segregation in 1968 by voting for Wallace, were now Republicans.

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