Can We Defeat the Racist Southern Strategy in 2012?

The 2012 election is a pitched battle with race at the center.


It may not be “polite” to say this, but far from an era of “post racialism”, the United States is in a period of aggravated racial conflict. Though often denied and certainly more complex than the frontal racial confrontations of the past, race is the pivot of the tit-for-tat political struggle that has gripped the country for the past twelve years and, indeed, for decades prior.


The modern era of this conflict jumped off with the white conservative backlash against the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and has been deepened by their decades-long fearful reaction to the dramatic change in the color of the U.S. that resulted from the civil rights-motivated immigration reform act of 1965.


The conflict heated to a boil when white conservatives flatly rejected the legitimacy of the “premature” victory of our first Black president in 2008. Nearly 40 percent of Republicans are so enraged they cannot even admit that Obama is a U.S. citizen. Isn’t this really another way of saying they refuse to recognize a Black man as the president? Or perhaps it is the white conservatives’ modern day Dred Scott decision declaring Obama a Black man that has no rights that they are bound to respect?


The bottom line is that we have now come to a point where voters of color are so numerous and so united behind Obama that, to be victorious, Mitt Romney must carry a higher percentage of the white vote than any modern Republican candidate has ever won. If recent trends among voters of color hold, he must carry about 63 percent of white voters. Not even Reagan won more than 61 percent.


The likelihood is that voters of color will continue to increase their percentage of the electorate by about two percent per election into the future. Political analyst Jonathan Chait concludes it is “2012 or Never” for the current bloc of white conservatives. (1) This is why they invested hugely in voter suppression legislation throughout the country (now largely but belatedly defeated by the courts. (2) This is why they have gone all out to unleash corporate money in elections.


Chait warns that the “2012 or Never” scenario for white conservatives suggests that if the Republicans win, they will be all-in for “Blowing up the welfare state and affecting the largest upward redistribution of wealth in American history.” This is the meaning of the rise of the Tea Party and the choice of Paul Ryan as Vice President.


On the other hand an Obama victory in 2012 on top of that of 2008 has the potential to mark an historic turning point U.S. politics: the defeat of the Republican’s powerful Southern Strategy by which the Republicans have dominated U.S. politics since Richard Nixon’s stunning victory in 1968. The heart of that strategy is to build a winning coalition based on racial fear and backlash in the South, the Southwest and Rocky Mountains. This strategy is rooted in slavery so it is no accident that the Electoral College map of 2004–and most other post Voting Rights maps–is a virtual replica of the pre-Civil War map of slave states and territories.


Free and Slave Territories Before the Civil War

Green: Free States and Territories  Red: Slave States  Brown: Territories open to slavery

Electoral College Map of 2004 Election 





Compare these to that of 2008 when Obama defeated the Southern Strategy and carried four Southern and three Southwestern states, and took back Ohio, Iowa and Indiana.


Electoral College Map of 2008 Election



One hundred and fifty years after abolition, the scars of slavery are fresh upon us and we are fighting the contemporary Civil War.


The defeat of the Southern Strategy could create a major turning point in U.S. politics. It could mean the end of the white rightwing led Republican majority that has prevailed since 1968. And it could herald the potential, for the first time since the 1970s, of a more progressive future for people of color and other poor and working people.


However white racial conservatives in the U.S., especially the U.S. South, have no history of giving ground without protracted and intense struggle. Their 2010 comeback was the latest example. Although 2012 might be a turning point, we can expect intense racial conflict well into the future.


What is the Southern Strategy?


When all looked lost for the Southern segregationists after the Voting Rights Act of 1965, rightwing Republican political strategists concocted the Southern Strategy to crush the Civil Rights movement and reverse its victories. To the shock of just about everyone at the time, the seemingly dead and buried Richard Nixon rode the white backlash and the Southern Strategy to the presidency in 1968, the high point of the radical movement of the 1960s. Worse, the seemingly defeated and isolated Dixiecrats revived themselves and over the last few decades acceded to a greater political role that they had enjoyed since before the Civil War.


Since then the Strategy has been refined and updated, and brilliantly implemented, by Ronald Reagan, the Bushes and a host of Republican and rightwing political operatives like Lee Atwater, Ralph Reed and Karl Rove at all levels.


Wikipedia says the Southern Strategy “refers to the Republican Party strategy of winning elections or to gain political support in the Southern section of the country by appealing to racism against African Americans….In an interview included in a 1970 New York Times article, he [former Republican strategic Kevin Phillips] touched on its essence:


‘From now on, the Republicans are never going to get more than 10 to 20 percent of the Negro vote and they don't need any more than that…but Republicans would be shortsighted if they weakened enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans. That's where the votes are. Without that prodding from the blacks, the whites will backslide into their old comfortable arrangement with the local Democrats.


Historically, the Democratic Party was the party of Southern slaveholders that dominated the Republic from its founding until the victory of the new Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln in 1860. After the Civil War the white South voted so uniformly Democratic the South was dubbed the “Solid South.” Even when the Democratic Party transformed itself into the party of the center/left during the New Deal, the Southern segregationists were powerful enough to force the Democrats to leave Jim Crow racial discrimination and segregation intact. In return they stayed loyal to the party.


The Republicans had virtually no presence at all in the South until the Democrats began to take civil rights seriously due to the pressure of the new Freedom Movement of the late 1950s.


Like the Civil War, the Civil Rights revolution of the 1950s and 1960s caused an historic realignment in U.S. politics.


Defeated, the boldest and most conservative Republican strategists concocted the Southern Strategy as the political roadmap to crush the then triumphant Democratic coalition of liberals, blacks and trade unions and return the white South to glory. It has succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.


The crux of the strategy was to whip up the white racial backlash to the Civil Rights victories and the newly powerful black movement, and on that basis to realign to the Republicans the historically Democratic white South and other white Bible Belt conservatives in the former slave and Mexican territories of the Southwest, Midwest and Rocky Mountains. By popularizing newly sanitized versions of color blind racism and Christian fundamentalism, the new Republicans hoped to trump whatever class affinities and progressive impulses working class and poor whites had with the Democrats and get them to organize and vote Republican on the basis of white racial solidarity.


It was not the moderate Rockefeller-type Republicans of the early 1960s who organized these new recruits, but an ambitious new crop of far right ideologues. The mass migration of racial and Christian conservatives from the Democratic Party to the Republicans became the organized base of the far right. The Southern Strategy gave birth to New Rightism and the Christian Coalition, flanked by the “Right to Life,” a newly revived and politicized National Rifle Association, the suburban homeowners revolt and fiscal conservatism, not to speak of a new level of militarism. Their strength was redoubled by northern plant closures and capital flight from unions which turned the South into a dynamic demographic and economic growth center.


To be fully successful, this strategy required the leadership and funding of the majority of the corporate elite. After leaning Democratic from the New Deal to the 1960s, this elite lurched to the right when their formerly secure monopoly profit position came under intercapitalist challenge from Germany and Japan, the USSR, and the rise of the Global South led by the oil-producing countries and other former colonies starting in the 1970s. To protect their profits they set out to lower wages, eliminate regulations, crush unions, lower taxes on themselves, starve the social safety net and move their operations to the low wage south or out of the country.


This rightward moving corporate elite financed and, until recently, was the leading force in the new Republican coalition. And it was their alliance with the grassroots racist and fundamentalist backlash that gave power to the Southern Strategy.


The other big piece of this new Republican majority coalition was recruited from the affluent suburbs created by white flight throughout the country since the 1960s. The homeowners’ tax revolt became their battle cry. Even in the South the main social base of the far right Republican politicians is the affluent suburbs, not the stereotypical unreconstructed white small town or rural segregationists.


The post-Civil Rights Republican coalition has always been rife with factions and differences, but despite changing leaders and tactical emphases, it has held strong enough to defeat the Democrats. The Republicans have also used their newfound power to fragment and marginalize the main institutions of their opposition such as civil rights and immigrant rights groups, trade unions, reproductive rights and other feminist organizations, trial lawyers, students and journalists.


With each victory the Republican coalition became “dizzy with success” and migrated further and further to the right. The Ross Perot-led revolt of the political center in the 1990s heralded a loosening of the grip of white conservatives over the political majority and temporarily threw the presidency to Bill Clinton. Under George H.W. Bush the program of extreme trickle down economics and war mongering brought the country to crisis and was grist to the mill of Democratic challengers. Now they threaten Social Security, Medicare and public education.


Since 2000 the country has been rocked by tit for tat pitched political battles between this extreme rightist Republican Party and a Democratic party that finally senses victory. The Southern Strategy is in trouble.


The Changing Color of the Vote and the Southern Strategy


At a deeper level the Southern Strategy is imperiled by a combination of structural/demographic in the electorate and political changes in voting patterns.


The structural changes are that people of color and unmarried women now occupy much larger shares of the electorate than before, and continue to grow. The political factor is that the rightward lurches of the Republicans (e.g. stolen 2000 election, War on Terror starting 9/11 and 2009 Tea Party) have ignited the people of color vote. Black people in particular have mounted a real voter participation movement, and people of color are together voting Democratic in historically unprecedented numbers and percentages.


Despite the fact that George W. Bush had failed miserably on both foreign policy (Iraq) and domestic policy (the Great Recession) and run the country virtually into the ground, in 2008 whites still voted for McCain by 55 to 43. In stark contrast, blacks voted for Obama by 95 to 4, Latinos went for Obama by 66 to 32 and Asians backed Obama by 61 to 35. (3)


More importantly, people of color have surged to the polls in recent years. In 1976 they constituted just 10 percent of the vote; 24 years later, they had almost doubled to 19 percent in 2000. By 2008 the white share of the vote fell to 74 percent and that of voters of color spiked to 26 percent, a dramatic change in such a short time.



Chart of Changing Electorate and Changing Vote








Black %





Black Vote





Latino %





Latino Vote





Asian %





Asian Vote





Other Race % (4)

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