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Saturday, September 6, 2014

Southern Strategy And War On Poor

Lee Atwater clip on Youtube

I find the subject of race and class sometimes painful because my family background is a mix of North South, East and West, and because some of my ancestors were on opposite sides of the Civil War. My family has a strong preachy element and that is where I drew my earliest efforts to understand the subject outside of cultural conditioning. Observing how it influenced my own family shaped me from someone who might have grown up a racist, bigoted Christian Fanatic, into someone who's been on a life long vision quest. I've had some great teachers who sometimes taught me by example, and sometimes by doing the wrong thing in an illustrative fashion.

Recent studies have added welcome complexity to the debate about race and class in the United States. Unfortunately our far right wing nut jobs (RWNJ) have tried to muddy the subject by using them as a source for denying reality. The Southern Strategy was more complex and a longer and more nuanced campaign than it is sometimes portrayed. I lived it and saw the complexity first hand so I'm not surprised at either the studies, their conclusions or how they are used by RWNJs as part of a strategy that was first articulated by Lee Atwater (although he really was following other teachers rather than inventing something).

The Modern Southern Strategy

James Carter IV interviewed Lee Atwater way back in 1981 and The nation published an article on Lee Atwater that shared the audio from that famous interview in 2012. They advertize:

"Now, the same indefatigable researcher who brought us Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” remarks, James Carter IV, has dug up the entire forty-two-minute interview from which that quote derives. Here, The Nation publishes it in its entirety for the very first time."[Lee Atwater]
It has become, for liberals and leftists enraged by the way Republicans never suffer the consequences for turning electoral politics into a cesspool, a kind of smoking gun. The late, legendarily brutal campaign consultant Lee Atwater explains how Republicans can win the vote of racists without sounding racist themselves:

It also turned out to be a wonderful tool for getting blue collar workers and the poor to vote against their own best interests:

“You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.””[Lee Atwater]

And that abstraction winds up being aimed at things that benefit working people who happen to be white as well as black. Cutting taxes benefits the rich. Cutting "welfare" cuts the welfare of the working poor who think that the politicians are going to only cut benefits to black poor and working folks.

It's more complicated

Of course Nixon's southern strategy was halting. Otherwise he wouldn't have had to contend with George Wallace. His Silent Majority talk was not explicitly racist. He used some of the code words; "law and order", etc... but wasn't willing to break with Republican Tradition. That took even less ethical Republicans like Ronald Reagan. Nixon:

"In 1968, George Wallace ran as a third-party candidate against Nixon and Humphrey, on an explicitly segregationist platform. Humphrey had been the main champion of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in the Senate; Nixon, while no civil rights activist, rejected an overtly racist platform. Feeling abandoned by both parties, Southern white racists flocked to Wallace's cause, winning him the Deep South states of Ark., La., Miss., Ala. and Ga."[]

The Article notes that Nixon did originate the "Southern Strategy:"

"Political analyst and Nixon campaigner Kevin Phillips, analysing 1948-1968 voting trends, viewed these rebellious Southern voters as ripe for Republican picking. In The Emerging Republican Majority (Arlington House, 1969), he correctly predicted that the Republican party would shift its national base to the South by appealing to whites' disaffection with liberal democratic racial and welfare policies. President Nixon shrewdly played this "Southern strategy" by promoting affirmative action in employment, a "wedge" issue that later Republicans would exploit to split the Democratic coalition of white working class and black voters. (See John Skrentny, The Ironies of Affirmative Action (U Chicago Press, 1996)). This strategy soon produced the racial party alignments that prevail today."

Kevin Phillips went on to write prophetic books about the results of Nixonian and RW policies. He predicted the financial collapse of 2008 and uncovered a history of fraud and manipulation in Wall Street. But in 1968 he showed Republican operatives where to go.

“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.” Nixon’s Southern Strategy: ‘It’s All in the Charts’ New York Times (May 17, 1970)"[]

And they went there. Jimmy Carter won newly enfranchised whites and progressive southerners (they do exist) in 1976, but lost most of them by 1980 and by 1984:

"The success of the "Southern strategy" was made evident at the Presidential level in the 1984 election, pitting Ronald Reagan against Democrat Walter Mondale. (Georgia Democrat Jimmy Carter, the Democratic nominee for 1976 and 1980, obscured this because he was competitive in the South). Democrats had picked up votes in the South due to the re-enfranchisement of blacks via the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This is observable in the low Republican (hence high Democratic) turnout in areas with large black populations--the Southern Black Belt and urban North. However, Democrats lost more white votes than they gained black votes--not only in the South, but in white Northern suburbs. Thomas and Mary Edsall, in Chain Reaction (W.W. Norton, 1991), argue that Republican success in the Northern suburbs showed that opposition to government programs that benefit blacks appealed to Northern whites, who, identifying crime and welfare dependency with blacks, were receptive to coded Republican messages ("welfare queens," "special interests," "quotas") appealing to antiblack racial antipathies."

This was the southern strategy articulated by Lee Atwater. And it would gradually lead to Southern Politicians abandoning the Democratic party for the new Republican party's new organization and the rise of politicians like Newt Gingrich. It also led to the spread of these racist concepts to areas in the North where there were also black people. This has been a tragedy, because it has led to a war on the poor championed by by people who are nearly as poor.

And of course the battle is three ways: Country versus city versus suburbs. I have more to say but I can't find the articles today that I was reading yesterday so it will have to wait for another post. This makes a nice intro.

Youtube voice:

Origins of Racism

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