The Myth of the Racist Republicans
The Claremont Institute
A myth about conservatism is circulating in academia and journalism and has spread to the 2004 presidential campaign. It goes something like this: the Republican Party assembled a national majority by winning over Southern white voters; Southern white voters are racist; therefore, the GOP is racist. Sometimes the conclusion is softened, and Republicans are convicted merely of base opportunism: the GOP is the party that became willing to pander to racists. Either way, today’s Republican Party—and by extension the conservative movement at its heart—supposedly has revealed something terrible about itself.
This myth is not the only viewpoint in scholarly debates on the subject. But it is testimony to its growing influence that it is taken aboard by writers like Dan Carter, a prize-winning biographer of George Wallace, and to a lesser extent by the respected students of the South, Earl and Merle Black. It is so pervasive in mass media reporting on racial issues that an NBC news anchor can casually speak of “a new era for the Republican Party, one in which racial intolerance really won’t be tolerated.” It has become a staple of Democratic politicians like Howard Dean, who accuses Republicans of “dividing Americans against each other, stirring up racial prejudices and bringing out the worst in people” through the use of so-called racist “codewords.” All this matters because people use such putative connections to form judgments, and “racist” is as toxic a reputation as one can have in U.S. politics. Certainly the 2000 Bush campaign went to a lot of trouble to combat the GOP’s reputation as racially exclusionary. I even know young Republicans who fear that behind their party’s victories lies a dirty, not-so-little Southern secret.
Now to be sure, the GOP had a Southern strategy. Willing to work with, rather than against, the grain of Southern opinion, local Republicans ran some segregationist candidates in the 1960s. And from the 1950s on, virtually all national and local GOP candidates tried to craft policies and messages that could compete for the votes of some pretty unsavory characters. This record is incontestable. It is also not much of a story—that a party acted expediently in an often nasty political context.
The new myth is much bolder than this. It insists that these events should decisively shape our understanding of conservatism and the modern Republican Party. Dan Carter writes that today’s conservatism must be traced directly back to the “politics of rage” that George Wallace blended from “racial fear, anticommunism, cultural nostalgia, and traditional right-wing economics.” Another scholar, Joseph Aistrup, claims that Reagan’s 1980 Southern coalition was “the reincarnation of the Wallace movement of 1968.” For the Black brothers, the GOP had once been the “party of Abraham Lincoln,” but it became the “party of Barry Goldwater,” opposed to civil rights and black interests. It is only a short step to the Democrats’ insinuation that the GOP is the latest exploiter of the tragic, race-based thread of U.S. history. In short, the GOP did not merely seek votes expediently; it made a pact with America’s devil.
The mythmakers typically draw on two types of evidence. First, they argue that the GOP deliberately crafted its core messages to accommodate Southern racists. Second, they find proof in the electoral pudding: the GOP captured the core of the Southern white backlash vote. But neither type of evidence is very persuasive. It is not at all clear that the GOP’s policy positions are sugar-coated racist appeals. And election results show that the GOP became the South’s dominant party in the least racist phase of the region’s history, and got—and stays—that way as the party of the upwardly mobile, more socially conservative, openly patriotic middle-class, not of white solidarity.
Let’s start with policies. Like many others, Carter and the Black brothers argue that the GOP appealed to Southern racism not explicitly but through “coded” racial appeals. Carter is representative of many when he says that Wallace’s racialism can be seen, varying in style but not substance, in “Goldwater’s vote against the Civil Rights Bill of 1964, in Richard Nixon’s subtle manipulation of the busing issue, in Ronald Reagan’s genial demolition of affirmative action, in George Bush’s use of the Willie Horton ads, and in Newt Gingrich’s demonization of welfare mothers.”
The problem here is that Wallace’s segregationism was obviously racist, but these other positions are not obviously racist. This creates an analytic challenge that these authors do not meet. If an illegitimate viewpoint (racism) is hidden inside another viewpoint, that second view—to be a useful hiding place—must be one that can be held for entirely legitimate (non-racist) reasons. Conservative intellectuals might not always linger long enough on the fact that opposition to busing and affirmative action can be disguised racism. On the other hand, these are also positions that principled non-racists can hold. To be persuasive, claims of coding must establish how to tell which is which. Racial coding is often said to occur when voters are highly prone to understanding a non-racist message as a proxy for something else that is racist. This may have happened in 1964, when Goldwater, who neither supported segregation nor called for it, employed the term “states’ rights,” which to many whites in the Deep South implied the continuation of Jim Crow.
The problem comes when we try to extend this forward. Black and Black try to do this by showing that Nixon and Reagan crafted positions on busing, affirmative action, and welfare reform in a political climate in which many white voters doubted the virtues of preferential hiring, valued individual responsibility, and opposed busing as intrusive. To be condemned as racist “code,” the GOP’s positions would have to come across as proxies for these views -and in turn these views would have to be racist. The problem is that these views are not self-evidently racist. Many scholars simply treat them as if they were. Adding insult to injury, usually they don’t even pause to identify when views like opposition to affirmative action would not be racist.
In effect, these critics want to have it both ways: they acknowledge that these views could in principle be non-racist (otherwise they wouldn’t be a “code” for racism) but suggest they never are in practice (and so can be reliably treated as proxies for racism). The result is that their claims are non-falsifiable because they are tautological: these views are deemed racist because they are defined as racist. This amounts to saying that opposition to the policies favored by today’s civil rights establishment is a valid indicator of racism. One suspects these theorists would, quite correctly, insist that people can disagree with the Israeli government without being in any way anti-Semitic. But they do not extend the same distinction to this issue. This is partisanship posturing as social science.
The Southern Strategy
This bias is evident also in how differently they treat the long Democratic dominance of the South. Carter and the Black brothers suggest that the accommodation of white racism penetrates to the very soul of modern conservatism. But earlier generations of openly segregationist Southerners voted overwhelmingly for Woodrow Wilson’s and Franklin Roosevelt’s Democratic Party, which relaxed its civil rights stances accordingly. This coalition passed much of the New Deal legislation that remains the basis of modern liberalism. So what does the segregationist presence imply for the character of liberalism at its electoral and legislative apogee? These scholars sidestep the question by simply not discussing it. This silence implies that racism and liberalism were simply strange political bedfellows, without any common values.
But the commonality, the philosophical link, is swiftly identified once the Democrats leave the stage. In study after study, authors say that “racial and economic conservatism” married white Southerners to the GOP after 1964. So whereas historically accidental events must have led racists to vote for good men like FDR, after 1964 racists voted their conscience. How convenient. And how easy it would be for, say, a libertarian conservative like Walter Williams to generate a counter-narrative that exposes statism as the philosophical link between segregation and liberalism’s economic populism.
Yet liberal commentators commit a further, even more obvious, analytic error. They assume that if many former Wallace voters ended up voting Republican in the 1970s and beyond, it had to be because Republicans went to the segregationist mountain, rather than the mountain coming to them. There are two reasons to question this assumption. The first is the logic of electoral competition. Extremist voters usually have little choice but to vote for a major party which they consider at best the lesser of two evils, one that offers them little of what they truly desire. Segregationists were in this position after 1968, when Wallace won less than 9% of the electoral college and Nixon became president anyway, without their votes. Segregationists simply had very limited national bargaining power. In the end, not the Deep South but the GOP was the mountain.
Second, this was borne out in how little the GOP had to “offer,” so to speak, segregationists for their support after 1968, even according to the myth’s own terms. Segregationists wanted policies that privileged whites. In the GOP, they had to settle for relatively race-neutral policies: opposition to forced busing and reluctant coexistence with affirmative action. The reason these policies aren’t plausible codes for real racism is that they aren’t the equivalents of discrimination, much less of segregation.
Why did segregationists settle for these policies rather than continue to vote Democratic? The GOP’s appeal was mightily aided by none other than the Democratic Party itself, which was lurching leftward in the 1970s, becoming, as the contemporary phrase had it, the party of “acid, amnesty, and abortion.” Among other things, the Democrats absorbed a civil rights movement that was itself expanding, and thus diluting, its agenda to include economic redistributionism, opposition to the Vietnam War, and Black Power. The many enthusiasms of the new Democratic Party drove away suburban middle-class voters almost everywhere in the country, not least the South.
Given that trend, the GOP did not need to become the party of white solidarity in order to attract more voters. The fact that many former Wallace supporters ended up voting Republican says a lot less about the GOP than it does about segregationists’ collapsing political alternatives. Kevin Phillips was hardly coy about this in his Emerging Republican Majority. He wrote in 1969 that Nixon did not “have to bid much ideologically” to get Wallace’s electorate, given its limited power, and that moderation was far more promising for the GOP than anything even approaching a racialist strategy. While “the Republican Party cannot go to the Deep South”—meaning the GOP simply would not offer the policies that whites there seemed to desire most—”the Deep South must soon go to the national GOP,” regardless.
In all these ways, the gop appears as the national party of the middle-class, not of white solidarity. And it is this interpretation, and not the myth, that is supported by the voting results. The myth’s proponents highlight, and distort, a few key electoral facts: Southern white backlash was most heated in the 1960s, especially in the Deep South. It was then and there that the GOP finally broke through in the South, on the strength of Goldwater’s appeals to states’ rights. Democrats never again won the votes of most Southern whites. So Goldwater is said to have provided the electoral model for the GOP.
But hidden within these aggregate results are patterns that make no sense if white solidarity really was the basis for the GOP’s advance. These patterns concern which Southern votes the GOP attracted, and when. How did the GOP’s Southern advance actually unfold? We can distinguish between two sub-regions. The Peripheral South—Florida, Texas, Tennessee, Virginia, North Carolina, and Arkansas—contained many growing, urbanizing “New South” areas and much smaller black populations. Race loomed less large in its politics. In the more rural, and poorer, Deep South—Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, South Carolina, and Louisiana —black communities were much larger, and racial conflict was much more acute in the 1950s and ’60s. Tellingly, the presidential campaigns of Strom Thurmond, Goldwater, and Wallace all won a majority of white votes in the Deep South but lost the white vote in the Peripheral South.
The myth that links the GOP with racism leads us to expect that the GOP should have advanced first and most strongly where and when the politics of white solidarity were most intense. The GOP should have entrenched itself first among Deep South whites and only later in the Periphery. The GOP should have appealed at least as much, if not more, therefore, to the less educated, working-class whites who were not its natural voters elsewhere in the country but who were George Wallace’s base. The GOP should have received more support from native white Southerners raised on the region’s traditional racism than from white immigrants to the region from the Midwest and elsewhere. And as the Southern electorate aged over the ensuing decades, older voters should have identified as Republicans at higher rates than younger ones raised in a less racist era.
Each prediction is wrong. The evidence suggests that the GOP advanced in the South because it attracted much the same upwardly mobile (and non-union) economic and religious conservatives that it did elsewhere in the country.
Take presidential voting. Under FDR, the Democrats successfully assembled a daunting, cross-regional coalition of presidential voters. To compete, the GOP had to develop a broader national outreach of its own, which meant adding a Southern strategy to its arsenal. In 1952, Dwight Eisenhower took his campaign as national hero southward. He, like Nixon in 1960, polled badly among Deep South whites. But Ike won four states in the Peripheral South. This marked their lasting realignment in presidential voting. From 1952 to the Clinton years, Virginia reverted to the Democrats only once, Florida and Tennessee twice, and Texas—except when native-son LBJ was on the ballot—only twice, narrowly. Additionally, since 1952, North Carolina has consistently either gone Republican or come within a few percentage points of doing so.
In other words, states representing over half the South’s electoral votes at the time have been consistently in play from 1952 on—since before Brown v. Board of Education, before Goldwater, before busing, and when the Republicans were the mainstay of civil rights bills. It was this which dramatically changed the GOP’s presidential prospects. The GOP’s breakthrough came in the least racially polarized part of the South. And its strongest supporters most years were “New South” urban and suburban middle- and upper-income voters. In 1964, as we’ve seen, Goldwater did the opposite: winning in the Deep South but losing the Peripheral South. But the pre-Goldwater pattern re-emerged soon afterward. When given the option in 1968, Deep South whites strongly preferred Wallace, and Nixon became president by winning most of the Peripheral South instead. From 1972 on, GOP presidential candidates won white voters at roughly even rates in the two sub-regions, sometimes slightly more in the Deep South, sometimes not. But by then, the Deep South had only about one-third of the South’s total electoral votes; so it has been the Periphery, throughout, that provided the bulk of the GOP’s Southern presidential support.
The GOP’s congressional gains followed the same pattern. Of course, it was harder for Republicans to win in Deep South states where Democratic-leaning black electorates were larger. But even when we account for that, the GOP became the dominant party of white voters much earlier in the Periphery than it did in the Deep South. Before Goldwater, the GOP’s few Southern House seats were almost all in the Periphery (as was its sole Senator—John Tower of Texas). Several Deep South House members were elected with Goldwater but proved ephemeral, as Black and Black note: “Republicans lost ground and stalled in the Deep South for the rest of the decade,” while in the Periphery they “continued to make incremental gains.” In the 1960s and ’70s, nearly three-quarters of GOP House victories were in the Peripheral rather than the Deep South, with the GOP winning twice as often in urban as rural districts. And six of the eight different Southern Republican Senators elected from 1961 to 1980 were from the Peripheral South. GOP candidates tended consistently to draw their strongest support from the more educated, middle- and upper-income white voters in small cities and suburbs. In fact, Goldwater in 1964—at least his Deep South performance, which is all that was controversial in this regard—was an aberration, not a model for the GOP.
Writers who vilify the GOP’s Southern strategy might be surprised to find that all of this was evident, at least in broad brush-strokes, to the strategy’s early proponents. In his well-known book, Kevin Phillips drew the lesson that a strong appeal in the Deep South, on the model of 1964, had already entailed and would entail defeat for the GOP everywhere else, including in what he termed the Outer South. He therefore rejected such an approach. He emphasized that Ike and Nixon did far better in the Peripheral South. He saw huge opportunities in the “youthful middle-class” of Texas, Florida, and other rapidly growing and changing Sun Belt states, where what he called “acutely Negrophobe politics” was weakest, not strongest. He thus endorsed “evolutionary success in the Outer South” as the basis of the GOP’s “principal party strategy” for the region, concluding that this would bring the Deep South along in time, but emphatically on the national GOP’s terms, not the segregationists’.
The tension between the myth and voting data escalates if we consider change across time. Starting in the 1950s, the South attracted millions of Midwesterners, Northeasterners, and other transplants. These “immigrants” identified themselves as Republicans at higher rates than native whites. In the 1980s, up to a quarter of self-declared Republicans in Texas appear to have been such immigrants. Furthermore, research consistently shows that identification with the GOP is stronger among the South’s younger rather than older white voters, and that each cohort has also became more Republican with time. Do we really believe immigrants (like George H.W. Bush, who moved with his family to Texas) were more racist than native Southerners, and that younger Southerners identified more with white solidarity than did their elders, and that all cohorts did so more by the 1980s and ’90s than they had earlier?
In sum, the GOP’s Southern electorate was not rural, nativist, less educated, afraid of change, or concentrated in the most stagnant parts of the Deep South. It was disproportionately suburban, middle-class, educated, younger, non-native-Southern, and concentrated in the growth-points that were, so to speak, the least “Southern” parts of the South. This is a very strange way to reincarnate George Wallace’s movement.
The Decline of Racism
Timing may provide the greatest gap between the myth and the actual unfolding of events. Only in the 1980s did more white Southerners self-identify as Republicans than as Democrats, and only in the mid-1990s did Republicans win most Southern House seats and become competitive in most state legislatures. So if the GOP’s strength in the South only recently reached its zenith, and if its appeal were primarily racial in nature, then the white Southern electorate (or at least most of it) would have to be as racist as ever. But surely one of the most important events in Southern political history is the long-term decline of racism among whites. The fact that these (and many other) books suggest otherwise shows that the myth is ultimately based on a demonization not of the GOP but of Southerners, who are indeed assumed to have Confederate flags in their hearts if not on their pickups. This view lends The Rise of Southern Republicans a schizophrenic nature: it charts numerous changes in the South, but its organizing categories are predicated on the unsustainable assumption that racial views remain intact.
What’s more, the trend away from confident beliefs in white supremacy may have begun earlier than we often think. David Chappell, a historian of religion, argues that during the height of the civil rights struggle, segregationists were denied the crucial prop of religious legitimacy. Large numbers of pastors of diverse denominations concluded that there was no Biblical foundation for either segregation or white superiority. Although many pastors remained segregationist anyway, the official shift was startling: “Before the Supreme Court’s [Brown v. Board] decision of 1954, the southern Presbyterians. . . and, shortly after the decision, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) overwhelmingly passed resolutions supporting desegregation and calling on all to comply with it peacefully. . . . By 1958 all SBC seminaries accepted black applicants.” With considerable understatement, Chappell notes that “people—even historians—are surprised to hear this.” Billy Graham, the most prominent Southern preacher, was openly integrationist.
The point of all this is not to deny that Richard Nixon may have invited some nasty fellows into his political bed. The point is that the GOP finally became the region’s dominant party in the least racist phase of the South’s entire history, and it got that way by attracting most of its votes from the region’s growing and confident communities—not its declining and fearful ones. The myth’s shrillest proponents are as reluctant to admit this as they are to concede that most Republicans genuinely believe that a color-blind society lies down the road of individual choice and dynamic change, not down the road of state regulation and unequal treatment before the law. The truly tenacious prejudices here are the mythmakers’.
Books Discussed in this Essay:
The Southern Strategy Revisited: Republican Top-Down Advancement in the South, by Joseph A. Aistrup.
The Rise of Southern Republicans, by Earl Black and Merle Black.
A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow, by David L. Chappell.
The Emerging Republican Majority, by Kevin Phillips.