Democrats Pivot: The Reinterpretation of the Southern Strategy Is Here

It’s time to Break It Down!

In the realm of American politics, the Southern Strategy, historically, was a Republican Party stratagem designed to increase political support among white voters in the South by appealing to racism against African Americans. The Civil Rights Movement and dismantling of Jim Crow laws in the 1950s and 1960s clearly exacerbated existing racial tensions in the Southern United States. Republican politicians, including presidential candidate Richard Nixon and Senator Barry Goldwater developed strategies that successfully contributed to leveraging the political realignment of many white, conservative voters in the South that had traditionally supported the Democratic Party rather than the Republican Party. The strategy also contributed to pushing the Republican Party more to the right.

Those familiar with American political history will recall that African Americans had most frequently leaned Republican, as in the Party of Lincoln. In fact, even today, many conservative Republicans are fond of noting the KKK was the machination of Democrats. As a technical and factual point, that is true. However, what that deceptive factoid does not divulge is the political musical chairs that occurred as a result of the Southern Strategy.  In effect the plan led to the switching of allegiances, if not the total re-labeling of the Parties. In other words, conservative Southern whites, who in the 19th and early 20th centuries, would naturally have been Democrats, fled and/or abandoned the Democratic Party en masse to become Republicans, in large measure due to the connection of the Democratic Party to the Civil Rights Movement. To wit, those Republicans who would deceive by leaving a trail of bread crumbs implying Democratic ownership of the KKK legacy, and its racist ideology, are exercising legerdemain of the highest order when they fail to remove their GOP mask and reveal their past life Democratic hood.

The prevailing consensus that the GOP was the active vehicle for facilitating white supremacy in the South, especially during the Goldwater campaign and the presidential elections of 1968 and 1972, made it difficult for the Republican Party to win the support of black voters in the South. Years later, in 2005, Republican National Committee (RNC) chairman, Ken Mehlman formally apologized to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), a national civil rights organization, for exploiting racial polarization to win elections and ignoring the black vote.

The phrase “Southern strategy” is often attributed to Nixon’s political strategist Kevin Phillips. Though he didn’t originate the phrase, he did made it resonate with Southern whites in general, and inside the Republican Party in particular. In an interview included in a 1970 New York Times article, Phillips articulated his analysis based on studies of ethnic voting:

”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.”

From 1948 to 1984 the Southern states, long a stronghold for the Democrats, became key swing states, providing the popular vote margins in the 19601968 and 1976 elections. During this era, several Republican candidates expressed support for states’ rights, a reversal of the position held by southern states prior to the Civil War. A number of political analysts asserted this term was used in the 20th century as a “code word” to represent opposition to federal enforcement of civil rights for blacks and to federal intervention on their behalf; many individual southerners had opposed passage of the Voting Rights Act. The preceding paragraphs neatly summarize the essence of the Southern Strategy as originally conceived.

That was then. We now find ourselves on the cusps of yet another historical and political intersection. There is a Biblical passage that I believe addresses the current situation:

“Genesis 50:19-21 (NRSV) – (19) But Joseph said to them, “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? (20) Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. (21) So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.” In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.

In its original conception and configuration, the design of this strategy was intended to harm African Americans, or black folks, or, as they were deemed at the time, Negroes. Whether this is true is not up for debate. As noted above, in his official capacity, an RNC Chair formally apologized for using the Southern Strategy to exploit racial consciousness to the detriment of African Americans. Full stop!

That happened. And now, as they say at the directional signs in the mall, “You are here.” Louisiana, North Carolina, Virginia, and Alabama, are four Southern states where recent voting patterns have re-awakened the notion of a Southern Strategy; reinterpreted, if you will, this time with a positive spin for African Americans.

In the most recent of the preceding cases, Alabama, Doug Jones executed an improbable upset win against Judge Roy Moore. In a race in which the Republican President of the United States endorsed the conservative, evangelical, racially regressive candidate, stoking sentiments similar to those leveraged in the original Southern Strategy, Democrats responding by forging a coalition that included their base supporters, millennial voters, moderate white Alabamans of both Parties, centrist white-collar white voters, college-educated suburban whites (especially women), and minorities, particularly the Democratic Party’s most loyal go-to voters, African Americans. The latter voted in numbers in excess of their proportion of the population, and at percentage higher than they did for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.

As Democratic constituencies become more energized, and many suburban swing voters trend toward being uneasy with President Trump, Southern Democrats are suddenly finding a potentially viable path to assembling a coalition similar to that used in other regions of the country. This is a development Democrats in the South are hoping to leverage into competing for, and perhaps winning suburban House districts in 2018, but also possibly statewide contests, including the Governor’s race in Georgia, and the Senate seat in Tennessee.

It’s far too early to project any sort of full-fledged Democratic revival. After all, the Party has quite a ways to go in order to characterize them as having recovered. As recently as the 2016 election, Trump beat Hillary Clinton in all 11 states of the Confederacy, except Virginia. He carried Alabama by 28 percentage points, and over 590,000 votes. Counting Mr. Jones win last week, Democrats still hold only four of the region’s 22 Senate seats, and just 3 of the 11 Southern Governors’ mansions.

Indeed, one may argue that Alabama is a special case because Judge Moore’s candidacy was impaired by numerous allegations of sexual impropriety. Those circumstances notwithstanding, the Party also won Governorships in Louisiana, North Carolina, and Virginia, all since 2015. At this juncture, what is clear is that Democrats hope to turn a previous nefarious methodology on its ear and use it to plot a course to victory in future elections across the South. To that end, Democrats Pivot: The Reinterpretation of the Southern Strategy Is Here!”

I’m done; holla back!

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