Thursday, April 19, 2012

"Southern Stragety"? Overrated

Andrew Sullivan has an interesting point about party and ethnic reconciliation:
I cannot help but think of Richard Nixon's Southern Strategy, and how its legacy still poisons our politics. For a very long time, the deep cultural divide in this country was in part managed by the Democratic party. Its alliance of Southern conservatives and Northeastern liberals - perhaps exemplified by the Kennedy-Johnson ticket - gave what we now call parts of red and blue America a joint incentive to work out their differences through a common partisan affiliation. The had a fellowship that facilitated compromise. A less coherent ideological party structure actually created a more coherent political debate. I wonder if civil rights legislation would ever have been achieved without this...we should take a moment to remember Nixon. And the deep damage his opportunism wrought.
Electorally, the "Southern Strategy" is pretty severely overrated. Look at the maps. The last year the South was solid was 1944; the last year that the South was solid while the Democrats lost was 1924. An interesting comparison is 1952 to 1920. Harding won overall by a much larger margin than Ike (Harding got 60%, Ike only 55%). And yet in the South, Eisenhower did better everywhere. He won Texas, Florida, and Virginia. In the deep South, check out Mississippi: Ike lost by a substantial 20 point margin, but Cox won Mississippi by 60 points in 1920 (by the way, I'm using this site for all of these numbers). And then, of course, five of the six states that Lyndon Johnson lost in 1964 were in the deep South.

So by the time Nixon is the nominee in 1968, the idea of a Democratic Solid South is an anachronism. Did Nixon accelerate the trend? I don't think so, really. It's really a done deal by 1964, at the presidential level.

That doesn't mean that there was nothing to the Southern Strategy in terms of Republican policy choices and rhetorical strategies. It was likely that as conservatives in the South moved from the Democratic Party to the Republicans (which, again, was going to happen regardless of any "strategy") that the conservative wing of the GOP would become a solid majority within the party, and that there would be no more presidential nominations for the moderate/liberal Eastern Establishment. On the other hand, it's at least possible that there were other potential paths for that conservative party majority on issues including race. So Sullivan's point might be relevant. I'm not sure. But I do think that as an electoral strategy, the Southern Strategy is pretty much a nothing.


  1. So you are essentially saying that politics would be essentially the same today regardless of what Nixon did?

  2. I understand your point, but how about a counterfactual. Let's say somebody like George Romney, Bill Scranton, or Nelson Rockefeller are the Republican nominee in 1968 - all actively pro-civil rights Republicans. Don't you think that could alter the political trajectory either in the Republican Party or in the country as a whole, especially if one of them is elected?

  3. Good points. Also, one could argue that the Democratic Party's "Non-Southern Strategy" was more important, or at least enabled, Nixon's Southern Strategy. It was the national Democratic Party that refused to accommodate its George Wallace faction and instead nominated all-Northern, pro-civil-rights tickets in 1968 and 1972. Nixon didn't have to do anything to reap the rewards among Southern whites.

  4. I think that Sullivan's point is rather different. It isn't so much that the Southern strategy was successful electorally or not, but that it led to a realignment of party coalitions which made them far more rigid and ideologically extreme.

  5. Yes, following on Anonymous, what's your take on the argument that the Democrats' northeastern-southern coalition had a moderating effect on national politics? In practice, wasn't there also a de facto Republican-Southern Democrat coalition operating in Congress?

  6. The parties were going to realign; the Southern Strategy, as JB suggests, was a reflection of this rather than a cause. In Arbitrista's counterfactual, I think there would just have been a backlash within the GOP, with President Scranton or Romney or Ford (!) perhaps even facing Southern-based or Southern-friendly primary challengers. Even as it was, there was a backlash against Nixon / Ford / Kissinger moderation by the mid-'70s, as represented by the anti-Soviet hardliners who opposed detente and others who ultimately got together under Reagan -- who in turn started his '80 presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, a very clear signal to Wallace voters that he was their guy. In short, the GOP was going to end up representing a solid South by the '80s regardless of what Nixon did.

  7. I think Johnston and Shafer are especially relevant here. They look at long run trends at three sites of representation, and--I don't have it in front of me, so I will garble this somewhat--find that southern realignment occurred early for the presidency, later in the Senate, and lastly in the House (I might have the chambers reversed). What is especially interesting, however, are the changes they see to the alignment of economic and racial conservatism. The economic conservatives found the Republican party appealing since the Fair Deal, and as they grew in influence (with economic development), the republicans became more important. Only later do racial conservatives come over, and especially after 1994. They go over prior for presidency and later for House. In the interim, from the VRA to re-districting in 94, there is something akin to a biracial coalition, in the Democratic party, somewhat conservative relative to the party but racially relatively liberal.

    Seems relevant to bring it up, as it is a good empirically take on the question of southern realignment, one that distinguishes between different institutional sites of representation.

  8. I think what was more important is that the party platform changed from one that supported Civil Rights to one that didn't care (or was actively antagonistic to Civil Rights). That was the Southern Strategy to me, not the realization that racist southerners were without a party alignment.

    Nixon didn't have to do 'nothing' to get them into his arms, after all.

  9. Did Nixon accelerate the trend? I don't think so, really. It's really a done deal by 1964, at the presidential level. That doesn't mean that there was nothing to the Southern Strategy in terms of Republican policy choices and rhetorical strategies.

    The end of the Democratic Solid South didn't mean that they had to leave the Dems forever, or that they had to become a Republican Solid South.

    As a Nixon adviser, Patrick Buchanan called for Republicans to “cut the country in half” on racial and cultural lines for political gain. The Southern Strategy transformed white populism. Gone is William Jennings Bryan-style economic populism geared toward making poor whites’ lives better, replaced by a cultural resentment of government and the minorities it was perceived to be helping. Buchanan correctly ascertained that the 95%+ white party would have a majority for awhile.

    The Republican effort to forge a new definition of “patriotism” born of “cutting the country in half” for political gain later found expression in Ronald Reagan’s tales of “welfare queens” and “strapping young bucks buying t-bone steaks with their food stamps.” That irrational resentment persists, but it is no longer explicitly tied to racial animus.

    Maybe the Southern Strategy didn't affect the 1968 vote that much, but it's still affecting the vote in 2012. It matters.


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