For decades, the Republican Party has used what's known as "the Southern Strategy" to win white support in the region through dog-whistle appeals to racism, sexism, and Christian nationalism.
Facing South recently spoke with political scientist Dr. Angie Maxwell, co-author with Todd Shields of "The Long Southern Strategy: How Chasing White Voters in the South Changed American Politics," about the deep history of political division in the region and the future of Southern politics after Democrats won the presidential election in Georgia for the first time in 28 years and defeated two Republican Senate incumbents in the state.
Maxwell is the director of the Diane Blair Center of Southern Politics and Society, an associate professor of political science, and holder of the Diane Blair Endowed Professorship in Southern Studies at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Can you explain what you mean by the "Long Southern Strategy" and the role it played in the evolution of the Republican Party?
What we think about the Southern Strategy in general, I sometimes call that the "Short Southern Strategy" because it helps me distinguish it. The Short Southern Strategy that most people know goes something like this: As the national Democratic Party started to embrace civil rights post-New Deal but really in the 1960s, the Republican Party, or some strategists in it, saw an opportunity to win some Southern white voters who felt like the national Democratic Party was moving very far away from the Democratic Party they knew or what their state Democratic Party was. There starts to be this big gap.
After the 1964 Civil Rights Act is signed, the Republican Party at their convention that summer is really divided between the Rockefeller Republicans, who were moderately pro-civil rights, and a growing, primarily Midwestern, anti-labor conservative wing of the party. The party did a lot of work in the late 1950s and early '60s to try to find a nominee that they could push for. They finally found one, Barry Goldwater, the senator from Arizona, who'd been one of the few Republican senators to not sign the Civil Rights Act.
Goldwater became a star in the Republican Party and the Republican nominee in 1964. Southern Democrats who were upset with the national Democratic Party liked Strom Thurmond in South Carolina, changed their party ID to Republican, and really only stumped for Goldwater and pitched Goldwater Republicanism as a counter to this increasingly liberal Democratic Party. Goldwater succeeds in flipping five Southern states [Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina]. He earned 87% of the vote in Mississippi, which is one of the most radical changes in all of American political history.
Goldwater only wins those five Southern states and his state of Arizona and loses the rest of the country. But that moment was the first time the Republican Party became a real viable option in the Deep South — at least at the presidential level. There wasn't much structure underneath that. There wasn't a strong Republican Party statewide, so it took a little more time. Nixon comes along four years later and manages to build on what Goldwater did but maybe not saying it so aggressively. Therefore the South goes red.
That's the story we tell. The problem with that is nothing is that simple. We forget that Nixon is successful, but in 1976 Jimmy Carter runs as a Democrat and wins the entire South back except for one state [Virginia]. Republicans have to go back to the drawing board and think of other issues that appeal to Southern whites.
There are two things in this next phase of what I call the Long Southern Strategy. They really adapted their coded racial language to fit the moment, which in the '80s became a pitch towards color blindness. Doesn't sound like a bad thing, but it's really a denial of structural racism. And then into fiscal conservatism, but not on everything — just on social programs that were aimed at leveling the racial playing field, so to speak, or welfare reform issues.
The other thing that they did in rebranding the party in the Southern image, to earn these Southern white voters and cut themselves an electoral path to victory, is that they adopted a Southern style of politics, which is the politics of entertainment and big rallies, spectacle kind of politics, a real distrust of media, an us-versus-them politics. They pull some kind of George Wallace. Instead of defining yourself by what you are, you define yourself by what you're not. Sometimes they call that "positive polarization."
So it took a much longer Southern Strategy to rebrand the party, and they rebranded it in these elements of Southern whiteness. They nationalized that. Now, it's not that those elements aren't anywhere else in the country — we know they are, but not at the level of concentration they are among Southern whites. But they speak to it, and it becomes the rebranded Republican Party.
In the book you argue that the Southern Strategy was not only rooted in racism but was deeply influenced by the rise of gender equality and the GOP's alliance with the Southern Baptist Convention. Can you explain how the elements of race, gender, and religion were combined to formulate the Republican Party's strategy?
As political scientists, we used to measure racism using a scale called "old-fashioned racism," which was basically racial stereotypes. People would rank whites or Blacks on work ethic and trustworthiness. After the civil rights movement, all those numbers start to look like maybe things are different, maybe some of the old-fashioned racism was diminishing. But it’s more that respondents didn't want to say those things anymore. So new scales were developed looking at symbolic racism, which really got at the idea that structural racism didn't exist, that we shouldn't have affirmative action programs, that generations in slavery and Jim Crow did not have a long-term effect on upward mobility, politically and economically — all that.
So the Republican Party realized it was going to have to adapt its racial appeal. It couldn't go do what George Wallace did. You couldn't even say the things Nixon and Strom Thurmond said. It wasn't going to work. It might win you some voters in pockets in the South, but you're going to lose the country. You've got to code it better. Then they also started looking to see what other issues could help break up these Southern blocs. Southern white women started changing their party ID from Democrat to Republican much later. We sometimes see that the racialized appeal works for one faction of white women kind of at an extreme end, but what about the more moderate conservative women?
When the Equal Rights Amendment was on a trajectory to be approved by enough states to amend the constitution, the anti-ERA movement really went after Southern white women, because the Southern states were the states where they thought the ERA would have the best chance of failing because they’re the same states that had not ratified the 19th Amendment for women's suffrage. So if you're a strategist for the anti-ERA group and you're going, "Where might we kill this thing?," you're looking at places where the 19th Amendment wouldn't pass in 1920. And when they started talking to Southern white women, they really misrepresented the ERA.
They realized that Southern white women had been politicized by the anti-feminist movement led by Phyllis Schlafly, and then other movements like WWWW — Women Who Want to be Women [founded by Texas native Lottie Beth Hobbs] — and efforts from the Southern Baptist Convention to portray feminism as a threat to traditional gender roles. We’re starting to understand a little bit more about what happened. We talk about religion and Republicans in Southern politics, and we talk about race, but the bridge in the middle was the anti-ERA movement. It was one of their big sells. It's "family values."
The Republican Party finds it works. It helps them strengthen that growing allegiance with the Southern Baptist Convention and evangelicals and social conservatives. In the 2000s, for example, you see Republican strategists putting gay marriage amendments on ballots in states to really pull evangelicals to the polls, giving them much more of a place within the party.
It's important to know that they had to do all three of those things, because it turns out a lot of people are just one of those three. When we measure racial resentment and modern sexism, which is a measure of just anti-feminism, and Christian nationalism, there are some people that are all three, but a lot of people are two of three or one of three. It's just not enough that are all three, so it really takes that whole trifecta to define a new party brand.
It creates such a brand in the Republican Party that anybody who can come in and get those three elements the best can play to that hard right in a crowded field in a Republican primary. In 2016 Southern states move up their primaries, so whoever plays to those three things most effectively can gain quite a bit of momentum in the race for the Republican nomination.
How has this strategy been used, specifically the race component, to trick many white Southerners into voting against their own interests?
There's a couple of elements of that. First, that was not new for the Republican Party to do that. That long history of white elites in the South building an alliance with poor whites in order to suppress any kind of class-based politics led to the suppression of the populist uprisings in the late 19th century and early 20th century, and had really squashed any kind of labor union organizing in the region and led to the development of the right to work states.
Even some of Jim Crow and the way it was set up was an effort to give poor whites some seeming advantage, even in their poverty. We tend to think of it sometimes as just white elites, but Jim Crow was set up to make sure poor whites sided with elite whites, instead of siding with or building a common bond of politics or organizing with poor Blacks. Slavery's over so they create a new system that puts the voters they need on one side and African Americans on the other, and that made poor whites feel like they had something, that they were better than somebody.
When people have possibilities to rise economically, it doesn't work as well, creating these kinds of faux hierarchies. But when people don't, when people have no opportunity to rise, then those faux hierarchies become more meaningful. The Southern white elites knew that, and they were able to set that up. There’s a long history we often forget. We tend to look at poor whites who vote against their economic self-interest and say they're irrational, right? But we're basing that on what political scientists say rational voting is, which is you vote based on your economic self-interest. But for some people, no matter what the government does it doesn't feel like it gets better. For some of those who are lowest income, in rural areas where there is not opportunity, they don't see this changing that much in their life. So they become "rational identity voters," is what I call it in the book. Who do I feel like gets me? Who do I feel like would fight for me? It's irrational only if we look at bottom line and pocketbook policy issues. It's not necessarily irrational if we look at identity values and political emotions.
You argue that the Southern Strategy was used to "nationalize Southern white identity and fundamentally altered American politics as a whole." What role did the Southern Strategy play in producing the GOP's base of voters that supported Donald Trump?
What we see is over the last 40 years, on measures of racial resentment and modern sexism and Christian nationalism, is the American people have sorted themselves. That doesn't happen in one election cycle. It doesn't even happen in a few. It takes a long time.
What's happened is people have moved and sorted themselves as the parties took these polar positions, and the Republicans did that specifically to break up the electoral bloc in the South. The consequences of it are that people have sorted themselves over time to which brands they feel closer to. Now, what was a strategy to break up a few Southern states has rebranded the party in a way in which Republicans who don't express racial resentment and modern sexism and Christian nationalism are in the minority in their party and have a really hard time controlling it.
And Trump played it hard, played it really hard, coming after Obama, which also caused a major sorting effect, and running against a woman. That on top of the 40 years of partisan sorting in this Long Southern Strategy grew a Trump base that is more vocal and more extreme. Trump could be that extreme in 2016 because he was coming after the first Black president and because he was running against a woman.
How was former President Trump's inflammatory rhetoric and exploitation of the Southern Strategy connected with the recent violent attack on the U.S. Capitol?
I think it's directly related. I don't think a lot of Trump's language is coded. Trump really uncoded it. He was coming after eight years of a Democrat, and it's pretty common historically for things to flip after eight years. There's also the rise of cable news and talk radio — just this perfect storm. Trump was able to go that far because people had sorted themselves accordingly.
Because he didn't have to code it very much, he speaks louder and clearer to people for whom the dog whistle wouldn't work because they didn't quite hear it or didn't know what it meant. But when he says it explicitly, it can draw in whole other crowds. I know it's the first time people have breached the Capitol, but when I think about the history in the South of massive resistance, when I think about governors blocking doorways and civil rights workers getting beaten to death, people getting beaten on the bridge in Alabama, dogs being turned on people, people being assassinated — mob violence is nothing new in the South.
You mentioned the history of racial violence in the South. I think that the South has a duality about it that continues to impact politics in the region — this history of progressive movements and then this history of discrimination and division. What are some of the misconceptions about the South that you find yourself battling in your work?
Well, first and foremost, there's not one South, right?
There's a slightly higher percentage of whites in the South who call themselves Southern, but it is barely more than African Americans who call themselves Southern. I wrote a piece on that years ago in Southern Cultures called "The Duality of the Southern Thing," about how the label does not belong to whites, and looking at what if anything there is in common between Blacks and whites who call themselves Southern, or is it just a completely divergent identity.
There was a little bit in common that had to do with a sense of family and a sensitivity to criticism, like the South's always behind, not cosmopolitan. But other than that, it's really different, so you've got to be very specific about what South you're talking about, what Southern you mean because it isn't a label that belongs exclusively to whites. I wrote a piece for FiveThirtyEight right before the primaries in March talking about the difference between being a Southern Democrat and a Democrat who's part of the South. The Democratic Party in the South, in many Southern states, has got a long history of being run by African American women. And African American men too, but African American women more so.
They take into consideration these racial politics as they choose their candidates, so they're pragmatists because they are very conscious of the racial politics that play within their state. That is a more complex political vision that I think most people misconstrue. So they tend to have a much more sophisticated and nuanced and multilevel assessment going on about the long march to progress.
Earlier this month Democrats were able to win the presidential election and flip two U.S. Senate seats in Georgia, a state that for years was known as a Republican stronghold. Do you take this as a sign that the Southern Strategy is beginning to collapse?
I think that progressives in Georgia have realized that they can counter it.
It is different in every state. Some states you've got to win people over who are moderate Republicans. Some states you don't. Some states you have 50% of your electorate doesn't even turn out. In some it's urbanization, in some it's in-migration, and in some it is disenfranchisement issues. I think Georgia looked and said, "Where can we build a coalition of all folks?" I feel like they were very clear in what they were running against, but they also were saying a lot about what they're running for, right?
It wasn't just run people over who once supported Trump or once supported [Republican Sen. David] Perdue or once supported [Republican Sen. Kelly] Loeffler. They painted a new vision and built a broad coalition. They reached out to rural voters, rural African American voters. And they said, "If anyone tries to take away your vote, we're here, and we're going to fight for it." They empowered people.
What does that mean for the future of Southern politics?
This time around, I think what's happening is real development of strong two-party competition. I think you see that in North Carolina. I think you see that in Georgia. I think you're starting to see that in Texas. I think you see that in Virginia. And not just a flip from one to the other — that’s the difference. What happened with realignment is the parties flipped. What's happening now is a growing, strong two-party system in some of those states. That is the best thing that could happen in the region, because two-party competition and a real contest of ideas holds politicians accountable. It keeps the electorate invested. It makes it a politics of problem solving and deliverables and not just personality, whether it was one-party Democrat or one-party Republican.
In Georgia I think what they're doing is building a truly empowered, strong party option for the Democrats, and they're going to have a lot of elections that are going to be really close. For a while, you're not going to see an entirely blue Georgia state legislature. You're going to see real two-party competition, and I think the state of Georgia's going to benefit from that.