The Hill: The myth of Nixon's "Southern Strategy"

Originally posted at The Hill by Dinesh D’Souza.

The Democratic Party’s claim to be the party of the good guys, while the Republicans are the party of the bad guys, hinges on the tale of Richard Nixon’s so-called Southern Strategy. According to this narrative, advanced by progressive historians, Nixon orchestrated a party switch on civil rights by converting the racists in the Democratic Party—the infamous Dixiecrats—into Republicans. And now, according to a recent article in The New Republic, President Trump is the “true heir, the beneficiary of the policies the party has pursued for more than half a century.”

Yes, this story is in the textbooks and on the history channel and regularly repeated in the media, but is it true? First, no one has ever given a single example of an explicitly racist pitch by Nixon during his long career. One might expect that a racist appeal to the Deep South actually would have to be made, and to be understood as such. Yet, quite evidently none was.

So progressives insist that Nixon made a racist “dog whistle” appeal to Deep South voters. Evidently he spoke to them in a kind of code. Really? Is it plausible that Nixon figured out how to communicate with Deep South racists in a secret language? Do Deep South bigots, like dogs, have some kind of heightened awareness of racial messages—messages that are somehow indecipherable to the media and the rest of the country?

This seems unlikely, but let’s consider the possibility. Progressives insist that Nixon’s appeals to drugs and law and order were coded racist messaging. Yet when Nixon ran for president in 1968 the main issue was the Vietnam War. One popular Republican slogan of the period described the Democrats as the party of “acid, amnesty, and abortion.” Clearly there is no suggestion here of race.

Nixon’s references to drugs and law and order in 1968 were quite obviously directed at the antiwar protesters who had just disrupted the Democratic Convention in Chicago. His target was radical activists such as Abbie Hoffman and Bill Ayers. Nixon scorned the hippies, champions of the drug culture such as Timothy Leary, and draft-dodgers who fled to Canada. The vast majority of these people were white.

Nixon had an excellent record on civil rights. He supported the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He was an avid champion of the desegregation of public schools. The progressive columnist Tom Wicker wrote in the New York Times, “There’s no doubt about it—the Nixon administration accomplished more in 1970 to desegregate Southern school systems than had been done in the 16 previous years or probably since. There’s no doubt either that it was Richard Nixon personally who conceived and led the administration’s desegregation effort.”

Upon his taking office in 1969, Nixon also put into effect America’s first affirmative action program. Dubbed the Philadelphia Plan, it imposed racial goals and timetables on the building trade unions, first in Philadelphia and then elsewhere. Now, would a man seeking to build an electoral base of Deep South white supremacists actually promote the first program to legally discriminate in favor of blacks? This is absurd.

Nixon barely campaigned in the Deep South. His strategy, as outlined by Kevin Phillips in his classic work, The Emerging Republican Majority, was to target the Sunbelt, the vast swath of territory stretching from Florida to Nixon’s native California. This included what Phillips terms the Outer or Peripheral South.

Nixon recognized the South was changing. It was becoming more industrialized, with many northerners moving to the Sunbelt. Nixon’s focus, Phillips writes, was on the non-racist, upwardly-mobile, largely urban voters of the Outer or Peripheral South. Nixon won these voters, and he lost the Deep South, which went to Democratic segregationist George Wallace.

And how many racist Dixiecrats did Nixon win for the GOP? Turns out, virtually none. Among the racist Dixiecrats, Strom Thurmond of South Carolina was the sole senator to defect to the Republicans—and he did this long before Nixon’s time. Only one Dixiecrat congressman, Albert Watson of South Carolina, switched to the GOP. The rest, more than 200 Dixiecrat senators, congressmen, governors and high elected officials, all stayed in the Democratic Party.

The progressive notion of a Dixiecrat switch is a myth. Yet it is myth that continues to be promoted, using dubious case examples. Though the late Sens. Jesse Helms of North Carolina and John Tower of Texas and former Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott all switched from the Democratic Party to the GOP, none of these men was a Dixiecrat.

The South, as a whole, became Republican during the 1980s and 1990s. This had nothing to do with Nixon; it was because of Ronald Reagan and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America. The conservative appeal to patriotism, anti-communism, free markets, pro-life and Christianity had far more to do with the South’s movement into the GOP camp than anything related to race.

Yet the myth of Nixon’s Southern Strategy endures—not because it’s true, but because it conveniently serves to exculpate the crimes of the Democratic Party. Somehow the party that promoted slavery, segregation, Jim Crow and racial terrorism gets to wipe its slate clean by pretending that, with Nixon’s connivance, the Republicans stole all their racists. It’s time we recognize this excuse for what it is: one more Democratic big lie.

Read more at The Hill.


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  • TigerFan says:

    August 24, 2018 at 10:08 AM

    You’re so correct. I grew up in the deep south during the years of the segregationists and their fight to keep the south divided along racial lines. I remember how the local black schools were closed and their students were bused to our school and placed in our classes for the first time, when I was in the 6th grade. It was scary for all and was a topic I heard endlessly talked about by the adults in our white communities. The people who hated desegregation or the mixing of the races, hated Nixon. They saw him as a big government bureaucrat, who needed to keep his nose out of their business. Wallace was their savior as he preached “Segregation Now, Segregation forever”. The change over to the Republican party, by some not all of these people happened later, when it became apparent that the lies of the Dems about blacks being 2nd class citizens who would destroy our communities were recognized as falsehoods.
    Our communities and societies down here in the south became stronger and more peaceful because of integration, as blacks improved their situations due to the better education systems they were placed in and whites were forced to see that our black neighbors were no better or worse than we were. A more level playing field helped all, just as Nixon and the Republicans said it would, so voters switched over to the side that made sense. The people who were racists simply to follow the “In” crowd at the time and because of how their unfounded fears were stoked by the Dems, did an about face when their fears were shown to be baseless. In a Dem world we had black and a white societies endlessly pitted against each other. In a Republican world we developed a large prosperous middle class of all races working together. The old south died.

  • Joe says:

    August 24, 2018 at 5:38 PM

    Lee Atwater. It’s not a myth. Dinesh needs history lesson.

  • mac says:

    August 28, 2018 at 8:37 PM

    Thanks for remembering Atwater and his misdeeds. The Bush/Bush eras were sad times for the
    country and for the republican party, Trump is a big improvement over the Clintons and the Bushes
    and Obama. I would much rather have had a re- incarnation of Lincoln or Reagan. I would have been
    happier with John McCain or Ben Carson. Trump is our president and he is doing a great job.

  • nosnalla1 says:

    August 28, 2018 at 10:26 PM

    Joe nice nothing comment, no facts just typical Dem’s aligations !

  • John says:

    August 28, 2018 at 10:27 PM

    Dinesh just gave a history lesson. You have 2 ears and only one mouth for a reason. Can you figure it out for yourself?

  • M Montgomery says:

    August 30, 2018 at 6:11 PM

    Is anyone doing anything about the history books? There needs to be a coalition of historians and politicians with voting records in hand that visit upon the schools, universities or otherwise sue them.