Choosing Racism: The Southern Strategy


In 1963, there was a unique opportunity for the Republicans, one that turned out to be poisonous. Despite the strongest of warnings from within, the leadership chose to seize that opportunity, irrevocably damaging their party at its core. What happened?

Before we describe those warnings, a little background is important. Hard to believe as it seems today, the GOP of sixty years ago was a mixture of progressives and conservatives, and had as many champions of civil rights as the Democrats. It was, after all, the party of Lincoln. Ironically, that fact alone was enough to guarantee that in the 100 years following the Civil War, the Southern white electorate in huge numbers voted in opposition to the Republicans, and did everything in their power to keep African Americans from voting at all, lest a Republican creep into power.

This is not to say the Republicans of say, 1950, were all civil rights champions. Any party is composed of all those who choose to join, and the world view of the GOP leaders probably contained as many bigots as progressives.  The Democratic Party was similarly split, and especially in the South the leadership was as bigoted and anti-civil rights as any party in our history. You had to go north and west to find sizable numbers of Democrats who resemble the modern party, fighting against the Jim Crow laws.  So, as hard as it is to believe now, there were liberal Republicans, ultra-conservative racist Democrats, and plenty of moderates in both parties.

This held until through the 1950’s. But by 1960 or so there was a noticeable shift in the Democratic Party towards civil rights. The party was starting to lean, ever so slightly. Perhaps it was the Second World War war and the integration of the troops, led by a Democratic president, and an incredible source of pride for the nation. Or perhaps it was the New Deal that preceded it and which so championed the dignity of the common man.  Whatever the reason, certain Republicans watched as the national Democrats started to speak out for Blacks, Catholics, Jews and in that message these GOP leaders saw an ugly opportunity.  They devised a strategy that focused on those Southern States, a strategy of making it clear to the white voters that the Republicans would stand with them, sometimes publicly, and sometimes with a wink and a nod. And although there were individual Republicans of great power and prestige that stood against that strategy, the leadership as a whole embraced that racist message.  They spread the word: Republicans, unlike the Democrats, could be depended on to keep the minorities down.   That was the strategy of the party leaders and in those days the leadership represented power.  The leadership would see it done.

Hindsight is famously 20-20 and when we talk about the past it is easy to seem wise and describe outcomes as obvious or inevitable. But in this case there was at least one party leader present at that crucial moment whose foresight was 20-20.  He warned of the poisoned cup in the moment before it was drunk and did everything he could to stop it.  That would be Jacob Javits, now known primarily for the Manhattan conference center named after him, but at the time a powerful presence in the Republican Party. And in October, 1963 he published an editorial in the The New York Times that is stunning in its prescience. In “To Preserve the Two-Party System” he predicted exactly what came about: that if the Republicans chose the Southern Strategy they would be ending the era when both parties had the wide variety of world views necessary for the smooth exchange of power. Instead, the Republicans would become the party of endless conservatism, and push away anyone who valued all citizens regardless of race, creed or color.  Let’s take a look at that editorial.

Right up front, he spells it out: “[The] question, as I see it,  turns on the choice between two lines of action the Republicans can adopt as we position ourselves for the 1964 campaign. One line would follow our tradition dating from 1940 of accommodating the whole spectrum of Republican thought from both progressive and conservative wings of the Republican party.  The second line would polarize the party as down-the-line conservative – or ultra conservative – and would also make foreign policy a partisan issue.”

Then, as now, there were those who rebelled against the very idea that true conservatism could only be reflected by the values of the Southern Strategy: Javits said, “I have in mind those Republicans who, in their legitimate desire to make the party the chosen agent of “conservatism” have come to think that the radical right … is the essence of what “conservatism” means… What these Republicans fail to see clearly is the extent to which the radical right is the deadly enemy of the very conservatism they themselves desire.”  He went on: “An authentic conservative would wish to bring to the nation a sense of calm confidence in itself, and to ease its social tensions.  He would insist on the decencies in human relationships, and would spring to the defense of the Constitution and each part of the hallowed Bill of Rights. He would make himself the guardian of orderly growth, and check those who would abruptly overturn all policies in being.  He would resist the howling extremist, set the example of respect for all lawful authority… Above all, he would lead in explaining why the complexities of existence stand in the way of utopian solutions to all problems, and why in so many hard cases, the best we can hope for is to learn how to live with fair compromises and reasonable timing.”

Many of the Republican leaders no doubt saw the Southern Strategy as mere tactics, something to be tried on for a while and then discarded when it became inconvenient.  But Javits saw it for what it really was – a fork in a road that once taken could not be revisited. The “pragmatic” leadership saw it as a convenient way for their candidate to win the nomination in that 1964 race, and probably believed it could be swept aside once the nomination was secured. But Javits knew this was no mere tactic. The Senator realized his party was opening its arms to the bigots and extremists and saying “You have a home here”.  And once let in, they would not be so easily ejected.  Once narrow victories were won with the help of these voters, and in the process creating a new opposition of ex-supporters disgusted at the tactics, there would be no stomach for changing direction. Javits said: “… the radical right will become so structured into the Presidential nomination campaign as to defeat a move to disengage it later on … A candidacy based on the “Southern strategy”, espousing the kind of views I have mentioned, would do more than hazard the party’s defeat in the 1964 contest; it could alienate millions of Americans in 1964 – who could stay alienated for years…”

The leadership acknowledged that they would lose as well as gain voters, but they thought the scales would tip to the positive side.  But if that were to happen, it would also be necessary to hold onto some groups within the Republican Party who might have otherwise been alienated. Therefore they pursued wholeheartedly instilling the idea that the GOPwas the only party for true conservatives. It’s hard for us to imagine now, but in 1963 the Republican’s were generally pro-business but encompassed a wide swath of opinion on social matters.  The decision to use the Southern Strategy was pushed through by the Goldwater supporters, who saw the disaffected Southern voter as easily gulled into supporting their radical conservative agenda. Even though their candidate lost, it started eating away at the supports holding up the Republican big tent. It took a long time. In the 70’s and even in the 80’s there were still “Rockefeller” Republicans who showed up at Planned Parenthood fundraisers and supported civil rights, but by the 90’s these were largely gone. Javits had known that having only one school of thought in the Republican Party was bad for the GOP, but he also knew that it was worse for the country: “Finally there persists in the pre-nomination debate a recurring notion it would be a good thing if the candidacy of a conservative at least produced a fundamental realignment of political parties into a clear cut “liberal” and a clear-cut Conservative party. The experience of Europe with strictly ideological parties says that nothing, in fact, could be worse for the United States. As each party dropped all dissenters, each now free of internal restraints, might fly to an extreme position, carrying millions of Americans with it..with our policies and the nation in this polarized condition, the whole of our democracy could be imperiled … Upon gaining control of the apparatus of government, and pile driving their extremist views through it, such parties could wrench the whole social order out of its socket – when the purpose of conservatism is to keep the social order on an even keel. “

I suspect Javits saw this playing out in years rather than decades, but it is clear that he was right on almost all points.  In essence, the Republicans’ first sip from that poison cup inevitably transformed it into the type of party it is today, a party that is wholly entwined with bigots and extremists, and has adopted a bizarre form of conservatism that, in truth, is as far from a rational conservatism as possible.


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