The Southern Strategy/Lee Atwater and the Chasm
The Southern strategy refers to the Republican Party strategy of gaining political support or winning elections in the Southern section of the country by appealing to racism against African Americans.
Just what was the Southern Strategy?
It was not developed by the Nixon team but was attributed to Nixon’s political strategist Kevin Phillips. Phillips stated in an interview in a 1970 New York Times article:
“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.”
This was the strategy that helped to win the Southern states for the Republican Party during the 1968 and 1972 elections.
Although political scientists have argued that the change in the southern voting patterns from Democrat to Republican had more to do with economic interests than with race, the change was in place. By the way white working class voters in the south still continued to vote for Democrats for national office until the 1990s, so the jury is still out about the true success of the Southern Strategy as regards to race.
By the way, in 1976, Jimmy Carter won most of the Southern states without offending northern Democrats, explaining, “I have no trouble pitching for Wallace votes and black votes at the same time.” Surprise, Surprise, Surprise!
Democratic charges of racism have been made about Republican campaigns for the House of Representatives and Senate in the South. The Willie Horton commercials used by supporters of George H. W. Bush against Michael Dukakis in the election of 1988 were considered by many Democrats, including Jesse Jackson, Lloyd Bentsen, and many newspaper editors, to be racist.
In 1990 re-election campaign of Jesse Helms attacked his opponent’s alleged support of “racial quotas,” with an ad where a white person’s hands are seen crumpling a letter indicating that he was denied a job because of the color of his skin.
Harvey LeRoy “Lee” Atwater (February 27, 1951 – March 29, 1991) was an American political consultant and strategist to the Republican Party. He was an advisor of U.S. Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush and chairman of the Republican National Committee.
A man of many contradictions, Atwater played guitar in a rock band called the Upsetter Revue in Columbia South Carolina. At the height of his political power he played with B.B. King, and released an album called “Red, Hot, and Blue” featuring among others, the great Isaac Hayes. He was also a husband and father to three children.
All of this being said Atwater possessed An acumen for aggressive tactics. For example, as the campaign consultant to Republican incumbent Floyd Spence in his race for Congress against Tom Turnipseed , a Democrat, Atwater’s tactics included doctored push polls, fake surveys and statements that Turnipseed was not only a member of the NAACP but that he “got hooked up to jumper cables”. Atwater discovered Turnipseed underwent shock therapy as a teenager for depression.
The following is the infamous interview that Atwater gave on the “Southern Strategy”
ATWATER: You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger” — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me — because obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”
Although Atwater was not directly responsible for the Willie Horton Ads, the campaign benefited from it. Atwater’s skills in the 1988 election led one biographer to call him “the best campaign manager who ever lived.”
After the election, Atwater was named chairman of the Republican National Committee. The scope of Atwater’s abilities are far beyond the scope of this page, however, there is one very notable achievement:
In 1989, Atwater became a new member of the historically black Howard University Board of Trustees. The university gained national attention when students rose up in protest against Atwater’s appointment. Student activists disrupted Howard’s 122nd anniversary celebrations and eventually occupied the university’s administration building. Within days, both Atwater and Howard President James E. Cheek resigned.
Atwater collapsed in March of 1990 at a political fundraiser for Phil Gramm. He was diagnosed with brain cancer. He underwent very drastic treatments which left him swollen and unable to move without a wheelchair. In his last written piece, he stated the following:
“My illness helped me to see that what was missing in society is what was missing in me: a little heart, a lot of brotherhood.”
Atwater died on March 29, 1991 of his illness.
The infamous Atwater interview: www.youtube.com/watch?v=X_8E3ENrKrQ
President Barack Obama received 95% of the African American vote. But even before this, at least 88% of the African American vote.
The large majority of African Americans support the Democratic Party. In the 2004 Presidential Election, Democrat John Kerry received 88% of the African American vote compared to 11% for Republican George W. Bush. Although there is an African-American lobby in foreign policy, it has not had the impact that African American organizations have had in domestic policy.
The African American trend of voting for Democrats can be traced back to the 1930s during the Great Depression, when Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal program provided economic relief to African Americans; Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition turned the Democratic Party into an organization of the working class and their liberal allies, regardless of region. The African American vote became even more solidly Democratic when Democratic presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson pushed for civil rights legislation during the 1960s. This along with the efforts by Truman, Eisenhower and others solidified this block.
THIS IS PART OF A TWO PART DISCUSSION TAKING PLACE HERE: