Whistling Dixie

By Nuechterlein, James | First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, October 2000 | Go to article overview
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Whistling Dixie


Nuechterlein, James, First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life


Judging from the face it at its public presented convention in Philadelphia in early August, the Republican party is made up disproportionately of people of color and plucky survivors of an astonishing range of physical disabilities and random acts of God. That seems to be the way we do politics now. I write just as the Democrats convene in Los Angeles, and, based on past performance, there is no reason to expect that they will allow themselves to be outdone as equal opportunity panderers.

Most political observers were more amused than offended by the GOP's display of diversity run amok. Indeed, one might see in the convention's endless parade of black speakers, black choirs, and black schoolchildren an exercise that, despite its dabbling in hypocrisy, was more benign than not. What's wrong, after all, with a party indicating that it wishes it had more minority support than it does? What would critics have made of a Republican convention devoid of a significant black presence?

But a number of commentators did not take kindly to the Republicans' rainbow coalition. In the news columns of the New York Times, for example, R. W. Apple, Jr. expressed skepticism, and his colleagues on the editorial and op-ed pages, Brent Staples and Bob Herbert, fumed in outrage. Behind the facade of racial inclusiveness they see a party still wedded to the "Southern Strategy" supposedly invented by Richard Nixon in 1968 and adhered to by his successors ever since. As David Greenberg, writing in the online magazine Slate, puts it, "Richard Nixon's successful `Southern Strategy' of 1968 became the blueprint for Ronald Reagan's southern inroads and Lee Atwater and George Bush's Willie Hortonism." In the common telling, that strategy---variously described by critics as "notorious," "sinister," or simply "racist"--allowed the GOP to appeal to the fears of white southerners in the wake of school desegregation and the civil rights bills of the 1960s and thereby gain political ascendancy in the South.

The phrase is by now a reflexive one, and is invoked by political analysts as a straightforward and unproblematic datum of modern political history. But the phenomenon the phrase describes is not nearly so simple, nor so morally tainted, as is commonly supposed. It is true that prior to the 1960s the southern states were unanimously Democratic in their voting habits and after that became more Republican than not. It is also true that that switch in voting behavior has allowed the COP to improve its situation in Congress and begin each presidential campaign with an important advantage. But what came to fruition in the sixties had a long and complicated background, and its working out is understood best not as a morality tale in reverse but as an ironic lesson in the vagaries of politics.

The origins of the Democratic Solid South are well known. Following the abolition of slavery during the Civil War and the subsequent imposition on the South of "Black Reconstruction" by the victorious Republican North, white southerners were determined to reconstitute an impregnable system of racial supremacy. For a variety of reasons, some of them clearly racist, the North acquiesced as the South developed, following the end of Reconstruction in 1877, a comprehensive program of segregation and repression that kept blacks politically disenfranchised and socially and economically marginalized.

The maintenance of white supremacy depended above all on political solidarity that would defend the Jim Crow regime against threats either from protest movements within the former states of the Confederacy or from the federal government. The white vote must remain monolithic: to vote Republican was to commit racial treason. As had been the case ever since the rise of the Cotton Kingdom early in the nineteenth century, the issue of race was the absolute trump card of southern politics. The historian Ulrich B. Phillips famously summarized in a 1928 essay what he called "The Central Theme of Southern History": "That the South shall be and remain a white man's country.

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