Judging from the public face it presented at its 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 un problematic 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 GOP 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 deter mined 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 Con federacy 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.”
White supremacy remained firmly in place well into the twentieth century. The origins of its undoing came with the great migrations north of blacks beginning in the 1920s. In the North, blacks could and did vote, and beginning in Franklin Roosevelt’s second presidential race in 1936 they increasingly switched their voting allegiance from the party of Lincoln to the party of the New Deal. FDR’s programs of relief and reform appealed to their economic interests, and as the black vote became an important element in the New Deal coalition, northern Democratic politicians began to respond to the demand that the federal government take action against segregation in the South.
White southerners, in the meantime, remained Democratic in their national voting, but with increasing unease. Southerners had always been states’ rights Democrats, and they were un comfortable with the New Deal’s vast expansion of federal power. The discomfort began with fear that that power could be used to intervene in the South’s racial arrangements, but it did not end there. The South had always inclined to conservatism—Jefferson and Jackson to the contrary notwithstanding—and the northern Democrats’ continuing drift to the left on matters that went well beyond race made the members of the southern white establishment feel like orphans within their own party. By the late 1930s and continuing into the 1950s liberal critics complained regularly of an “unholy alliance” between congress ional Republicans and southern Democrats. Unholy or not, the alliance was a natural one, forged in common opposition to the New Deal and its liberal successors.
Two great events finally moved white southerners from voting with Republicans on an occasional basis in Congress to voting for them regularly when they went to the polls. The first was the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision mandating the end of segregation in public schools. The second was the passage ten years later of the Civil Rights Act outlawing racial discrimination in public accom modations. Together these measures marked the beginning of the end of white supremacy—and thereby undermined the racial solidarity that had developed out of the need to preserve that supremacy. The South was no longer “a white man’s country,” and white southerners finally felt them selves free to vote with something other than race in mind. In that freedom, the conservatives among them found it increasingly natural to join a Republican party that in fact represented their true political inclinations.
All this had little or nothing to do with Republican strategy. The GOP, it should be remembered, voted overwhelmingly in 1964 to break the southern filibuster in the Senate and thus assure passage of the Civil Rights Act. And it is difficult to make out just what Nixon’s putative strategizing in 1968 consisted of. As President, he had his Justice Department act vigorously to complete the integration of school systems across the nation. When Daniel Patrick Moynihan was challenged by his liberal Democratic friends to justify his service as Nixon’s domestic counselor, he pointed to, among other things, the Administration’s record on desegregation. In any case, Republicans from Nixon on did not need a strategy to draw white southerners into their ranks; it happened naturally. Indeed, had it not been for the racial deformities of southern history, it would have happened much earlier.
Conversely, the Republicans can do little in the short run to attract a higher percentage of the black vote than the 10 to 12 percent they presently draw. The civil rights establishment has persuaded a large majority of blacks that an activist federal gov ernment committed to quota systems and expansive spending programs is necessary to their progress. Republicans cannot endorse such positions and remain Republicans. Colin Powell earnestly urges the GOP to “reach out” to black voters, but it can do so credibly only by trying to change the minds of the black electorate, not by capitulating to its current demands. It is not racism but ideology that explains Republican weakness among blacks.
Why, then, all those black faces at the Republican convention? Quite simply, to indicate to moderate voters that the party is open to all those who will embrace its principles, and that race is, in itself, an irrelevant category. Ideological preferences aside, that’s not a bad strategy for any party to follow.