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Southern preachers and the Southern Strategy

Southern preachers and the Southern Strategy

With some encouragement from the editors, I’ve been pushing the envelope a bit over a Forbes. Today’s post explores the myth of the Southern Strategy.

You’ve often heard it mentioned here and at the old GOPLifer that Rick Perry and Elizabeth Warren both switched parties over the past generation. There’s a missing element in the conventional story of the South’s great party-switch. To the extent that anyone speaks of it at all, they tend to attribute the switch to Nixon’s “Southern Strategy,” his effort to exploit southern anger over desegregation. A particularly hair-raising interview with Lee Atwater in 1981 seems to reinforce that idea.

The problem is that Nixon’s Southern Strategy mostly flopped. By some measures he was less successful in the South than Goldwater had been. Republicans in the Nixon era made few inroads there farther down the ticket. The flight of the Dixiecrats didn’t materialize in serious numbers at the local level until the late ’80’s. Something else was at work here to turn the South red.

Understanding the nuts and bolts of Southern Democrats’ big flip requires a careful look at the role of religion in southern politics. It also, apparently, requires writing an unreasonably long post. Sorry, there was just no way to get arms all the way around this in a thousand words. And writing these posts in serial form seemed ridiculous. Interested in your thoughts.



    1. Yes, fact checking MoC statements on issues of high visibility should be standard practice. The problem arises with which news source people use…print, radio, television, internet…Still, to your specfic point about communication by Congressional members to constituents and the media, there should be a higher standard. Then there’s potus….who could keep fact checkers tied up by himself.

  1. The religion and shared belief are now much more important than race, granted that race was its genesis. There are other Christian denominations much less organized than the Southern Baptists which also set up their own schools and networks in order to protect themselves from science, Hollywood, liberals, fluoridation etc. Our Senator Cruz is a graduate of this network and while he may be politically opportunistic up to cynical, he believes what he says. Don’t hope for its demise, support public education-real, honest to goodness free public schools like our Texas constitution demands our legislators enact and support.

  2. I’ve just had the opportunity to read and digest this post by Chris. It is a very thoughtful and perceptive column. The discussion of the role of religion and the clergy in facilitating the transformation of the South from Democratic to Republican is very enlightening.

    The evolution of the South’s attitudes towards being more inclusive will, I am sure be a very slow process, though I keep hoping that as the South becomes more and more urbanized and the major cities join the global economy there will be a movement towards more inclusiveness. When people associate with others there seems to be a trend towards realizing that all races, creeds and ethnic groups are all humans and are deserving of respect.

    Though I hardly consider myself well travelled, I have worked in the Philippines and Japan and served in Vietnam. In these experiences, I worked and associated with the people. I have also travelled in Peru, Ecuador, Belize, Costa Rica and Europe. Now I live and work in Seattle. It is a fairly diverse city, with Hispanics, Indians, Native Americans, Japanese, Chinese, African Americans and other ethnic groups. Of course, with that we have most of the major religions including Muslims (both Shia and Sunni), Buddhists, HIndus, Sikhs, Judaism and Christianity. Accordingly I have developed a tolerance and respect for other peoples, despite having been raised in small, rural area and having been raised as a Southern Baptist. Even so, I find that I still have many prejudices and preconceived notions.

    Yet, one cannot escape the tendency of the human animal to classify people who are different from ourselves as not being human. That is all too apparent from the history of the Twentieth Century. That tendency has led to much warfare and bloodshed. It is still occurring. In the US, Muslims and non-white Hispanics are now being castigated. Jared Diamond and other anthropologists have explored this. Given the difficulty of the intellect in overcoming the natural prejudices, forming an inclusive society will be difficult. And only since approximately the mid-twentieth century has the US really attempted to do so.

    In conclusion, though the urbanization of the South may eventually result in it becoming more inclusive and trending away from a single political party, it will most certainly be a very slow process. As Ryan mentioned in his post, if the national Democrats support and let the local and state parties develop organically, that will almost certainly lead towards more inclusiveness spreading from the new urban centers in the South. Having big urban centers connected extensively to the global and national economies is a new experience and could lead to something different.

  3. I’ll give 45 this, he did actually sit down with both the Freedom Caucus and the stalwart Republican moderates to try to negotiate for the AHCA:

    This is a long article that goes into some deep work showing the evolution of the administration’s thought, if you would call it that, from Bannon’s pre-campaign days to meeting his desk avatar and getting elected POTUS, through to his avatar’s fumble on whipping votes and what it may portend for tougher battles to come.

    Not mentioned in the article but sort of hinted at in its pragmatic accounting of various Congressional interests, blue dog to Tea Party, is that now that the first magic incantation failed to create an enchantment over the land, it’s likely all sorts of other minor incantations are much more readily felled. Or to switch metaphors completely, the AHCA might have been a vaccination against even worse ideas, it’s failure the first rise of the national immune system against fascism.

    At least that’s today. Tomorrow I’m sure some new crisis is going to hit the airwaves.

    1. EJ

      I’d like to believe that this is a victory for reality over magic. I fear, however, that what actually defeated the AHCA was that it wasn’t magical enough for the Freedom Caucus.

      The defeat of magic is a difficult thing. Humans will gladly lay their lives down to keep their myths alive (not to mention taking the lives of others as well) and we almost compulsively tiptoe around the myths of others. If you’ve ever met ex-Communists from middle Europe, they’re a sad example.

  4. That was a fantastic piece! 1000 words or more doesn’t matter. As Einstein said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” I learned a lot of history in your article, and you make a compelling argument that the Southern Strategy was a classic case of Republicans getting in front of a mob and convincing themselves they’re leading a parade.

    But in many ways, your article leaves me pessimistic. If the South was turned by Nixon, then that implies it could be turned back. But if it was the South’s intrinsic character that’s never really changed, then what hope is there that the South will change now? As your article points out, even someone like Moore, trying to change the Southern Baptists from the inside, has had his wings clipped.

    Are we doomed to always have a racist, obscurantist South, an anchor around the rest of the country’s forward progress? Even the idea that the modern cities of the South like Atlanta, Houston, Charlotte, Dallas, etc. (universally democratic) might lead change is belied by the fact that the largest evangelical churches (like Jeffress’s church in Dallas) are also found in those cities.

    Fundamentally, your point is that the South has never changed. The Civil War is not yet over. The past is not really past. Even for a Faulkner fan like me, that’s a very depressing notion (although you make a convincing case that it’s true…).

  5. Just saw “An act of God” last weekend. Painfully funny, but a lot of honesty along with it. People who think they know the mind of god worry me. Those that are certain they do scare the crap out of me. Most of the players you mention in the article are pushing the certain line. The sad part are how many folks are buying it.

    1. I take it as a good thing that these posts reach a larger audience, and that audience be exposed to different viewpoints. But you’re absolutely correct that the article is a joke. Cutting taxes has never increased revenues. Forbes’ critique of CBO ignores the fact that their estimates were based on Medicaid expansion everywhere, which was blocked by the Supreme Court. Steve Forbes, you may remember, ran for President, mostly as a Fair Tax advocate. It is often asserted that the Fair Tax would eliminate loopholes, a laughable claim.

  6. I agree that religion is a major issue. While organized religion is increasingly less of a factor in the lives of most Americans who identify themselves as “spiritual” but not “religious”, it has been and continues to be a central factor in the lives of most folks in the heartland, especially the South.

    While racism has certainly been a factor and overtly or not the GOP has been the party of white folks for decades now, I do think religion has been even more important.

    You’ve had a movement towards militancy that has been steadily taking place for almost 50 years. Jerry Falwell founded Liberty University back in 1971 and the Moral Majority in 1979.

    The long standing tradition of evangelical radio show preachers morphs into right wing talk shows which serve up a steady diet of “conservative” propaganda “preacher style”.

    The abortion issue has been a central motivating force behind keeping people who might otherwise be more liberally inclined on the side of he GOP. The church network in the heartland served as the organizing nexus for the anti-abortion movement. Since the Democratic Party has been 100% identified with pro-choice, that simply precluded most of these folks voting Democratic, even when a reprehensible candidate like Donald Trump ran for office.

    “The Architect”, Karl Rove has been able to master the art of using wedge issues like abortion, gay marriage, etc to split voters off of what would normally be their natural constituencies.

    The Democratic Party, simply assuming the support f the Black vote as the GOP became the party of white folks has done a poor job of countering the GOP’s efforts to play the religion card in the heartland.

    1. Worth clarifying that the anti-abortion movement has never been about abortion. Those who think and feel that it is are played for suckers, dancing like puppets on strings for those who fervently long for the days when a woman’s body wasn’t her own and her sexual choices were left up to others (read: white men).

      This is what I mean:

  7. Aside from the interesting history, one particular nugget that stood out to me, and this relates directly to our present dilemmas, is that the Southern revolution was, ultimately, carried out by Southerners. National Republicans going back decades tried over and over and over again to win over the South and with few exceptions, they flopped each and every time.

    Why should it be any different now with Democrats? It isn’t, and so any hope of looking to the national party, weak and ineffective as it still is, was a lost cause right from the start. At the most, all they should be counted on to do is to provide resources and potential funding to those actually working on the ground and talking to people, like TOP in Texas.

    If such a reformation really does take place, I think it has the potential to break the political cycle of the South for the first time since its creation.

    1. Before the election of Trump, I’d simply acknowledge the fact that ending southern racism could be achieved when the generation that spawned it, died. Now, I see a younger, emboldened group who have no apparent discomfort using overt language and actions to perpetrate their politics and I wonder how much longer our country (and world, apparently) must co-exist with this hatred.

      Wonderful, historical piece, Chris. You have a terrific grasp of this issue and those who have led it (and are now in charge). Every time a leader appears with the courage and sensitivity to bring more awareness to this flock, their efforts have been quashed…Rev. Billy Graham and Rev. Russell Moore, the man now leading the Southern Baptist Convention. Bigotry is going to die a much slower, harder death than I believed would happen, but we must cannot lose hope and we must continue to support its demise. This is hurting our country in so many ways. It is openly permeating our politics, our social engagement, our laws and regulations. It hurts our people and it must change.

  8. Chris, I don’t agree with you that a series of posts would be silly, let alone “ridiculous.”

    A series would be wrong only if the underlying issue was one-and-inseparable. On the other hand, if there were/are several underlying issues, and they were propagated sequentially over time, then it could be entirely appropriate for you to address them that way.

    One of your most attractive attributes to this lifelong left-leaning Democrat, even when you were GOP Lifer, has been your knowledge of history–of how things got to be the way they are–and your talent for documenting and explaining history. Why not do that in investigating and documenting this vastly complex question?

    1. I just couldn’t figure out how to break it up without some kind of silly cliffhanger. Now that I look at it though, it could have perhaps started with a look at the failure of Nixon’s strategy. Then a second piece could have picked up Atwater’s quote. I don’t know. It’s challenging.

      1. I think it is perfect. Your perception and linkage with history provides a clear explanation of how events and people have shaped our social/political/religious history and current events. I wouldn’t make one change except to hope for its demise.

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