According to Wikipedia, “In American politics, the Southern Strategy refers to a Republican Party electoral strategy to increase political support among white voters in the South by appealing to racism against African Americans.” I have really only encountered arguments for existence of this strategy in polemical contexts, and I am curious about the historical basis for the claim that there was such a strategy. The one source that is cited consistently is an infamous 1981 interview with Lee Atwater. This is not a lot to go on for evaluating the motivations of the Republican Party as a whole, or those of its more prominent members. (For instance one could construct an unflattering narrative about the Democratic Party on the basis of LBJ's racial attitudes or the fact that George Wallace was doing well in the 1972 Democratic primary until he got shot.) What is the evidence that the shift in Southern states' voting practices is the result of an intentional Republican appeal to racist attitudes?
The proof for the Southern Strategy is both deep and broad, but for a top-down strategy to do so that doesn't include Lee Atwater (Reagan's chief campaign strategist)? That's a bit harder.
First, there's the context. Lyndon Johnson signed one of the most controversial pieces of legislation in the history of our country: the Civil Rights act. Whether this was motivated by his own feelings, political gamesmanship or a combination, it's hard to say. But the South was abuzz over something so comprehensive as to destroy segregation as we know it.
We see it through the publications that have helped candidates rise to power both in the 60's and today.
We see it in actual papers seized from the White House during Watergate.
Goldwater's strategist wasn't particularly secretive about it. A quote:
Manion, the former dean of the University of Notre Dame Law School, hoped to rally conservatives behind a Goldwater nomination, with the expectation that when the nomination fell through, it would lead to the formation of a new, conservative third party. Manion believed that Goldwater could be enlisted to head the new third party’s ticket, joined by an unnamed southern Democrat. …
He was convinced that if Rockefeller won the nomination [in 1960], conservatives within the GOP would break to form a new party. Although some people around Manion spoke of running Orval Faubus of Arkansas (best known for his opposition to school integration in his state), Manion doubted the viability of a Faubus candidacy. For a while Manion hoped that South Carolina Governor Ernest Hollings might lead a southern revolt in the Democratic party, but in the end Hollings refused to go along with the scheme. Although Manion did not support forced racial segregation in the South, either in public or in his private correspondence, he saw civil rights as an Achilles’ heel of the Democratic party in the South. Anti-Communism and anti-big government drove Manion’s politics, but he was willing to seize upon dissension within the Democratic party, apparent in the formation of the States’ Rights party in 1948 headed by South Carolina Governor Strom Thurmond.
One of the big movers and shakers of the Goldwater campaign was fairly clear as well:
During the first press conference for the Draft Goldwater Committee, O’Donnell addressed the media and declared that the national Republican Party ought to pursue an intentional Southern Strategy. Because Goldwater was the only candidate who could successfully execute such a strategy, the Arizona senator ought to be the party’s nominee. “The key to Republican success,” O’Donnell argued, “lies in converting a weakness into a strength and becoming a truly national party.” The phrase “converting a weakness into a strength” meant securing the once solidly Democratic South for a Republican candidate. In his book about Goldwater’s campaign for the presidency, Suite 3505, F. Clifton White cleared up any doubt over what O’Donnell meant by including after that crucial phrase this parenthetical remark: “(the paucity of Republican votes in the South).” At this revealing moment in political history, O’Donnell had based his argument on a striking admission. The Southern Strategy was an intentional maneuver on the part of the party to win elections, and Goldwater, with his ability to appeal to racist sentiments in the South, was seemingly the only candidate who could deliver enough Southern votes to ensure a Republican victory.
Goldwater himself didn't share these views, but he wasn't loathe about exploiting them:
Goldwater did not want to campaign for the segregationist vote; he had even hoped that his personal opposition to discrimination would win him the votes of black people. But he had believed all along that the Southern white vote was basically conservative and potentially Republican. Republicans, he told Georgia activists in 1961, ought to stop chasing the votes of African-Americans and "go hunting where the ducks are." And the ducks in 1964 turned out to be white Democrats in revolt against integration.
One of Nixon's strategists laid it out in documents, and later, a book. A quote from the interview about his book has him saying:
All the talk about Republicans making inroads into the Negro vote is persiflage. Even 'Jake the Snake' [Senator Jacob Javits of New York] only gets 20 percent. From now on, 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 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.
We see it through the actions of candidate Reagan.
We have two RNC chairmen not only acknowledging that it existed, but apologizing for their party's role in the Southern Strategy. These are men whose job it is to represent the whole of the Republican party, their spokesmen.
If there were just a couple of these sorts of things, we could call them coincidences. But there has to come a point when a rational human begins to see a pattern.
And if you don't believe that many high-ranking sources, there are pages upon pages of other documents you'd have to go to a library to see.
Here is what we need to know about the so-called ‘southern strategy’: most southerners begin to identify as Republicans in the 1980's.
Most US House seats from the south become represented by the GOP in the 1990's.
At the state level, to cite a few examples, Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana didn't get Republican governors (for the first time since reconstruction) until the 1980's/early 90's. Georgia didn't get a Republican governor until 2003 and Alabama's state house didn't turn Republican until 2010.
In fact, the Democrats controlled pretty much every southern legislature until about the mid-90's So this code language/strategy if it was one wasn’t very effective.
Somehow appeals regarding “state’s rights” and so forth became “racist”, because Republicans were pro small government with limited powers? I am pro Federalism and am white & native and the best man in my wedding was a black dude. So if I were alive and old enough to vote in the 60s does that mean I would be a racist? The labeling of the stance on this issue as racist is particularly troubling, considering the 10th Amendment is part of the Bill of Rights.
In addition, the demonization of stances on subjects regarding affirmative action, welfare, & so on, that I am pretty sure, that you can argue without being a racist; including being against affirmative action, just goes to show the level of which political parties, even back then will stoop to, to create narratives, and that is quite telling, in itself.
Did anyone seriously think segregation was going to make a comeback (legally) by the 1970's/80's? Even Paul Krugman’s check on reality in 'Conscience of a Liberal' (where the southern strategy was one of his main topics) acknowledged that most southerners wouldn't want segregation back even if the Feds allowed it.
So if that's the case, we must ask: how could this supposed strategy have so much influence when it is obvious that nothing much came of it?
Who would base their vote on getting virtually nothing? So were southerners voting based on race issues as implied? No. The data is fairly clear on this point: In the 1968 Presidential election for example. There was no ambiguity when it came to George Wallace (Democrat running as independent). So how did he do? He won 5 of 11 states in the old confederacy. The states he won were fairly rural. When you total up the votes of all 11 states, a more interesting picture emerges: it's almost exactly a 3-way split between Nixon (34%), Humphrey (31%), & Wallace (34%). 2/3 votes going for Democrats. In other words: even at the height of the racial tension of the 60's, the vast majority of southerners wouldn't vote for a guy on race issues alone, if at all.
12 years later, Reagan won Mississippi (which Carter had won in 1976; along with almost the entire south). Reagan only got 1.72% more of the popular vote (49.4% of the total) in the south than Ford had gotten 4 years before. So it's clear a lot of the theories that surround this “strategy” are sketchy at best & if it really was a strategy, it was a poor one.
So ultimately my answer to the question, "What is the evidence that the shift in Southern states voting practices is the result of an intentional Republican appeal to racist attitudes?" is 2 part:
1)the evidence doesn't show enough of a voting shift to support that a theory existed that really did appeal to racist's attitudes
2) there isn't enough substantial evidence to really confirm that the strategy existed in more than a small handful of Republican's, potentially warped minds