The Western Origins of the “Southern Strategy”Historians in the News
tags: Republican Party, conservatism, Barry Goldwater, Heather Cox Richardson, Western US
For many people, the so-called Southern strategy was the original sin that led directly to the many racial and political problems we face today. Richard Nixon, it is said, implemented this nefarious strategy by appealing to Southern racists with coded phrases like “law and order” to gain the White House in 1968. In truth, the seeds of the Southern strategy were sown in the West 100 years earlier, as detailed in a new book by Boston College historian Heather Cox Richardson, How the South Won the Civil War.
While there is no question that Nixon coveted the votes of conservative Southerners, he was hardly the first Republican to do so. The eventual migration of Southern Democrats into the GOP had more to do with deep economic, demographic, and political forces that had been in operation for decades.
To belabor the obvious, the Republican Party has always been our more conservative political party, and the South has always been our most conservative region. But Southern conservatives were alienated from the GOP because of slavery and the Civil War. However much affinity they might have for Republicans on issues such as national defense or taxes, they were never going to formally join the party of Abraham Lincoln.
And so America had a historical anomaly, in which conservative Southerners found themselves permanent members of our more liberal political party, the Democrats. It took a great deal of compromise and political skill to keep Northern liberals and Southern conservatives sufficiently allied to win the White House and control of Congress.
The first cracks in this unholy alliance appeared as early as 1938. Franklin Roosevelt, irritated by the lack of support many Southern Democrats were giving to various New Deal programs, tried to purge some of them in the Democratic primaries. This effort failed miserably and Republicans made big gains thanks to Democratic disunity. The result further alienated Southern conservatives from Roosevelt.
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