The South Will Rise Again

2008 marked the end of the southern strategy? Not so fast.

The Deep South went Republican in 2008, missing the memo from the rest of the country that this was a Democratic year. The New York Times’ Adam Nossiter argues that this “could spell the end of the so-called Southern strategy, the doctrine that took shape under President Richard M. Nixon in which national elections were won by co-opting Southern whites on racial issues.” A quote from political scientist Wayne Parent states the article’s thesis more bluntly: “The South has moved from being the center of the political universe to being an outside player in presidential politics.”

But Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia were contested states for the first time in years—arguably, the South will be more politically influential after 2008 because presidential candidates will likely campaign there more heavily than they have in the past. And, perhaps, the way suburban communities are transforming these states’ politics is an extension of the trends that brought the South into the Republican camp in the 1960s, not a departure from them. Boston University historian Bruce Schulman, author of three books on the years that produced the “Southern strategy,” says that “some people misunderstand the Southern strategies of Nixon and Republicans after that. They think it’s all about the white backlash … but a good part of the Southern strategy was centered not in [the Deep South], but in what we might call the ‘Sunbelt South,’ suburban places like Atlanta.”

Looking at the 1968 electoral map, it’s impossible to see the Deep South as the cornerstone of Nixon’s Southern strategy—he won only one Deep Southern state, South Carolina, in 1968. True, Nixon could not have won if Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana had not given their electoral votes to the segregationist hero George Wallace instead of Democrat Hubert Humphrey, and their heavily Republican leanings in the years after made them an important Republican base. But Nixon flatly rejected a strategy that would have him playing to the parts of the South where the white backlash was most virulent. Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, the Republican nominee in 1964, had tried that, and he alienated voters in the rest of the country, losing to Lyndon Johnson in a landslide. Goldwater “ran as a racist candidate,” Nixon told biographer Herbert Parmet, “and he won the wrong states.”

Nixon’s genius was his ability to capitalize on racial resentments—which, we should remember, were a factor in the Rust Belt as well as the Black Belt—in way that matched the sensibilities of the suburbanizing constituencies of North Carolina, Georgia, and Texas. The GOP has not identified their enemy for the past thirty years as African Americans, but rather as “Big Government.” For some, this has a racial appeal: Hostility towards welfare hinged on the perception that it was a handout to undeserving blacks at the expense of hard-working whites. But it also spoke to those who simply ascribed to free-market philosophy. Nixon signalled his sympathy with “backlash voters” by opposing bussing and using coded tough-on-crime rhetoric, but his primary audience were the middle class across “the heartland,” not Klu Kluxers in Alabama.

“The important thing is when you say ‘the South,’ is what ‘South’ do you mean,” Schulman says in response to Nossiter’s article. “I think the argument that the South that voted for George Wallace doesn’t have the political influence, that’s true,” he says. “But they haven’t had political influence.” And they haven’t even been the most consistently Republican, either—Virginia was the only southern state to vote for Gerald Ford over Jimmy Carter in 1976.

Nossiter’s argument accepts the Deep South as the part of the Old Confederacy that defines the region. But, says University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato, “I don’t think any reasonable definition of the South doesn’t include Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida.” He predicts that being competitive, again, could strengthen these states. In previous years, for example, Virginia received only “incidental spending” from the national campaigns. But in 2008, “Millions and millions and millions were spent on voter contact and organizational efforts” in the Old Dominion. Because both sides will likely have to vigorously contend for the state next time around, its Congressional delegation (which now is also almost evenly split between Democrats and Republicans) is in a stronger position on Capitol Hill.

John Egerton gave a split title to his 1974 chronicle of America’s changing relationship with its southern states: The Americanization of Dixie/The Southernization of America. America was beginning to look more like the South at that point, but the South was also in the process of changing. And that process continues, leading some southern partisans to claim that some states that seceded in 1861 no longer belonged in Dixie. (See George Allen and McCain/Palin spokeswoman Nancy Pfotenhauer.) But these changing parts of the South are the ones that made the region politically powerful in the Twentieth Century, and, if Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia remain competitive, they will be an electoral powerhouse in the Twenty-First.

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Lester Feder is a freelance reporter based in Washington, D.C., and a research scientist at George Washington University School of Public Health.