Nixon and the Folklore of the “Southern Strategy”- 40 years later
It has been 40 years since our 37th President of the United States, Richard Nixon resigned from office. I was barely two years old during the Watergate scandal and have no recollection of the Nixon Administration. Being intrigued by his presidency, I began to read and study Nixon; from leadership to his administration. I even own an autographed copy of his book.
Six Crises. Besides Watergate, not too many people my age likely know much about Nixon. If they do, the first thing they would probably mention is the folklore that is known as the “Southern Strategy”.
As Richard Cohen of the Washington Post writes, “It was Nixon who devised and pursued what came to be called the Southern strategy” and he “was, above all, a pragmatic, cynical politician. Johnson and the Democrats had wooed the black vote; Nixon would do the same for the white vote. “Quid pro quo”, you might say except the Democrats were expanding rights, while the Republicans wanted to narrow them or keep them restrictive.” (here)
Yes, there are some tiny kernels of truth as to what Mr. Cohen has stated. However, not clearly enough to sink your teeth in. As I firmly will state, the Nixon “Southern Strategy” was a myth, and its folklore lives on.
The “Southern Strategy” was popularized by Kevin Phillips, a former Nixon staffer who wrote a book in 1969 titled, “The Emerging Republican Majority”. In his book, he contends that the Democrats have “permanently alienated southern white voters because of polices that favored blacks and the powerful civil rights movement.” During the tumultuous time-frame of the 60s, the south was still heavily Democratic and under the leadership President Lyndon Johnson (a southern Democrat from Texas). Johnson helped broker the passage of the historic civil rights bill of 1964. This was the same Lyndon Johnson who as the Senate majority leader opposed every civil rights legislation before he was magically “for” it. He must have had an epiphany. As legend has it, he knew that he was going to lose the south, so by leveraging the passage of the civil rights bill he would “have these n**gers voting Democrats for the next 200 years”. In the 1964 election, the Republican candidate Barry Goldwater running against Lyndon Johnson only won five Southern states.
Nixon being an opportunist, along with those pesky “racist” Republicans wanted so badly to make inroads into south, they came up with this strategy to appeal to southern whites who were disgruntled with the Democrats. If that was the case, then Nixon sure did do a horrible job, because the south kept voting for Democrats for decades.
In 1968 Richard Nixon lost those same five states that Goldwater won and to make matters worse, Ronald Reagan lost those same states in 1980. So far, how is that Southern Strategy thingy working out for you? Liberals may argue that the reason why Nixon lost those southern states in 1968 was because the ex-Democratic Governor of Alabama George Wallace ran as a third-party candidate, and siphoned off the states that Goldwater won from Nixon. That would be a reasonable argument, but Nixon came in third three out of those five states that Wallace won and barley finished second in the other two. Nixon went on to become president in 1968 by second smallest margin in the prior 76 years. Some “Southern strategy” indeed.
Let’s fast forward to 1972. The “Southern Strategy” needed a reboot like the Spiderman franchise after that god awful Spiderman 3 movie. George McGovern was Richard Nixon’s opponent. Accepting his party’s nomination at the 1972 Democratic convention in Miami Beach, McGovern paid a tribute to George Wallace’s courage and “was moved by his appearance at this convention” One might think that with the “Southern Strategy” in full swing, George Wallace may have been a the biggest free agent prior to Lebron James’ decision to take his “talents to South Beach”. Oh yes, the irony is that Wallace also took his talents to South Beach speak at the convention. Nixon won by one of the largest landslides ever, winning 48 states. It appears that not only did the south not buy into McGovern despite his reaching out to Wallace, the rest of the country didn’t neither. I ask again, how is that “Southern Strategy” thingy working out?
When disgraced Nixon resigned in 1974, he must have passed the ‘Southern Strategy” playbook off to Gerald Ford. President Ford had given the humbled former President a pardon. As a token of his appreciation, the malevolent Nixon handed over the “Southern Strategy” playbook that helped him win two elections. This was just in time for the 1976 Presidential election. The Democrats had a “Southern Strategy” of their own, they nominated Governor of the Georgia Jimmy Carter. The Georgia state flag at that time had a confederate emblem. Jimmy Carter went on to sweep the entire south of the old confederacy, except Virginia. Jimmy Carter then went on to become President. Who knows the Watergate scandal may have been a distraction so the Democrats could steal the “Southern Strategy” playbook. If that was the case Nixon should have erased the playbook instead of those tapes.
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