For anyone still trying to make sense of her evangelical Christian aunt’s abiding loyalty to President Trump, “The Long Southern Strategy” (Oxford University Press) is essential reading. The new book from University of Arkansas scholars Angie Maxwell and Todd Shields expands the commonly understood idea of “Southern strategy”: that the GOP, beginning in 1964 under Barry Goldwater and continuing through Richard Nixon, played on Southern racial prejudices to turn the region into a stronghold. Maxwell and Shields convincingly demonstrate that the Republican Party’s Southern approach continued much longer than previously understood and was as much about feminism and religion as it was about race. — Lindsey Millar, editor.
By definition, white southern identity is rooted in opposition to something or someone else. Whiteness is meaningless without blackness. Confederate is meaningless without Yankee. George Wallace, who pounded his fists on this substructure of the southern white psyche, described a very clear “them” to which his audiences did not want to belong — a technique called “positive polarization.” Hippie agitators, pinhead intellectuals, and liberal socialists all became emblematic of who he was not. Whether they liked Wallace did not matter; he became their “us” in an “us vs. them” dichotomy deeply familiar to white southerners. That rhetorical style and its intensity was not lost on GOP strategists, as it became their pitch in the battles between feminists and anti-feminists, makers and takers, believers and heretics, patriots and traitors. The more that is believed to be at stake, the more unified the “us” and the more demonized the “them,” and the more the threat is repeated, the more it is believed. Advantages for the other side equaled disadvantages for the home team in the zero-sum game that has always been the essence of southern white identity.
As team allegiance — to whiteness, patriarchy, or fundamentalist Christianity — grows stronger through rivalry, so too does the demand for total loyalty. Any changes to the rules, so to speak, whether by court or Congress, were met by many southern whites with creative noncompliance, or massive resistance, or both until directly enforced. Compromise, after all, was a slippery slope, and absolutism the only anchor. And yet there were moderates, a majority of whom were silent, who did not want to seem resistant to progress or to be judged by others or even by themselves. To remain loyal, those folks often needed deniability, a “Great Alibi,” as Robert Penn Warren called it. Coded rhetoric provided political cues without provoking rebuke or even one’s own conscience. Just as it had done during the southern atrocities of lynchings and slavery, noted anthropologist John Dollard, who studied the South in the 1930s, this moral passivity or non-engagement enabled extremism. There were only a handful of people in any given community who could, Dollard claimed, actually bring themselves to do the lynching. But there were multitudes who were content to watch. If they were not content, they were, at the least, not outraged enough or too fearful of the social consequences to protest. Yet by their silence, sadism became their spokesman, while the rest of the country — and the world, for that matter — observed such strange fruit in disbelief. That kind of extremism, even when only rhetorical, further entrenches absolutism, which then silences moderation, which then amplifies zealotry, a repeating cycle through which southern whites have too often staved off progress in the region. So choosing to chase southern white electors means racing to the polar end and dragging the party there too, until the middle cannot hold. Because of those historic decisions, GOP candidates are “An Echo, Not a Choice,” and voters have to pick sides — “you’re either for it, or you’re against it,” as Wallace said — in the latest battle of what has been an ongoing cultural civil war.
Such absolutism was also reflected in the way that white southerners maintained their power via top-down control without compromise. Those most likely to challenge that hierarchy internally were made to feel like they were connected to those at the top. They had the same culture, or the same enemy, or the same skin color. They were both gentlemen or rebels or agrarians or they attended the same church. They might all be natives to the county or their parents had been. They were all superior to the black man and, of course, they were the king of their castle, no matter how humble it may be. Whatever the common ground, if promoted enough, it created an illusion of common opportunities, even if only aspirational, whereby threats to those opportunities became threats to them all. So powerful was the illusion that it trumped class alliances, even though fidelity often meant voting against one’s economic self-interest, sometimes in ignorance, sometimes by choice, depending on how deeply the voter needed to believe in that common “us.” So just as folks who did not own slaves or profit financially from slavery took up the collective cause of the Confederacy, so too did many southern whites vote for wealthy, “maker” candidates who wanted to cut the federal programs on which so many rely — from Social Security to welfare to food stamps to healthcare subsidies — rather than self-identifying as a “taker.” And if that program was portrayed as leveling the playing field between whites and blacks or even men and women, or if it was the signature accomplishment of an African American leader or advocated for by a feminist, then opposing it — as irrational as it may seem — becomes part of a larger campaign to defend the southern white way of life, even as it pragmatically makes daily life that much harder. Poor southern whites have long been conditioned to forfeit a personal battle in the service of winning an imagined war from which they do not benefit.
Thus, the GOP’s success is not solely the result of the policy positions that the party took on civil rights enforcement or the ERA or on the separation of church and state. It was also the way they did it, selling those positions with a southern accent, so to speak. The Long Southern Strategy had to have both substance and a not-so-new style. To that end, Republican candidates didn’t just campaign down South, they blended into the southern landscape so completely as to seem as if they had always been there. So much so that in an August 2017 national poll conducted by the Economist and YouGov, the majority of all Americans surveyed (54 percent) now report believing that Confederate monuments are symbols of “southern pride,” not “symbols of racism” (26 percent). The rest claim they don’t know. The fact that a majority of whites do not know or do not acknowledge the racist history of many of these monuments proves a critical point made by Rebecca Solnit in her article “The American Civil War Didn’t End. And Trump Is a Confederate President.” Solnit writes: “We never cleaned up after the Civil War, never made it an anathema, as the Germans have since the second world war, to support the losing side.” She’s right; for those very reasons, southern white identity has been both politicized and nationalized. Among Republicans, specifically, the “southern pride” believers swell to 84 percent. They may not all identify as southern, but Republicans in general are sympathetic to the lost cause. The duck hunt turned out to be a massacre. The Long Southern Strategy not only tapped into racial and gender-role and evangelical angst, it perpetuated it, sometimes even constructing it whole cloth. Over time, that made the party southern, not in terms of place, but in its vision, in its demands, in its rhetoric, and in its spirit. And that has changed American politics.