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The Western Origins of the “Southern Strategy”

The untold story of the ideological realignment that upended the nation

William Lovelace/Getty Images
Arizona senator and nominee for president Barry Goldwater speaks at a rally in 1964.

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.

The strengthened Republicans greeted the alienated Southerners with open arms. While there was no possibility of them actually becoming Republicans, they were perfectly willing to form a conservative coalition in Congress to block progressive legislation.

Harry Truman’s ascension to the presidency in 1945 created another crisis for the South. Unlike Roosevelt—who mostly accommodated that region on racial issues—Truman acted, desegregating the military and the civil service, which had been segregated by Woodrow Wilson. At the same time, Northern liberals like Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey were pushing the Democratic Party to do more on civil rights.

Racist Southerners were outraged by Truman’s actions and hatched a plan to assure his defeat in 1948 by running a third-party presidential bid led by Governor Strom Thurmond, Democrat of South Carolina.* In what was expected to be a close race against Republican Governor Thomas E. Dewey of New York, the loss of a couple of Southern states would likely doom Truman’s prospects, the insurgents thought.

Although Thurmond carried four states, Truman eked out an upset victory. Not only that, Democrats recaptured the House and Senate after Republicans had taken control of both in 1946. The bulk of new members were liberals from the North, eager to do something meaningful about civil rights. Frustrating their efforts, however, were seniority rules that greatly benefited the Southerners.

Southern Democrats had largely escaped losses in the 1946 elections and thus gained considerable seniority, becoming chairmen of many important committees for the next several decades. They also installed one of their own, Lyndon Johnson of Texas, as Senate majority leader in 1955. His principal job was keeping civil rights legislation bottled up—without leaving anyone’s fingerprints behind.

As all of this was happening, the dynamics within the Republican Party were changing in ways that made it even more accommodating to Southern conservatives. The key was the rise of the West and its increasing political power as the population of Western states skyrocketed after World War II.

Unlike Eastern Republicans, whose history was defined by opposition to slavery, Western Republicans had long held racial views toward Asians and Native Americans similar to those of Southern Democrats toward African Americans. For example, Republican Governor Leland Stanford of California had this to say in his 1862 Inaugural Address:

To my mind it is clear, that the settlement among us of an inferior race is to be discouraged, by every legitimate means. Asia, with her numberless millions, sends to our shores the dregs of her population.… There can be no doubt but that the presence of numbers among us of a degraded and distinct people must exercise a deleterious influence upon the superior race, and, to a certain extent, repel desirable immigration. It will afford me great pleasure to concur with the Legislature in any constitutional action, having for its object the repression of the immigration of the Asiatic races.

Discrimination against Asians culminated in enactment of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 under Republican President Chester A. Arthur, which formed the basis for all subsequent efforts to restrict immigration based on race and ethnicity. The 1888 Republican platform, in fact, said this was just the first step: “We declare our hostility to the introduction into this country of foreign contract labor and of Chinese labor, alien to our civilization and constitution; and we demand the rigid enforcement of the existing laws against it, and favor such immediate legislation as will exclude such labor from our shores.”

Thus by 1890, “the West had an ideology more in common with that of the South than that of the North,” Richardson writes.

Further bringing the Westerners and Southerners together was a shared attitude toward the federal government on economic issues. Southerners had long favored small government in Washington to keep it from interfering with segregation. This meant keeping taxes and spending low and unions out. Westerners shared this libertarian philosophy because they glorified the idea of “rugged individualism” that emanated from myths about the settlement of the frontier. As Richardson explains:

Mythology tells us that the theme of the American West was freedom, but the opposite was true. Like the antebellum South, society in the West was hierarchical according to race, class, and gender. When Americans moved there after the Civil War, they kept alive the same vision of the world that had inspired Confederates. Just as the South was a cultural and political force that came to dominate American society in the early nineteenth century, the West was a cultural and political force that came to dominate American society in the late twentieth century.

The moderate policies of Dwight Eisenhower, who adamantly refused to repeal the New Deal despite bringing a Republican Congress in with him in 1952, combined with an activist Supreme Court, which handed down the historic Brown decision in 1954, brought the Western Republicans and Southern Democrats more closely together. The federal government was their mutual enemy.

Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona epitomized the new-style Western Republican who rejected legislation like the Civil Rights Act of 1964, not because of racism but because it represented big government. And like the Southerners, Goldwater was obsessed with an originalist interpretation of the Constitution and therefore viewed the legislation as unconstitutional—future Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist, then a private lawyer in Phoenix, told him that it was virtually identical to the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which the Supreme Court had ruled unconstitutional in 1883. (Writing in the August 31, 1963, issue of this magazine, Robert Bork, then a Yale law professor, said much the same thing.)

When Goldwater captured the Republican nomination in 1964, he knew perfectly well that his best hope of getting electoral votes lay in the South. As he put it, he would “go hunting where the ducks are.” Aside from his home state, all of Goldwater’s electoral votes came from states that had belonged to the Confederacy, making him the true implementer of the Southern strategy. (Tellingly, the old Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond formally became a Republican in 1964.)

Ironically, Nixon really did almost nothing to appeal to Southern racists in 1968, for an obvious, but frequently forgotten, reason: Alabama Governor George Wallace, who ran as a third-party candidate, had all their votes in his pocket and made blatant racial appeals the foundation of his campaign. Even as president, Nixon did very little, substantively, to appeal to the South. On the contrary, he moved rapidly to desegregate the schools and established affirmative action programs to aid black workers and businesses. It is now largely forgotten, but the reason Nixon made Spiro Agnew his running mate is because he had a reputation for being good on civil rights, having pushed for open housing laws as governor of Maryland. On balance, Nixon’s record on civil rights is pretty good, according to historians.

Of more importance to the Southern strategy is that Nixon, like Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, and the two Bush presidents, was from the West. The similar worldviews of Western individualists and Southern conservatives is what ultimately drew the South permanently into the Republican orbit.

* This piece originally stated that Strom Thurmond was a Senator in 1948.