May 22, 2003

Back to the "Southern Strategy"

I was watching Hardball this evening and during a roundtable segment towards the end of the program Chris Matthews, Nora O’Donnell, and David Gergen were discussing Senator Robert Byrd’s latest tirade from the Senate floor concerning the President’s Iraq policy. I was struck by Matthew’s asking the guests the question (in somewhat rhetorical fashion, I thought) as to whether Byrd was in fact the “soul” of the Democratic Party, and he said a number of quite positive things about Byrd and his role in the Senate’s history. Gergen concurred that Byrd was showing more “spine” than the rest of the Democratic Party and O’Donnell was positively effusive in her discussion of Byrd.

Now, this made me think back to the mini-debate that James Joyner (here, here, and here) Brett Marston (here and here), and myself had concerning the politics of race in the Southern Republican Party. Indeed, James specifically referenced Byrd in the conversation. We all of course recall Byrd’s KKK background, and his recent theories of “white n-words” on national television, and so forth.

Two things come to mind:

1) When Trent Lott praised Strom Thurmond, a former segregationist, Lott was rightly vilified. I have yet to see any serious criticism befall Byrd or his defenders.

2) Bret argued that Democrats need to remind the country of the past “Southern Strategy” to demonstrate the racists foundations of much of the move of Southern Democrats to the Republican Party.

As I demonstrated here, I find that argument to be difficult to sustain from the point of view of empirical electoral analysis. Further, the ease by which liberal Democrats can praise Robert Byrd (or, at the minimum overlook foibles that would result in the public roasting of a Republican) is indicative of the fact that while the Democratic Party may want to believe that the shift in the South was all due to a nefarious plot by Richard Nixon to capitalize on the inherent racism of Southerners, that in fact it is far more complicated than that, and further, that Democrats aren’t exactly innocent in this area.

And beyond Byrd, I would add Ernest “Fritz” Hollings of South Carolina, who, as Governor, flew the Confederate Battle Flag over the state Capitol in protest of desegregation.

Posted by Steven Taylor at May 22, 2003 08:11 PM | TrackBack

Fritz continued on with his racism after he got into the Senate. He's always been especially fond of telling racist jokes and talking down to African-Americans, but Democrats (and the media) write it off because he has Hollings (like Byrd) has so much clout.

I think Republicans, in addition to hitting Byrd and Hollings, should also note the Democratic "southern strategy" in 2002's campaign to replace Strom Thurmond, which was to gaybait Lindsay Graham. Nobody in the national Democratic Party repudiated that, either.

Posted by: Matthew at May 23, 2003 01:21 AM

Good point in re: Graham.

Posted by: Steven at May 23, 2003 08:26 AM

But we know Hollings and Byrd can't be racists. After all, they're Democrats.

Posted by: James Joyner at May 23, 2003 10:30 AM

Michelle Malkin is a piece of work: opposing Clarence Thomas is an act of racism? Give me a break.

Beyond that, the equivalency arguments are weird (but you're probably not surprised to hear me say that). Republicans know that they lack credibility among black voters, and that's why they sacked Lott (ceremonially, at least). And the main causal explanation of that lack of credibility, at least the official one among Republicans, is that Jesse Jackson and his ilk have somehow held mainstream black America hostage. This is a weak causal theory on many fronts.

If Republicans want to know why black voters don't like them, they should look at what Republicans do or don't do for black voters. And the "southern strategy" serves as a powerful symbol and reminder of the fact that Republicans have run on issues that appeal to white fears of one sort or another. Again, the causal story of electoral success is complex, but Jesse Helms was a Republican for identifiable reasons. Jesse Helms would not have done what he did if he had stayed Republican. Everyone knows that. The serious self-analytical question for Republicans is to understand why.

Thus endeth my rant. . . :)

Posted by: Brett at May 23, 2003 01:51 PM

Above, the sentence about Jesse Helms should say something like: he wouldn't have done what he did if he had been Democrat. Sorry.

Posted by: Brett at May 23, 2003 01:52 PM


Why isn't it possible that Lott got sacked because the majority of Republicans found his comments both stupid and flat wrong (I know I did).

The main reason these days that blacks don't vote for Republicans is largely ideological and policy-based, not because of the southern strategy.

And I agree about Jesse Helms--but I disagree that he is emblematic of the Republican Party or southern Reps writ large. It is a wholly unsupportable contention.

And Democrats use fear all the time to try to convince the elderly to vote for them--in that regards neither party is innocent. And, I would argue they use race-baiting to appeal to the fears of blacks.

Of course the argument really isn't about whether either party is pure in its activities (neither is), but is about the role of the "southern strategey" in the propogation of the Republican Party in the south. And really, the root argument is whether or not the Repubican Party is somehow racists, which is what the argument concerning the southern strategy implies.

Indeed, your statement about Jesse Helms underscores this fact. I concur that he has done some racist things, and am pleased he has retired. But where you get the idea that only Republicans can do racist things? Byrd's comment about "white n-words" only a few years ago was, in my mind, on the same level as Helms' commercial.

Posted by: Steven at May 23, 2003 02:20 PM

And, how about Fritz Hollings who said the following:

Last year, Hollings joked to reporters about African leaders who attend trade conferences in Switzerland: "Rather than eat each other, they'd just come up (to Switzerland) and get a good square meal."

I don't think he switched the to Reps just to make the comment :)

Source: March 8, 1994 in the Cleveland Plain Dealer (via Lexis-Nexis (I saw the quote in a column, but wanted to double-check))

Posted by: Steven at May 23, 2003 02:28 PM

I don't think the question is whether or not Republicans are racist; again, I think that that question is a red herring. The interesting question, to which the southern strategy provides part of an answer, is how the Democratic party went from being the party of segregation to the party of civil rights, and how the Republican party went from the party of civil rights to states' rights etc. You have to admit that the southern strategy is part of an answer to that broad question. And any account of the answer would also have to take account of why blacks fled the republican party over the past 40 years.

As for Lott, the first response of Republicans was that his comments were taken out of context. And then, as you know, the neocons went after him precisely because his remarks represented a kind of Republican view (or image) that the neocons want to ditch. Pat Buchanan make your argument, basically, that the southern strategy thing has been overblown, but that didn't stop neocons from relying on this conventional wisdom (and neocons presumably know what they're doing in terms of Republican strategy).

Posted by: Brett at May 24, 2003 07:10 PM

I'll respond in greater detail later--but please, one request: don't lump me with Pat Buchanan :)

And really, he is hardlty a neocon--neither in the old definition (a liberal who became a conservative) or the new version (Wolfowitz and company), but rather, a paleocon, if not an outright retro-con populist.

Posted by: Steven at May 24, 2003 08:51 PM

And in regards to Lott: the first reaction was that he was trying to be nice to an old man, but that it was a stupid thing to say. Then, when it became clear that he had said it before, and various other issue, he got the ol' boot.

Posted by: Steven at May 24, 2003 08:52 PM

Actually, just one last thing (for now), if the point isn't to point out racism in the Republican Party, why did you say that the Democrats need to learn to point out that there was a southern strategy, etc? Isn't the point of bringing it up as a political tactic to paint the Reps as racist?

Posted by: Steven at May 24, 2003 09:50 PM


Buchanan was taking on the neo-cons with his argument; so far, you're the only other person that I've seen make the argument that there really was no southern strategy, but I'm sure that that's a coincidence (and due to ignorance on my part). . .no offense intended!

The point of pointing out the southern strategy is to counter the neocon claim that the Republicans are really the party of Lincoln. They're not. For the past three decades, they've been the party of Reagan, Olympia Snowe, and Jesse Helms. Nary a Lincoln among them. Democrats need to remind people that a vote for Bush is also a vote for the party of Jesse Helms, however else you want to spin it!

Posted by: Brett at May 25, 2003 10:07 AM
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