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National Issues

Ghosts of the Southern Strategy

In 2005, Ken Mehlman, the then-chair of the Republican National Committee, became the first major Republican politician to acknowledge and formally apologize for the Southern Strategy. It was an underwhelming yet overdue admission from the Republican chairman, whose party has spent the latter half of the 20th century exploiting racism as a means to garner white support in the Jim-Crow South. To me, Mehlman’s remarks at the NAACP that day served as a beacon of hope that conservatism would change its time-honored tradition of race-baiting, but has it done so?

The Southern Strategy that rose to prominence in the 1960s began as an attempt by conservatives to combat the dominance of Democrats in the Deep South. Since the Reconstruction era, the majority of Dixie states had remained solidly blue (Abraham Lincoln was a Republican), and presidential hopefuls Richard Nixon and Barry Goldwater hoped to change that trend in the 1964 race. Under the guise of “states rights” and “law and order” and other tenets of ultra-conservative culture, Republican politicians from the presidential to the local level began to play on the emotional base of white southerners. The recent passage of the Civil Rights Act hyped up this demographic group — many of whom were afraid of bringing blacks into the public sphere — and they began to switch party allegiances in subsequent elections.

Thanks in part to the tactics of race, the majority-white South has been Republican at all levels of government since then. In a 1970 interview, Nixon’s political advisor, Kevin Phillips, summed it up: “The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans.” It turns out he was right.

Mehlman spoke about the Southern Strategy as if it was a relic of a shamed past, but has the Republican Party really shaken that tradition of race baiting and appealing to the emotional fears of its conservative constituents? I fear it has not. The strategy was built around a society dominated by white conservatives, and Republicans continue to cater to their core constituency to this day, such as anti-Islam rhetoric from Donald Trump and others, anti-immigration laws or support for strict voter ID laws. They have dug so deeply into this base of support that the party failed to court rising demographics like blacks, Hispanics and younger generations of Americans. All of these groups avoid the Republicans because they see the party as intolerant and backwards in an age of openness.

Some leaders within the party elite — including Ken Mehlman — have demonstrated their resolve to mend the broken relationship between Republicans and minorities: In 2015, Rick Perry called on Republicans to reconcile with disenfranchised demographics; in 2013 Bobby Jindal told his constituents to “stop being the stupid party.” However, the fact that the 2016 Republican primary is dominated by candidates that perpetuate the Southern Strategy does not give me much hope.

Part of the Republican Party realizes that the key to elections is minority demographics in the coming years, but the other half seems to be haunted by the ghost of the Southern Strategy to the core. Let’s hope they figure it out before it becomes far too late.

Nicolas Justice, from Healdsburg, California, is a Duke sophomore studying economics and public policy. He’s also the chair of the Burke & Paine Committee for Duke Political Union, informing the electorate one rant at a time.


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