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Was the Southern Strategy Effective?

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Richard M. Nixon, candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, is seen arriving at the airport in Atlanta, Ga. with his wife, Patricia, on May 31, 1968. A crowd of about 350 people greeted them as Nixon visits the South to meet with delegates from various states. (AP Photo)
Richard M. Nixon, candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, is seen arriving at the airport in Atlanta, Ga. with his wife, Patricia, on May 31, 1968. A crowd of about 350 people greeted them as Nixon visits the South to meet with delegates from various states. (AP Photo)

I am not in the habit of reviewing older books I read. But I recently read Matthew Lassiter’s 2006 book, The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South. Lassiter strongly questions the effectiveness of Nixon’s Southern Strategy. I mentioned this on Twitter and Thus Blogged Anderson asked me to lay this argument out on the blog. OK.

Lassiter’s book explores the intricacies of suburban politics around public schools and integration in the South, comparing how Atlanta becomes a place that does not integrate and Charlotte does, with busing, urban expansion to take control over the suburbs, and the politics of “moderate” whites revolving around the Chamber of Commerce and business communities playing a huge role in shaping how this plays out. Central to his argument is the development of a suburban politics that keeps most schools functionally segregated through “a bipartisan political language of private property values, individual taxpayer rights, children’s educational privileges, family residential security, and white racial innocence.” (304)

In other words, while the image in our mind of resistance to integration is frothing rural whites killing civil rights workers, Lassiter convincingly shows that politically, the politics of the growing Sunbelt suburbs were far more important. Those suburban peoples may well have supported integration in theory and may well have been totally fine with a few black kids in their schools, but rejected residential integration and the busing that would have brought actual educational equality of opportunity to children, effectively reinforcing racism without having to say they were racist.

Now, we all know the basic story around the Southern Strategy, which is effectively that Lyndon Johnson said when he signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964 that he had handed the South to the Republicans, that Nixon built on Kevin Phillips’ The Emerging Republican Majority to do so and that through Nixon’s 1972 sweep of the South and then Reagan’s 1980 speech in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the South was on the road to becoming truly Republican. But Lassiter strongly pushes back against this story because it ignores electoral analysis. Nixon did try to follow Phillips’ strategy in 1970 and race bait his way to Republican victories. But it was a disaster throughout Southern states that had large suburban populations. In other words, George Wallace could race bait his way back into the Alabama governor’s office in 1970. Nixon tried to copy that. And it failed. Democrats moved toward the center in many states, arguing for following the law, moderation, and for general principles of public education. That didn’t mean an outright support of actual school integration. But it made the big suburban populations comfortable. Combined with African-American voters, this was often enough for victory, even in states like South Carolina where Nixon and Thurmond completely flopped in 1970. Dale Bumpers defeated Orval Faubus in the Democratic primary on a law and order platform. This was the election that saw the rise of Jimmy Carter, Lawton Chiles, Reubin Askew and other “new” Democrats that reinvigorated the Democratic Party in the South for a generation, paving the way for people like Bill Clinton. The Nixon/Phillips southern strategy was a completely failure.

By 1972, Nixon had learned this and embraced the more suburban values of law and order and de facto segregation in opposition to busing, turning his back on the politics of massive resistance personified by Wallace. This was not a southern strategy, it was a suburban strategy that played in Atlanta, Detroit, and Los Angeles. Of course, that’s not the only reason southern states did not vote for McGovern, but it showed that the new politics of the post-civil rights movement would promote suburban values of school choice, property values, and personal choices for your children that just so happened to ensure that schools and neighborhoods were nearly lily-white but without any vocal support of segregation. Lassiter goes on to argue that these politics became bipartisan by the late 20th century, especially in the Clinton presidency.

I will also remind readers that the arguments made in 2015 by liberals who choose to move to the suburbs to the schools reinforce this same racist scenario created in the 1960s and 1970s by other suburban whites who made the same arguments about their children. Choosing to move to the suburbs for schools or sending your kids to private schools because the schools are “bad” is a racist act that comes right out of the anti-busing movement. I don’t care if you are a liberal college professor, it’s still a racist act that shows hostility to the Brown decision even today.

One other thing. Since a lot of you are political junkies or you wouldn’t be reading this blog, let me point out that Lassiter’s book is in the outstanding Politics and Society in Twentieth-Century America series at Princeton University Press and there are many books in this series well worth your time.

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