Debunking the Myth of the Nixon "Southern Strategy"

    I agree with nationally syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker more often than not. Her column today, Can the GOP Speak to Blacks?, makes some excellent points about why the Republican Party has failed to attract support from African-American voters over the past 45 years.

    Unfortunately, in analyzing the GOP’s alienation from black voters, Parker repeats the old canard that the African-American exodus from the GOP began in 1968 in response to what she describes as, “Richard Nixon’s ‘Southern strategy,’ which tried to harness votes by cultivating white resentment toward blacks.” At quick glance at a little history refutes this persistent and pernicious myth.

    For its first 70 years , the Republican Party – the Party of Lincoln – was the home of the vast majority of African-American voters. FDR was the first Democratic president to win the support of a majority of black voters. Nevertheless, Republican presidential candidates in every election through 1960 could expect to receive the support of roughly one-third of black voters. Indeed, in 1960, about one in every three African-Americans voters voted for Richard Nixon.

    It wasn’t until 1964 that African-American support for the GOP fell off the cliff. Barry Goldwater’s vote against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (which, ironically, was supported by larger proportions of Republicans than Democrats in both houses of Congress) drove black voter supporter for the GOP standard-bearer down below ten percent. In the years since, it has rarely climbed much above that mark and has never come close to the level RN received in 1960.

    Goldwater, of course, carried much of the Deep South in 1964 (Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina), all five of which the Democrats had carried in 1960. But, with the exception of his home state of Arizona, that’s all he won. New York Senator Jacob Javits, writing in early 1966 about the electoral debacle of 1964, blamed it squarely on “the Goldwater-Miller ill-fated ‘Southern Strategy.’”

    Over the years, however, RN’s critics have blamed him for creating a “Southern Strategy” designed to win white votes by exploiting racial tensions.   If that had been his aim, the results of the 1968 election suggest he failed at it miserably. In 1968, RN lost four of the five Southern states that Goldwater had carried. George Wallace carried the rest of the Goldwater Southern bloc – Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Mississippi. And of those four states, RN ran third, behind both Wallace and the Democrat’s nominee, Hubert Humphrey, in three of them.

    Once in the White House, President Nixon’s actions can hardly be called those of a president seeking to inflame racial tensions. Nothing illustrates that better than the historic progress his administration achieved in finally ending the practice of segregating the races in “separate but equal” schools in the South. When RN took office in 1969, 68 percent of black Southern students attended segregated schools. Within five years, that number had been cut to 9 percent. As Tom Wicker wrote in his biography, One of Us, “The Nixon administration did more in 1970 to desegregate Southern school systems than had been done in the sixteen previous years, or probably since.”

    Of course, beginning in 1972, the Democrat’s once Solid South turned reliably red at the presidential level, except when a Son of the South was running for president (Carter in 1976 and Clinton in 1992). The lock the Democrats had on Southern Senate and House seats also began to erode during the Nixon years.

    The reasons for this change are many. Chief among them is RN’s success in occupying the middle ground in American politics and thus attracting the support of Silent Majority, not just in the South, but also in every part of America. Attributing the Republican Party’s success in breaking the Democrat’s hold on the South to a cynical, Nixon-devised  “Southern Strategy” based on creating and then exploiting racial division is not only simplistic, it’s also contradicted by the record.


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