There is a revisionist historical theory you hear now and then among conservatives — particularly African-American conservatives who are understandably a mite defensive about their position as a minority of a minority — holding that everything we think we know about the partisan politics of the post–civil-rights era is untrue. And it was enunciated again by the recently famous African-American pro-Trump activist Candace Owens, who was brought in by House Republicans to mock and disrupt a hearing Democrats convened on white nationalism, as the Washington Post reports:
Owens, who tried to diminish the rise of white nationalism as an invention by Democrats to “scare black people,” said there had never been a Republican effort to use racism to the party’s political advantage.
Black conservatives are criticized for having “the audacity to think for themselves and become educated about our history and the myth of things like the Southern switch, the Southern strategy, which never happened,” she told lawmakers.
I do not know if Owens subscribes to the fully developed right-wing theory that white racist Lyndon Johnson concocted the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts and the Great Society program as part of a white racist conspiracy to ensnare African-Americans in the “plantation” of dependency on government. But I wouldn’t be surprised. It’s hard otherwise to deny the basic facts that southern white racists steadily moved, from the early 1960s to the 1980s, from their old stronghold in the Democratic Party to their new home in the GOP — the “southern switch” — or that Republican pols in and beyond the South pursued this development as a “strategy.”
The “southern switch” didn’t happen overnight, or at the same pace at different levels of government, but it happened as surely as computers replaced typewriters and slide rules. It was no coincidence that after voting against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 Barry Goldwater became the first Republican since Reconstruction to carry Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and South Carolina and the second to carry Louisiana; he did best in Black Belt areas that were long racist hotbeds. All but one of these states went for southern segregationist George Wallace four years later, and after a brief interregnum when native son Jimmy Carter put together black and white southern votes to momentarily bring back the “Solid South,” the race-conscious Deep South has remained predominantly Republican at the presidential level ever since, and at the state and local levels most recently. African-American support for Republicans, which was quite robust prior to the early 1960s, dropped rapidly and never recovered. Racial and partisan polarization in the South is heavily coextensive. If that’s not a “switch” I don’t know what else you could call it.
And of course Republican pols, racist or not, promoted this development as a strategic masterstroke. In a 1970 interview with the New York Times, Kevin Phillips, the prophet of The Emerging Republican Majority and wonder-boy Nixon strategist, put it this way:
From now on, the Republicans are never going to get more than 10 to 20 per cent of the Negro vote and they don’t need any more than that … but Republicans would be shortsighted if they weakened enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans. That’s where the votes are.
Nixon himself was famously in thrall to old-school southern segregationists like Strom Thurmond, who was given a veto over the 1968 vice-presidential nomination and over the administration’s Supreme Court appointments. His landslide reelection in 1972 was in no small part attributable to the capture of the entire 1968 George Wallace vote. Ronald Reagan beat Jimmy Carter in 1980 in part by convincing conservative white southerners finally to abandon Democrats once and for all. And the southern strategy was avidly pursued by later GOP strategists from Lee Atwater to Karl Rove.
Now a lot of people don’t know much about political history, and followers of a president who doesn’t read and routinely disregards facts probably can’t be expected to document their own myths very carefully. But as a white southerner who grew up in the era in question, and watched the “southern switch” and the “southern strategy” in action day in and day out, I just can’t let denialists like Owens have the last word.