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The Long Southern Strategy

The Southern Strategy was more than just the adoption of a racist agenda by the Republican Party: it ran to gender and religion in America’s deep South, too.

Following Jimmy Carter’s Presidential victory in 1976, Ronald Reagan had to try to find a way to win back some of those white Southerners the party had lost; he did so by appealing to anti-feminist, anti-Equal Rights Amendment white supporters.

“And it's the combination of all three elements – racism, anti-feminism and evangelicals – that makes up the long Southern Strategy coalition,” says Angie Maxwell, author of The Long Southern Strategy.

By the 1990s, following the strong showing by Bill Clinton across the South, the Southern Strategy widened further, when George W. Bush added evangelicals to the conservative coalition supporting the GOP.

Expanding on her arguments, she explains:

“So when we look at white voters, if you express racial resentment, which is the scale we measure in political science, if you express modern sexism, and some kind of Christian nationalism, you know – most people are not all three – [but] all three are densest in the south. But still a small portion. A lot of people are two or three or one of three. But if you're any of those, that accounts for 95% of Trump's white vote. The other five percent, the only kind of pattern we can find is a significantly higher income than normal voters.”

 

Phyllis Schafly
Phyllis Schafly wearing a stop era badge demonstrating with other women against the equal rights
amendment in front of the White House Washington D.C.
Photo: Warren K. Leffler / Library of Congress

 

Maxwell stands out among many political scientists by stressing the role of gender politics on the Southern Strategy, including the active role of women. Central to these is a woman called Phyllis Schafly, whose story has been made famous to a worldwide audience via the Netflix series, ‘Mrs America’.

While most historians and political scientists see the Southern Strategy as a cultural reaction to the Civil Rights Movement, and in particular the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Maxwell argues that it also had a mobilising effect on some (white) Southern women, who saw civil rights breakthroughs and laws as challenging and even upending their traditional way of life, in which women stayed at home and didn't work.

The Southern Strategy lives on

Moderate Republicans may like to view Donald Trump as an aberration, but of course he was a continuation and even possibly the culmination of what is now called ‘the long Southern Strategy’.

Many of his key 2016 advisors had been pivotal in developing and evolving the strategy over the preceding 20 years. The person who convinced Ronald Reagan to announce his 1980 presidential campaign in Mississippi (despite being Governor of California) was a young Paul Manafort, who in later years would become Donald Trump’s campaign chair. (Manafort was later sent to prison, then pardoned by Trump, for charges rising from the investigation into alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 US election.)

The person who helped make an infamously racist Willie Horton ad in 1984, which effectively ended Michael Dukakis’s presidential ambitions, was Roger Stone, another key Trump advisor who was also later implicated in the Russian hacking scandal and sent to prison – before also being pardoned by Trump. Helping Stone was Roger Ailes, the man behind the rise of Fox News.

Donald Trump was elected President in 2016 by being able to successfully blend racism with anti-feminism and religious fundamentalism – the three key pillars of the ‘long Southern Strategy’.

Trump’s success was driven by the likes of Jeff Sessions, Paul Manafort and Steve Bannon, who all argued that rather than copy Barrack Obama and gravitate towards his growing and urban coalition, it was best to turn further to the hard right – and follow the path begun by Richard Nixon in 1968 and his racialised law and order strategy.