By Jeff Falls
[This is a piece I originally wrote for my old political/foreign policy blog in March 2009 shortly after Obama became president. I am re-posting it because with the recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia this August, it has unfortunately become more relevant than ever.]
Part One: 1964
In November 1964, just before the election that pitted LBJ against Republican challenger Barry Goldwater, Harper’s Magazine published a brilliant essay by Richard Hofstadter entitled “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.”
“American politics has often been an arena for angry minds. In recent years we have seen angry minds at work mainly among extreme right-wingers, who have now demonstrated in the Goldwater movement how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority. But behind this I believe there is a style of mind that is far from new and that is not necessarily right-wing. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind.”
In 1964, no one better epitomized that anger than Barry Goldwater. With former Vice-President and 1960 presidential candidate Dick Nixon off pouting in California, the Republican Party of 1964 was divided into several angry feuding factions, with no clear leader. Goldwater was the darling of the conservative wing of the party which despised the east-coast moderates, represented by Nelson Rockefeller, whom they perceived as elitists and compromisers. Goldwater had famously said “”sometimes I think this country would be better off if we could just saw off the Eastern Seaboard and let it float out to sea”, exactly capturing the anti-intellectualism and ideological extremism of this particular branch of the Republican Party.
Hofstadter’s essay is 45 years old yet just as relevant today. Hofstadter again:
“As a member of the avant-garde who is capable of perceiving the conspiracy before it is fully obvious to an as yet unaroused public, the paranoid is a militant leader. He does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician. Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things to a finish. Since the enemy is thought of as being totally evil and unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated – if not from the world, at least from the theatre of operations to which the paranoid directs his attention.”
Rockefeller was well ahead in the polls and the primaries until three days before the Republican Convention when, his new wife, Happy, gave birth to a baby. Goldwater launched a vitriolic television campaign portraying Rockefeller as a homewrecker (Happy had divorced her husband to marry him) and portraying Rockefeller as morally unfit to be president. Goldwater carried the state, narrowly.
So what had caused this intra-party hatred and feuding? What was behind all the crazy talk? That question is very easy to answer – The Civil Rights Act of 1964, outlawing segregation.
The Civil Rights Bill had been introduced by JFK in June of 1963, following the Birmingham riots, which were widely seen on national television and the brutality of which had shocked the nation. A few weeks later Medgar Evers was murdered in Mississippi. Later that summer, 200,000 people marched to Washington with Martin Luther King where he gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. A few weeks after that, a bomb exploded in a Birmingham Church, killing four young black girls, again shocking the nation. These events spurred both President Kennedy and his brother Robert, the Attorney General, to take Civil Rights more seriously and to use federal authority to protect the rights of black citizens in the South.
Two months after the Birmingham church bombing, JFK would be dead. LBJ would take his place with a vehement determination to push through the Civil Rights legislation, no matter what the costs. LBJ did manage to get the legislation passed, despite desperate filibustering by racist Southern senators. When he signed the bill into law on July 2, 1964, he allegedly said “We’ve lost the South for a generation.”
Of course, the problem wasn’t confined only to the South, as the above photo from a CORE protest in Seattle in the “Freedom Summer” of 1964 shows.
It was in this atmosphere that the Republican National Convention took place six weeks later in July 1964. Goldwater was the champion of what came to be known as “States Rights,” which became the code for being against racial integration.
The ensuing Republican national convention in San Francisco was arguably the ugliest and most divisive in the history of the Republican party.
Goldwater won the nomination and when Nelson Rockefeller took the podium, here is what he said, as he was booed and hooted at by the crowd:
“During this year I have crisscrossed this nation, fighting … to keep the Republican party the party of all the people … and warning of the extremist threat, its danger to the party, and danger to the nation. These extremists feed on fear, hate and terror, they have no program for America and the Republican Party… they operate from dark shadows of secrecy. It is essential that this convention repudiate here and now any doctrinaire, militant minority whether Communist, Ku Klux Klan or Birchers.”
It was all for naught. The extremists had taken over the party and Goldwater was the man in 1964. His acceptance speech contained the following passage, quoted in almost every article written about him since then: “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”
Less often quoted is this passage from Goldwater’s speech:
“Now, we Republicans see all this as more, much more, than the rest: of mere political differences or mere political mistakes. We see this as the result of a fundamentally and absolutely wrong view of man, his nature and his destiny. Those who seek to live your lives for you, to take your liberties in return for relieving you of yours, those who elevate the state and downgrade the citizen must see ultimately a world in which earthly power can be substituted for divine will, and this Nation was founded upon the rejection of that notion and upon the acceptance of God as the author of freedom.”
Richard Hofstadter again:
“The paranoid’s interpretation of history is distinctly personal: decisive events are not taken as part of the stream of history, but as the consequences of someone’s will. Very often the enemy is held to posess some especially effective source of power: he controls the press, he has unlimited funds; he has a new secret for influencing the mind (brainwashing); he has a special technique for seduction (the Catholic Confessional).”
The election of 1964 was one of the most lopsided in history, with Goldwater carrying only five southern states plus Arizona, his home state. Yet conservatives look back on it fondly as the beginnings of the modern conservative movement and in many respects it was, but not for the reasons that they publicly ascribe.
Above, counties carried by Barry Goldwater in the 1964 Presidential election:
It would take Dick Nixon to turn it around in 1968. He was the only one who could unite the east and west coast factions of the Republican Party with his “Southern Strategy,” which I’ll cover tomorrow.
There is clearly a strong geographical bias to this. Only 47% of the people in the South believe Obama was born in America.
Despite Johnson’s landslide victory, all was not well for the Democrats in 1964. The Convention had been marred by an embarrassing situation with the delegates from Mississippi. There was the official delegation, all white and elected under Jim Crow laws that disenfranchised blacks, and then there was the MFDP (photo, left), the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which was demanding representation.
Eventually a compromise was worked out but not before a number of delegates from Mississippi and Alabama walked out.
The core problem was this: Lyndon Johnson was bucking one hundred of years of southern history wherein the Democratic Party was the official party of racism and Jim Crow and Republicans were the party of Lincoln and abolitionism. Although the Republicans had effectively ended Reconstruction and black suffrage in 1877, when they negotiated a deal with Southern Democrats to fix the presidential election of that year, most blacks still voted Republican and virtually all Southern racists voted Democratic. That was all about to change.
By signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and by sending the FBI to Neshoba County, Mississippi later that year to investigate the murder of three Civil Rights workers, Johnson was running the risk of permanently losing the Democratic Party base in the South and reshaping American politics. To his credit, he did it anyway.
The events in Neshoba were fairly accurately dramatized in the movie Mississippi Burning. Three civil rights workers – Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney -were arrested by the Deputy Sheriff Cecil Price, a member of the KKK, as was his boss, Sheriff Lawrence Rainey. They were “released” and then captured and summarily executed late in the evening of June 21, 1964.
FBI agents were on the scene the morning after the disappearance and by the end of the next day, there were at least 10 other agents in town working the case. The military arrived on June 25 and the following week, J. Edgar Hoover himself came to town to announce the opening of the first F.B.I. office in Mississippi.
The investigation went nowhere until the FBI offered a large cash reward. Informants soon came forward.
When their bodies were found on August 4, the situation got even uglier. Indictments were handed down on December 4, 1964 and 17 men were arrested, including Sherrif Rainey and Deputy Price.
Neshoba County sheriff Lawrence Rainey in FBI custody.
On February 24, 1965, Federal Judge William Harold Cox, a Kennedy appointee, threw out all of the indictments except those against Rainey and Price. The photo below was printed in newspapers all over America and millions of people were confronted with and appalled by, what was going on in Mississippi.
The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, who overturned it and returned it back to Judge Cox and the indictments were reinstated. There is a lot more to the story and it’s quite interesting to read. You can find a much more full account here. Suffice it to say, it was a travesty of justice and I’ve gone through all of the facts, not to dwell on the horrors of Mississippi in the 60’s, but because Neshoba will be critically important to the future of the Republican Party 16 years later.
Part 2: 1968
This would all come to a head in 1968, an extremely traumatic year in American history. Martin Luther King had been assassinated in April, Bobby Kennedy had been shot in June and the country had been beset by race riots for half the year in cities across America. The Vietnam War was going full-force and the counter-culture’s anti-war riots were splitting the country in two. Or as it turns out, three.
Johnson declined to run for reelection and, after the assassination of Robert Kennedy, Vice-President Hubert Humphrey became the Democratic nominee chosen to run against the Republican contender, Richard Nixon. But there was an unexpected spoiler in the race – the Democratic governor of Alabama George Wallace, who was running as an independent.
George Wallace on the cover of Time, 1963.
So who was George Wallace and who voted for him? George Wallace had started out as a relative liberal, running for the governorship of Alabama in 1958 on an anti-Klan platform with the endorsement of the NAACP. He lost the Democratic primary to the Klan candidate, John Patterson and afterward, he vowed, “I was outniggered by John Patterson. And I’ll tell you here and now, I will never be outniggered again.”
Wallace promptly switched sides, became the voice of white racism and segregation and won the 1962 governor’s race easily. “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” Wallace said at his inauguration speech.
Wallace made the cover of Time in 1963 when he personally stood in the doorway of the University of Alabama and blocked the admission of a black student.
Wallace ran in 1968 under the American Independent Party banner, with retired General Curtis LeMay as his running mate. General LeMay, famous for being the creator of the phrase “bomb them back to the stone age,” was interested in running to help dispel America’s “phobia” about using nuclear weapons. Wallace’s camp attempted to get LeMay to keep quiet about this with mixed results. (Below, Wallace supporters in Ohio.)
Wallace supporters in Ohio, 1968.
Nonetheless, Wallace polled just under 10 million votes. Moreover, George Wallace carried five states – Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas. Wallace got 13.5% of the total popular vote. Besides segregation, Wallace was very much channeling white working-class anger and his platform called for increases in social security and medicaid spending as well. Most significantly, Wallace touched a raw nerve in both of the mainstream parties when he told his working class voters “there’s not a dime’s worth of difference between them.”
The Southern Strategy
This phrase was popularized by Kevin Phillips in his 1969 book “The Emerging Republican Majority.” The crux of Phillips prediction was this: Republicans didn’t need and were not going to get a significant number of black votes ever again. But by encouraging the end of Jim Crow and the enfranchisement of black voters, they would be pushing previously Democratic racist voters in the South over to the Republican Party.
And that’s exactly what happened. Wallace ran again in 1972, but in May of that year, an attempted assassination took him out of the race. Nixon ran against George McGovern and won every state except Massachusetts.
But the Southern Strategy wouldn’t really reach its zenith until the presidential campaign of Ronald Reagan in 1980.
Part 3: 1980
On August 3, 1980, Ronald Reagan launched his bid for President at the Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia, Mississippi. And he talked about “states rights,” a phrase he hadn’t previously used in the campaign. Reagan had lived in California for more than 40 years and had been twice elected governor of that state. It would have been more logical for him to have launched his campaign there. But he did not. Instead he chose the hamlet of Philadelphia, Mississippi.
Ronald Reagan, launching his 1980 campaign in Neshoba, Mississippi and talking about “states rights.”
A lot has been written about this since then with various apologias penned by Republican pundits. Their story is that basically it was just “a coincidence” and he certainly didn’t mean to imply anything about blacks, when addressing an all-white crowd at the scene of one of America’s most notorious civil rights murders.
On October 18, 1980, the New York Times reported on Andrew Young’s reaction:
Mr. Young was quoted as saying that Mr. Reagan’s use of the term ”state’s rights” at the Neshoba County Fair in Mississippi on Aug. 3 ”looks like a code word to me that it’s going to be all right to kill niggers when he’s President.”
Plain words, but really, how else could you possibly take it? In order to evaluate that, let’s take a closer look at the seemingly innocuous phrase, “states rights.”
A Brief Digression on the subject of “States Rights”
Even today, throughout the South, it is common to hear Southern partisans refer to the Civil Was as being about “states rights” and not about slavery. This is a kind of revisionist attempt to build a justification for something that was completely unjustifiable, not to mention ahistorical.
The Civil War was about one thing and one thing only – slavery. It started at the very founding of the country and continued throughout the early 19th century, the spokesman for the South made it very clear that maintaining slavery was their priority.
Alexander Stephens was the Vice-President of the Confederate States of America. On March 21, 1861, in Savannah, Georgia, he gave what has come to be known as the “Cornerstone Speech.” Let’s listen to what
“The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution – African slavery as it exists among us – the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson said the Union would split. He was right. What was conjecture to him is now a realized fact. But whether he full comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted…. (Jefferson’s) ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error…. Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man, that slavery – subordination to the superior to the superior race – is his natural and normal condition.”
Funny, he never mentions “states rights” even once. After the Civil War, Stephens would write a two-volume history of the Civil War in which he barely mentioned slavery and only talked about the rights of the states to usurp the tyranny of the majority. Confederate apologists have stuck with the same story ever since Stephens and have even managed to get this nonsensical, revisionist view of the Civil War (i.e., that it was about states rights and economics, not slavery) into many high-school history books. What do today’s apologists say about “The Cornerstone Speech?” They say it was “taken out of context” and he “didn’t mean it, it was just political.” Hmmmm…..
If you review the history of the United States between the passage of the Missouri Compromise in 1820 and the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, it is impossible to conclude that the Civil War was about anything other than slavery. Slavery dominated the American political landscape for forty years and, from the time of the Compromise of 1850, it was virtually the only subject talked about in American politics.
As Henry Adams pointed out in 1882:
“Whenever a question arose of extending or protecting slavery, the slaveholders became friends of centralized power, and used that dangerous weapon with a kind of frenzy. Slavery in fact required centralization in order to maintain and protect itself, but it required to control the centralized machine; it needed despotic principles of government, but it needed them exclusively for its own use. Thus, in truth, states’ rights were the protection of the free states, and as a matter of fact, during the domination of the slave power, Massachusetts appealed to this protecting principle as often and almost as loudly as South Carolina.”
Starting in the 1830’s, the South’s strategy changed from preserving slavery in the current slave states to extending it to the new states of Texas and California. John C. Calhoun, the preeminent Southern spokesperson, advocate for slavery and Secretary of State under John Tyler, wrote to the British Ambassador in an official correspondence and stated that the South’s interest in Texas was in perpetuating slavery. The idea was that Texas could be carved up into five slave states, giving the south 10 pro-slavery senators.
The South had been scheming to grab Cuba and had designs on Central America as well, envisioning a vast slave Republic arcing across the southern US and Caribbean. After the Civil War, more than 10,000 ex-confederates actually moved to Brazil where they were known as “Confederados.” Brazil had cotton and slavery wouldn’t be outlawed until 1888.
The South used federal power whenever possible – to maintain slavery. Again, their interest was not in being “left alone” as the revisionists would tell you, but in forcing the free states to accept slavery as an institution. What they were seeking was a moral validation of slavery. This reached its culmination in the Dred Scott case in 1857, when Roger Taney’s Supreme Court ruled that Congress had no authority to regulate slavery because slaves were property, not people.
After the Civil War and a few brief years of Reconstruction, the last federal troops were pulled out of the South in 1877 and the era of Jim Crow began – and lasted until 1954 when the Supreme Court ruled on Brown v. Board of Education and President Eisenhower once again sent federal troops to the South to enforce the law.
The key point is this: the South had no issue with the federal government as long as the federal government supported its discriminatory policies. They never gave a hoot about “states rights,” they just wanted to continue their lifestyle and they wanted the Federal Government to support them in that endeavor.
And for a long time, the Federal Government was there to help Jim Crow along. Supreme Court heard the Civil Rights Cases of 1883, which effectively overturned the 14th Amendment. In 1896, the Supreme Court ruled in Plessy v Ferguson that segregation was just fine, thank you. In both of these cases, the South had no issues with the Federal Government because the Federal Government was on their side, that side being racial discrimination and the disenfranchisement of blacks.
Harry Truman and the Dixiecrats
At the end of WW2, there were several horrendous cases involving black servicemen returning home to the South after being mustered out and being horribly beaten or killed. Harry Truman was shocked by these events and in 1946, he signed Executive Order 9808, creating The President’s Committee on Civil Rights. After receiving their report (yes, there is racial discrimination in America) he signed Executive Orders 9980, desegregating the Federal Government’s employees, and Executive Order 9981, desegregating the armed forces.
At the Democratic National Convention of 1948, held in July of that year in Philadelphia, South Carolina Governor Strom Thurmond led a walkout of the Southern Democratic segregationist. They formed their own party – the “States Rights Democratic Party” – and held a convention in Birmingham, Alabama, the original capital of the Confederacy. They became known as the “Dixiecrats” and they had a one-issue platorm: maintain Jim Crow and continue segregation. That’s Strom, spreading the love at the ’48 Democratic Convention, below.
At their convention in Birmingham, they waved Confederate flags and nominated Strom Thurmond to be their presidential candidate. When it was Governor Thurmond’s turn to speak, they played “Dixie” and he strode to the podium followed by the Confederate battle flag and a portrait of Robert E. Lee. He tried to stick to the “states rights” story but he had a hard time staying on message, saying “There’s not enough troops in the army to force the southern people to break down segregation and admit the negro race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, schools and homes.” See Kari Frederickson’s excellent “The Dixiecrat Revolt and the End of the Solid South” for more.
Throughout Mississippi, the press was thrilled with the walkouts and they saw it for exactly what it was. Fred Sullins, the editor of the Jackson Daily News wrote the following in the summer of 1948 which is exactly representative of local coverage of the Dixiecrats:
“We will not surrender our most sacred constitutional rights in order to placate a vicious minority that seeks to rupture race relations and establish social equity. If damn fool Democrats in other sections want to eat, drink and sleep with Negroes, that is their business. We can only deplore their degeneracy and declare that we will have none of it.”
Ronald Reagan’s Neshoba County Speech
So in light of all of this are we really to believe that Ronald Reagan went to Neshoba County and gave one of his first speeches after receiving the Republican nomination and spoke about “States Rights” by accident? What’s interesting is that the Reagan defenders say the same thing that the Alexander Stephens apologists say, that it was “taken out of context” and that he “didn’t mean it.”
Here’s the thing: in 1980, the murders of the three civil rights workers was only 16 years in the past – as close to them then as 2001 is to us now. It wasn’t ancient history. It was something that had happened in the near past and it was the singular event that had made Neshoba County nationally famous. Everybody knew exactly what Reagan was talking about when he used the phrase “states rights.”
In November of that year at a Reagan fundraiser in Jackson, Mississippi, Trent Lott would introduce Strom Thurmond by saying that if the country had elected him ” 30 years ago, we wouldn’t be in the mess we are today.” Strom himself said “we want the federal government to keep their filthy hands off the rights of of the states.” Reagan’s message might have been opaque in Massachusetts but it was crystal clear in Mississippi.
Lee Atwater, Strom Thurmond and Ronald Reagan
Ronald Reagan and Lee Atwater.
Nobody understood the “Southern Strategy” and the value of racially-charged code words in grabbing southern voters better than Lee Atwater. Atwater started out as an intern for Strom Thurmond, then became director of his 1978 re-election campaign and in 1980 was the director of Ronald Reagan’s campaign in South Carolina. He would go on to work in the Reagan administration and achieve some notoriety in 1988 when he was running George H.W. Bush’s campaign and created the infamous “Willie Horton” ads. Atwater was unusually candid about the issue of race in American political campaigns.
In an interview with author Alexander P. Lamis, for his book, The Two Party South, Atwater made the following statement:
“You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites.”
And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me—because obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.
Conclusions About the Southern Strategy
First of all, let’s just admit the obvious about the Southern Strategy – it works! In fact it works really well. You talk to the crowds, you use code words and later on, you act shocked (shocked!) when someone observes that your speech was taken in a racial context. Perhaps you even accuse those people of cynically playing “the race card.” This is now a two-fer. You get to make a racist statement and then turn around and accuse your opponents of seeing everything through the perspective of race.
I’m an American and I grew up in the South and I am a First Amendment absolutist. I think anybody should pretty much be able to say anything they want. But please don’t insult my intelligence by telling me that “states rights” has any other meaning than supporting institutionalized racism in the South.
Part 4: 2009
Above, a not-at-all-racist example of Republican humor, circa 2009, circulated by a Republican activist and AMA House of Delegates member.
So here we are in 2009 and we have an African-American president. Actually, a bi-racial president but in the bizarre context of American race relations, where 144 years after the Civil War, the “one-drop” rule, although no longer the actual law, apparently still applies. If you have a white parent and a black parent, you are apparently considered “black.” I could write a few thousand words on this topic alone, but let’s move on.
Meanwhile, we also have – and I will argue that it is not a coincidence – the most virulently hateful political rhetoric that we’ve seen in 50 years, since the anti-communist hysteria of the 1950’s.
An index of various fringe memes about President Obama, with a translation on the right:
• He is not one of us. (the “one-drop” rule, again)
• He hates white people (uhm, but his mother is white, oh yeah, the one-drop rule again)
• He is not really an American. (Foreigners are weird, dangerous, bad!)
• He’s a “puppet” and is being controlled by someone else. (Because, he’s, you know, stupid.)
• He is a Muslim. (Muslims are bad!)
• He is a communist. (Communists are bad!)
• He is a fascist. (Because he’s forcing us to… well, he just is!)
• He is Hitler. (When all else fails, compare them to Hitler)
• He is the Anti-Christ! (Apparently, even the Anti-Christ can’t get universal healthcare passed)
These are the common memes and they are omnipresent. They are also all demonstrably false. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t get some nutty e-mail from someone I am vaguely acquainted with containing a variation on one of the above. We’ve all seen them.
Before going on, let’s stop for just a minute and actually look at Obama’s background and what he’s done as president. Reading the list of right-wing claims above, you’d think Louis Farrakhan was President. But that’s not the case.
Obama went to Columbia University and Harvard Law School. He was president of the Law Review at Harvard. He was a college professor and then a state senator from Illinois and then a U.S. Senator from Illinois. He was elected president by a decisive majority. He has continued the foreign policy of George Bush almost verbatim, including the retention of Bush’s Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates. At the Treasury Department, he’s replaced Bush’s Goldman Sachs guys with his own Goldman Sachs guys. He is a centrist, arguably to a fault. Personally, he vacations in Martha’s Vinyard, not exactly a hotbed of working-class revolutionaries or the Nation of Islam. He’s extremely intelligent, articulate and likable.
So what’s up with the crazed hostility from the Republicans and the right-wing?
“Obama is at war with the American people.” Sean Hannity
“This president has exposed himself as a guy over and over and over again who has a deep seated hatred for white people, or white culture, I don’t know what it is.” Glenn Beck on “Fox and Friends”
“So I find it interesting that among those who oppose Obama a lot of people think he couldn’t be doing this on his own. There’s gotta be somebody behind him, somebody writing the speeches. We know that’s Axelrod. Somebody putting words in the teleprompter. We know that that’s Axelrod. Somebody who may have chosen him, prepped him, groomed him, what have you, some man behind the curtain.” Rush Limbaugh
“I want my country back!”
a middle-aged white woman “birther” at a townhall meeting
As CNN pointed out that last comment – which is the most on the nose – translates to “How is this black guy all of the sudden running the country?”
This bumper sticker articulates that last thought a little more clearly:
Congressman Paul Broun (R., Georgia) comparing Obama to Hitler:
“It may sound a bit crazy and off base, but the thing is, he’s the one who proposed this national security force. I’m just trying to bring attention to the fact that we may — may not, I hope not — but we may have a problem with that type of philosophy of radical socialism or Marxism. That’s exactly what Hitler did in Nazi Germany and it’s exactly what the Soviet Union did. When he’s proposing to have a national security force that’s answering to him, that is as strong as the U.S. military, he’s showing me signs of being Marxist.”
Back to our guide through this bizarre landscape, Richard Hofstadter, from 1964’s “The Paranoid Style in American Politics:”
“The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms—he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization. He constantly lives at a turning point. Like religious millenialists he expresses the anxiety of those who are living through the last days and he is sometimes disposed to set a date fort the apocalypse.”
Last month, Broun – a physician – suggested at a rally at the North Georgia Technical College that Obama might “use a pandemic” to take over America.
He also spoke of a “socialistic elite” – Obama, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid – who might use a pandemic disease or natural disaster as an excuse to declare martial law. “They’re trying to develop an environment where then can take over,” he said. “We’ve seen that historically.”
“The enemy is clearly delineated: he is a perfect model of malice, a kind of amoral superman—sinister, ubiquitous, powerful, cruel, sensual, luxury-loving. Unlike the rest of us, the enemy is not caught in the toils of the vast mechanism of history, himself a victim of his past, his desires, his limitations. He wills, indeed he manufactures, the mechanism of history, or tries to deflect the normal course of history in an evil way.”
Just in case this type of rhetoric is too theoretical we have images like this, that make the point in a more down to earth fashion:
You see, he’s just not “one of us.”
Remember what Lee Atwater said:
“You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff.”
And in 2009, you talk about “birth certificates” and “death panels” and the like.
Why Is This Happening?
What has caused this crazy and hateful rhetoric? How have we arrived at a situation in America where a “black” man can get elected president but where images like the ones above are still considered acceptable?, at least to a certain segment of the population.
Take a look at the following chart from The Washington Monthly.
Part 5: Goodbye, Southern Strategy: It worked for 40 years but the Southern Strategy is no longer viable in national elections.
The previous four sections were about Richard Hofstadter’s 1964 essay, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, how it remains relevant today and how it may relate to our current politics of racial hysteria and the previously successful Southern Strategy.
Although Hofstadter may remain relevant today, it appears that the Southern Strategy is not. And what that means is that the GOP is in serious trouble. Obama is the first Democratic President who is not from the South since the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960. That simple fact is arguably at least as politically significant as his race. Moreover, the election of 2008 was the first presidential election that the Democrats have won without a southerner on the ticket since 1940.
Let’s take a look at some electoral and demographic maps:
The Political Landscape
First, the 1948 Election results. The orange states represent the Dixiecrat/Strom Thurmond “States Rights” wins:
Here’s the 1964 Election results, with Barry Goldwater’s states in red.
Now let’s look at the 1968 Election Results. George Wallace, running on a segregationist, “states rights” campaign carried the states in orange.
And finally, the 2008 Election results:
The key point about the above electoral map is that the Republicans only carried one major state (as defined by population and economic strength) and that is Texas.
To put it another way, when comparing a list of the US states by GSP (Gross State Product, an index of economic output), of the top 10 states, only two (Georgia and Texas) voted Republican. Of the top 20 states, four voted Republican (Texas, Georgia, Arizona, Tennessee) and 16 voted Democratic. The map below shows the states ranked by population:
The four key Confederate states of Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and Georgia, while reliably Republican and highly susceptible to racist rhetoric are not significant electorally (30 combined electoral votes) or economically (866 billion dollars in combined economic output, equal to about 6% of total GDP). Even if you throw in South Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas, Kentucky and Oklahoma, you’ve only got 9 states and 71 electoral votes. So that leaves Texas and it’s 34 electoral votes. More on that in a moment.
Birthers – A Strong Southern Bias
A poll taken in July 2009 by Research 2000, showed the following:
The South Versus Obama
Clearly, there is a strong Southern bias here. Michael Lind had a terrific piece about this last week in the The Daily Beast.
With the notable exceptions of the two outliers from the far north, Sarah Palin (R., freelance) and Michelle Bachmann (R., Minnesota) the loudest voices against Obama are coming from the former Confederate states of the deep south and Oklahoma and they tend to have distinctly southern accents.
- Jeff Sessions (R., Alabama)
- Jim Inhofe (R., Oklahoma)
- Tom Coburn (R., Oklahoma)
- Jim DeMint (R., South Carolina)
- Paul Broun, (R. Georgia)
- Mitch McConnell (R. Kentucky)
- Rick Perry (R., Texas)
As if the message wasn’t clear enough, we have the last name on the list, Governor Rick Perry, openly talking about seccession from the Union. Now, as easy as it may be to make fun of Rick Perry for being a venal doofus desperately trying to stay in the running in the middle of a tough primary challenge, stop and think for a second about this. A sitting governor of a former slave state and member of the Confederacy goes on national television and talks about secession! That’s just… astounding.
How did “the party of Lincoln’s” leadership respond to this? For the most part, with either smiles of approval or total silence. And of course, once again, we hear about that old chestnut, “states rights.” Meanwhile, Perry’s key aide David Carney says “the GOP should not open itself up like a whorehouse,” presumably meaning, let’s keep it white, male and Christian.
A winning strategy? I don’t think so. The demographic trend in Texas is clear. Texas is already 36.5% Latino, 11.9% black and 3.5% Asian and most estimates have Texas flipping permanently Democratic by 2020 at the latest. Minority-bashing and Rebel flag waving may not be the smartest way to win an election.
So, what gives?
Above, an advertisement from the Dallas papers on November 22, 1963, the last time a non-southern Democrat was elected President of the United States. They were upset because he was a Catholic.
So what is going on in the South? Are they just plain crazy? I would argue something a bit different. Although there is no doubt that they are in denial about the demographic changes that are sweeping the country, the roots of that denial are interesting and have their basis in southern history. The map below shows the Confederate states in dark green and the border states, which had significant Confederate contingents, in light green.
A Brief Digression on the History of the South
The antebellum South was first and foremost a feudal society. There were no public schools in the South until reconstruction. Not one. There wasn’t a state-funded public school until the 1890’s.
Although black people were obviously the most oppressed in the old South, so were poor white people. And sitting on top of the hill, literally, was a tiny rich white land and slave owning aristocracy that fancied themselves the smartest and best people in the United States. They literally believed that they were better than anyone else. And many of that same southern aristocracy still do. As horrible as they were to black people they were equally horrible to the poor white people whenever they had the opportunity to do so. The feudal aristocracy had a vested interest in keeping those people as dumb as possible and manipulating them to maintain their power. One of the ways that they manipulated them was by pitting the poor blacks against the poor whites. That’s how it was in 1880 and that’s how it is now, in many respects.
Southern Politicians Have Always Supported the Rich and Oppressed the Working Class, Regardless of Race
Southern politicians have historically been anti-democratic. Poll taxes and literacy tests were used to exclude whites as well as blacks. This general disenfranchisement of the poor was abetted by the – at first, refusal – and later, grudging reluctance to pay for any public education whatsoever. It’s kind of hard to pass a literacy test if you can’t read.
What many Northerners never understood about the South is that they weren’t ashamed of their low educational standards, they were striving for low educational standards as a matter of policy to keep the population ignorant, uneducated and controllable. Many poor whites never voted in the South until after World War Two. See Alexander Keysar’s excellent “The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States” for more on this shameful subject.
In the now infamous South Carolina Democratic Primary for the US Senate in 1938 (which pitched Ellison D. “Cotton Ed” Smith (photo, right) against the then current governor of South Carolina, a New Dealer named Olin T. Johnston), out of a total population of 1,738,000 people, only 336,000 people voted. Even though that was only 18% of the population, Cotton Ed was taking no chances. He had teams of red-shirted thugs patrolling poll locations, intimidating both blacks and whites. “Cotton Ed’s” slogan that year was “Cotton is king and white is supreme.” Here’s a 1938 Time article describing his victory.
I would argue that the hysterical rhetoric that we’re seeing now is because the sense of entitlement that these anachronistic feudal lords continue to feel to this day is threatened. Not just by Obama’s race, but by everything about him. He’s from Chicago. He went to Harvard. He eats arugula. He represents everything they abhor. Sure, it’s racial, first and foremost, but beyond that, it’s just everything.
Don’t get me wrong – there are racists and demagogues and just plain crazy people everywhere, but they reach a certain critical mass in the American South. The powers that be in the South have been arguing against democracy since the first Constitutional Convention in 1787, when they demanded (and got) the northern states to agree to the bizarre political proposition that slaves would count as 3/5 of a person for purposes of determining political representation but the slaves themselves would have no political voice or human rights. They applied this same “count but disenfranchise” policy to as many citizens as they could up through World War Two.
Both Texas and Louisiana passed laws this year requiring the teaching of “creationism” in biology classes. This could only happen in the American South. How could this happen, in 2009? And more importantly, why?
The red areas indicate Southern Baptists. Southern Baptists originated as a unique denomination back in the 1840’s, when there was a schism between the northern and southern versions of most protestant churches over the issue of – slavery. Kind of keeps on coming up over and over, doesn’t it?
We can see several things converging here: good old-fashioned red-baiting, racism and Christian fundamentalism. At the same time, the former Confederate states are banding together, threatening secession and getting just plain hysterical when you suggest that there might be something racist about any of this.
Through some perceptual maladjustment that I am simply unable to comprehend, it’s “OK” in some quarters to send out images like the one above but “racist” to suggest that it’s racist. Now THAT’S just plain crazy, but it’s the same logic whereby both Rush “Puff the Magic Negro” Limbaugh and Glenn “he hates white people” Beck have proclaimed Obama to be the racist. Quoting Hofstadter again:
“…a mentality disposed to see the world in this way may be a persistent psychic phenomenon, more or less constantly affecting a modest minority of the population. But certain religious traditions, certain social structures and national inheritances, certain historical catastrophes or frustrations may be conducive to the release of such psychic energies, and to situations in which they can more readily be built into mass movements or political parties. In American experience ethnic and religious conflict have plainly been a major focus for militant and suspicious minds of this sort, but class conflicts also can mobilize such energies. Perhaps the central situation conducive to the diffusion of the paranoid tendency is a confrontation of opposed interests which are (or are felt to be) totally irreconcilable, and thus by nature not susceptible to the normal political processes of bargain and compromise. The situation becomes worse when the representatives of a particular social interest—perhaps because of the very unrealistic and unrealizable nature of its demands—are shut out of the political process.”
Here’s a link to the full text of “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.”
As Hofstadter points out in the paragraph above, there is always a small portion of the electorate that is prone to this type of paranoia and who are easily manipulated for political gain. We’re seeing that today with the manipulation of the “birthers” and “teabaggers” by cynical corporate interests who, in truth, have no political values or ideological interest other than making money but who have an interest in suppressing both dissent and democracy. And who aren’t ashamed to pander to that minority’s basest racist instincts in order to win.
The South has dominated American politics for more than 200 years. The first 76 years of American history were basically spent arguing over slavery until it finally erupted into the Civil War. Then came the Civil War which left 600,000 Americans dead, followed by twelve brief years of attempted Reconstruction until the Federal troops were removed and the South was allowed to return to its old evil ways.
A corrupt Supreme Court permitted segregation and we had 88 years of Jim Crow (between the end of Reconstruction in 1877 and the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965). Ending Jim Crow required sending federal troops back in, because, as is their historical wont, the South would defy Federal law whenever they felt like it unless compelled to do otherwise by force of arms.
What we’re seeing now is the last, dying gasp of a sub-culture that has had a vastly disproportionate influence on American politics since the founding of the country. We need to understand what it is and call it what it is.
And most importantly, we need to let it pass away.
September 6, 2009