In an informal 1981 off-the-record interview, Republican strategist Lee Atwater laid out his view of "the Southern Strategy" as he implemented it in the presidential campaign of Ronald Reagan. He said the way for Republicans to win votes in the traditionally Democratic South was to appeal to racist sentiments without being overtly racist--by talking about economics and national defense. He said that voters, through "a fairly slow but very steady process, will go Republican."
That Southern Strategy, often spoken of in relation to the 1968 election of Richard Nixon, was in fact a long, calculated effort to totally transform American politics. In their new book, The Long Southern Strategy, scholars Angie Maxwell and Todd Shields present a deeply researched, critical analysis of that strategy.
They note that the Southern Strategy was undertaken on multiple fronts--from race to religion to women's rights. They write that "Absent an understanding of the role of Southern white sexism in this realignment, racism and religiosity read as two chapters of separate books. They were and are an ensemble cast in the same story'
For Maxwell and Shields, the story actually begins in the 1940s, when the Democratic Party began to move away from support for Jim Crow. In 1948, South Carolina Governor Strom Thurmond broke from the Democratic Party and ran as a segregationist third-party "Dixiecrat" candidate for President, famously proclaiming, "There's not enough troops in the army to force the Southern people to break down segregation." (Thurmond became a Republican in 1964 and served in the U.S. Senate until 2003, the year of his death at age 100.)
In her 1949 book, Killers of the Dream, Southern writer and activist Lillian Smith described a "grand bargain" that, as Maxwell and Shields explain, sustained "white supremacy, buttressed by paternalism and evangelicalism, whereby the Southern white masses relinquished political power to the few in exchange for maintaining their social status as better than the black man."
It was this...