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In American politics, the Southern strategy refers to the focus of the Republican party on winning U.S. Presidential elections by securing the electoral votes of the U.S. Southern states. It is also used in a more general sense, in which cultural (especially racial) themes are used in an election — primarily but not exclusively in the American South. The use of the term, and its meaning and implication, are still hotly disputed.
Pre-History of the Southern Strategy
Prior to the 1960s, both of the major U.S. parties were much more mixed, ideologically and geographically, than they are today. The Democratic party contained both a liberal, Northern/Midwestern bloc and a conservative Southern bloc. Republicans were also split ideologically, including a conservative activist base as well as a liberal wing from the Northeast.
In 1948, a group of Democratic congressmen, led by Governor Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, split from the Democrats in reaction to an anti-segregation speech given by Senator Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota, founding the States Rights Democratic or Dixiecrat Party, which ran Thurmond as its presidential candidate. The Dixiecrats, failing to deny the Democrats the presidency in 1948, soon dissolved, but the split lingered. The party's principles were revived by Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona, the 1964 Republican presidential candidate. Goldwater was notably more conservative than previous Republican nominees like Dwight Eisenhower; Goldwater's opponent in the primary election, Governor Nelson Rockefeller of New York, was widely seen as representing the more moderate, Northern wing of the party. Rockefeller's defeat in the primary is seen as the beginning of the end for moderates and liberals in the Republican party.
Roots of the Southern Strategy
At this point, the debate begins. The facts are this: in the 1964 presidential race, Goldwater adopted an extremely conservative stance. In particular, he emphasized the issue of what he called "states' rights". As a conservative, Goldwater did not favor strong action by the federal government--for instance, though not a segregationist personally, he strongly opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 on the grounds that, first, it was an intrusion of the federal government into the affairs of states and second, it was an interference with the rights of private persons to do business, or not, with whomever they chose. This was a popular stand in the Southern states; whether or not this was specifically a tactic designed to appeal to racist Southern white voters is a matter of debate. Regardless, the only states that Goldwater won in 1964 besides Arizona, were five Deep Southern states, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina.
The Southern Strategy was deployed even more effectively by Richard Nixon in the election of 1968. Nixon, with the aid of now-Senator Thurmond, who had switched to the Republican party in 1964, ran on a campaign of states' rights and "law and order." As a result every state that had been in the Confederacy, except Texas, voted for either Nixon or Southern Democrat George Wallace, despite a strong tradition of supporting Democrats. Meanwhile, Nixon parlayed a wide perception as a moderate into wins in other states, taking a solid majority in the electoral college. That is why the election of 1968 is sometimes cited as a realigning election.
Evolution of the Southern Strategy
As civil rights grew more accepted throughout the nation, basing a general election strategy on appeals to "states' rights" as a naked play against civil rights laws grew less effective; there was a greater danger of a national backlash. Nevertheless, in 1980, when Ronald Reagan initiated his general election campaign after accepting the Republican Party nomination, he did so with a speech in which he stated his support of states' rights. He did so at a county fair in Neshoba County, Mississippi, which was also known as the place where three civil rights advocates were murdered in 1964. Reagan went on to make a speech praising Jefferson Davis, the strongly pro-slavery president of the Confederacy and states' rights advocate, at Stone Mountain, Georgia, site of the founding of the modern Klan. A prominent Klan leader endorsed Reagan, but he disavowed the endorsement and moved to neutralize any negative publicity by securing the support of noted Southern civil rights activists Hosea Williams and Ralph David Abernathy.
An appeal to racism may have played a role in subsequent Republican races for the House and Senate in the South. The Willie Horton commercials used by supporters of George H.W. Bush in the election of 1988 may also have been such an appeal. Other examples include the 1990 re-election campaign of Jesse Helms, which attacked his opponent's alleged support of "racial quotas." Many ardent Democratic party supporters claim that support for federalism in the Republican party platform is, and always has been, nothing but a code word for racism, a charge Republicans consistently deny. Such allegations typically peak after a racially charged controversy involving Republicans, such as Senator Trent Lott's supportive remarks at Thurmond's hundredth birthday celebration.
Leaving aside all questions of race, the Republicans have continued to modify the Southern strategy, and to use it not only within the South, but in conservative areas of the Midwest and other regions. As racism became less politically palatable as a lone motivator, it was augmented by divisions based on other cultural issues like abortion, school prayer, or funding for the National Endowment for the Arts. These cultural differences are emphasized rather than economic issues including tariffs, federal job spending, and so on (with the single exception of taxes). They play on perceived and actual cultural differences between the South and other parts of the nation; the South is seen as more religious and traditional than, say, New England. An example of this new iteration of the Southern strategy can be seen in this quote from Pat Buchanan, a famously conservative political pundit, in which he denounces John Kerry (the 2004 Democratic contender for President) as:
- ...a Massachusetts liberal who voted against the Defense of Marriage Act, backs civil unions for homosexuals, voted to defend the infanticide known as partial-birth abortion and wants to raise the federal income taxes that George Bush lowered. 
The strategy can be seen in the phrase "Massachusetts liberal", emphasizing Kerry's alleged cultural alienness to the South, and in the emphasis on cultural, rather than economic, issues. A 2004 book by Thomas Frank, entitled What's the Matter with Kansas?, revolves around the rise of cultural issues as a Republican strategy.
- The Southern Strategy Revisited: Republican Top-Down Advancement in the South, by Joseph A. Aistrup.
- The Rise of Southern Republicans, by Earl Black and Merle Black.
- From George Wallace to Newt Gingrich: Race in the Conservative Counterrevolution, 1963-1994, by Dan T. Carter.
- A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow, by David L. Chappell.
- The Emerging Republican Majority, by Kevin Phillips.
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