In the second half of the 20th century, the Republican party used the so-called “Southern strategy” to win the votes of white southerners.
White southerners had traditionally been Democratic voters, in part because the Republican party was closely associated with abolitionists and with the civil war and with the post Civil War reconstruction agenda.
The south’s Democratic party loyalty was partially fractured during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s tenure, because many southerners resented his support for unions and for a larger government. For the most part, though, white southerners continued to vote for Democrats until the 1960s.
In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, a sweeping bill that banned segregation in public places and protected Americans against discrimination based on race, religion, or national origin. The Act was so divisive that after signing it, President Johnson supposedly said, “I think we just delivered the South to the Republican party for a long time to come.”
The Republican southern strategy can, in fact, be traced back to 1964. That’s when the Republican candidate for the White House, Barry Goldwater, tried out his “operation Dixie,” undertaking a sweeping tour of the south to try and win over white voters.
The journalist Richard Rovere wrote about Goldwater’s southern tour in the New Yorker:
By coming South, Barry Goldwater had made it possible for great numbers of unapologetic white supremacists to hold great carnivals of white supremacy. They were not troubled in the least over whether this would hurt the Republican Party in the rest of the country. They wanted to make—for their own satisfaction, if for no one else’s—a display of the fact that they had found and were enjoying membership in one organization that was secure against integration.
Richard Nixon’s administration is usually credited with rolling out an intense southern strategy. In 1969, an aide in the Nixon White House named Kevin Phillips published a book titled the Emerging Republican Majority. The book argued that the Republican Party needed to use racial and social issues to build up a base of socially conservative voters in the south.
Newsweek dubbed the book the “bible” of the Republican party. However, in recent years many historians have argued that President Nixon was not, himself, a segregationist or a conservative. In fact, the president supported causes like the Voting Rights Act and affirmative action.
Others have pointed out that the so-called southern strategy was not solely based on race but grew out of other social issues like feminism and the growth of evangelical Christianity:
Republicans didn’t win the South solely by capitalizing on white racial angst. That decision was but one in a series of decisions the party made not just on race but on feminism and religion as well. The GOP successfully fused ideas about the role of government in the economy, women’s place in society, white evangelical Christianity and white racial grievance, in what became a “long Southern strategy” that extended well past the days of Goldwater and Nixon.