When South Carolina Republican Gov. Nikki Haley called for the removal of the confederate flag from the South Carolina statehouse grounds this week, it signaled a political change. For the last half-century, the GOP’s Southern Strategy has steadily moved a majority of white southern voters into the Republican column. In keeping with that strategy, before this week Haley, like other Republican politicians both in the South and the nation, resisted calls for its removal. Now Haley joins southern Republicans such as Tennessee Sens. Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander and 2016 presidential hopefuls Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) and former Florida governor Jeb Bush in calling for the flag to be taken down. National Republican leaders hoping for a shot at the presidency have agreed as well, including Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and former New York governor George Pataki.
What accounts for this dramatic turnabout? Clearly, the immediate trigger was a gunman’s killing of nine African Americans at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston last week. But Republican leaders’ abandonment of the symbol of the Confederacy and of resistance to black civil rights also reflects a long-term shift in the relationship between race, Republicanism, and the South.
Between 1964 and 1988, Republican presidential nominees sought to win over white Democrats by signaling their opposition to the demands of the black civil rights movement, and in racially-coded language on crime and welfare.
Barry Goldwater ran in opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Bill, winning only five states outside his home state of Arizona – all of them in the Deep South. In 1968, candidate Richard Nixon garnered a majority of Southern votes by calling for “law and order” against protest and urban uprisings, and by voicing opposition to court-ordered school desegregation plans. Ronald Reagan opened his 1980 campaign in Neshoba County, Miss.–where civil rights workers James Cheney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman had been murdered in 1964–telling voters, “I believe in states’ rights,” widely understood to mean that he, like them, opposed federal action to enforce black civil or voting rights in the South. In 1988 George H.W. Bush’s campaign strategist was Lee Atwater, a South Carolinian infamous for targeting Bush’s Democratic opponent Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis through a series of televised campaign advertisements featuring a convicted black rapist.
How has it come to be that Republicans are now turning their backs on the symbol of white southern resistance that was at the center of this strategy in the Goldwater-to-Atwater era? Political scientists have long debated when, why, and how partisan political identities and interests change. They often point to dramatic events or the emergence of crucial new issues as moments that trigger political shifts. But we can also look to slower, more subtle changes in the ideas and commitments of political actors and in the political environment to understand how micropolitics produce broader shifts.
What are some of these changes? First, in the 1990s, the Democratic Party also began exploiting white fears for political gain. Bill Clinton strongly supported passage of the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, the largest federal anti-crime bill history, which widely expanded federal offenses and put nearly $10 billion toward new prison construction. He also worked to pass the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, which dismantled the existing welfare system through instituting lifetime limits for recipients, reducing benefits and enforcing work requirements.
Second, Republican leaders in the post-civil rights era included George W. Bush, who acknowledged and apologized for the Southern Strategy while arguing for individualist and market-based forms of black empowerment. As he said at a speech to the NAACP in 2006, “Most of your forefathers didn’t come to this land seeking a better life; most came in chains as the property of other people. Today, their children and grandchildren now have an opportunity to own their own property.” Later, prominent conservative figures like Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed and Fox News commentator Glenn Beck would regularly invoke the Civil Rights Movement and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Third, the U.S.’s changing racial demographics which will move the status of whites from majority to plurality within the next four decades. These changes already made a decisive impact on the 2012 election between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, which prompted a report from the Republican National Committee calling for rhetoric and policy positions that would better appeal to people of color, women and young people.
Finally, a number of prominent Republican conservatives of color have emerged in the last decade, including former Florida House member Allen West, Utah Rep. Mia Love, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, tea party-backed presidential hopefuls such as Herman Cain and Dr. Ben Carson, and in the Palmetto State, Sen. Tim Scott and Gov. Nikki Haley herself.
Broad political shifts emerge from smaller recombinations of political elements. When we look closely, we see the awkward, contradictory language at work which is meant to shift political identifications. Listen to Haley’s statement on the flag: “For many people in our state, the flag stands for traditions that are noble. Traditions of history, of heritage, and of ancestry. At the same time, for many others in South Carolina, the flag is a deeply offensive symbol of a brutally oppressive past.” The state, Haley said, can survive and thrive “while still being home to both of those viewpoints. We do not need to declare a winner and a loser.” Clearly those opposed viewpoints cannot co-exist easily in South Carolina, and just as clearly one of those viewpoints has had a victory.
However, growing Republican opposition to the Confederate flag is less evidence that the southern strategy has been rejected than that it has fully succeeded. Republicans no longer needs to court white southerners through overt racism because they have already been largely absorbed into the Republican coalition.
At the same time, the GOP continues to pursue policies on voter ID laws, affirmative action, and social and economic policies that fall hardest on the majority of African Americans. The GOP can pursue these ends without invoking symbols like the confederate flag.
Joseph Lowndes is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Oregon. He is the author of, among other things, “From the New Deal to the New Right: Race and the Southern Origins of Modern Conservatism (Yale University Press 2008).