Curtis Wilkie is a fellow at the Overby Center for Southern Journalism and Politics at the University of Mississippi.
Political mythology traces the term “Southern strategy” to Richard Nixon’s presidency, when he and adviser Harry Dent of South Carolina exploited racial resentment in the region to build Nixon’s standing there. “The Long Southern Strategy” describes a more extensive plot, an unbroken arc of more than a half-century begun by Barry Goldwater’s “Operation Dixie” in 1964, in which the GOP played on white prejudices to transform the old “Solid South” — once essential to the Democratic coalition — into a bastion contributing to national Republican victories.
For the purposes of their argument, Angie Maxwell and Todd Shields concentrate on the patriarchal, evangelical-fundamentalist Southern population that has been cultivated by the Republican Party. African Americans rarely appear in these pages; they are not considered prey for the GOP. Instead, the authors focus on the party’s targets — white Southern men — cherished as God-fearing Protestants, protective of Southern womanhood and family values, and filled with missionary zeal to impose American military hegemony on the rest of the world.
The book bristles with anger over a “grand bargain” in which the Republican Party sold its Chamber of Commerce-country club-Episcopalian-limited government soul to join forces with a neo-Confederacy composed of good old boys serving as soldiers for the Southern Baptist Convention. The Grand Old Party, once composed of Eastern elites and bona fide conservatives, no longer exists. In the period the book covers, moderates fled or were drummed out of the GOP, and with its new Southern base it slowly morphed into a refuge for bigots, nativists and Trump enablers.
It should be noted that the authors, scholars at the University of Arkansas, have associations with and use research data from the school’s Blair Center, named for one of Hillary Clinton’s closest friends, the late Diane Blair. But their methodology appears sound and is reinforced with conclusions from many political scientists and social critics. Maxwell and Shields have a good appreciation for the psyche of bitter white Southerners — formed by defeat in the Civil War and nurtured by a siege mentality in which the enemy became the federal government. These voters are naturally attracted to the GOP when they hear party leaders’ sneering references to affirmative action, entitlements and secular humanists.
Lay readers will have to fight their way past some academic jargon (“Often variables that are not significant to statistical models in quantitative political science research go overlooked”) and 200 pages of survey data and graphs. But the text itself is sharply written and delivers an unequivocal message accusing the Republican Party of skillfully manipulating the people who live in the 11 states of the old Confederacy. (It helped that Democrats antagonized their onetime constituency with their embrace of civil rights, abortion rights, gay rights and environmental regulations.)
“The Long Southern Strategy” covers well-known GOP tactics to take advantage of racial anxieties. The authors recount Ronald Reagan’s appearance at the Neshoba County Fair in Mississippi in 1980, when wounds had not yet healed from the negative attention the area received after the murders of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner in the county 16 years earlier. Maxwell and Shields also delve into the GOP’s popularization of Willie Horton, a black felon who committed new crimes while furloughed from prison; Horton became a feature of the 1988 presidential campaign when an ad targeted Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis for his role in furloughing the felon.
The book’s greatest strength is its lengthy examination of the alliance the GOP developed with the Southern Baptist Convention, the Bible Belt’s most enduring power, an institution that justified segregation, denied equal rights to women, demonized homosexuality, preserved Prohibition and preached “good old time religion” for decades.
Though the Southern Baptists, the nation’s largest denomination, have begun wrestling with some of their beliefs, the authors document a history of collaboration with the GOP beginning with Nixon’s courtship of the nation’s leading evangelist, Billy Graham. The relationship strengthened when the party seized on patriotism during the Vietnam War, a conflict that enjoyed strong support in the militaristic South. Meanwhile, Phyllis Schlafly, an anti-feminist Republican polemicist, led the fight against the Equal Rights Amendment and became, the authors write, “an integral part of the Long Southern Strategy.” After the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, abortion was turned into a wedge issue. Southern Baptists found themselves comfortable with Republican positions, and their ministers became partisans.
“The transformation of evangelical fundamentalists” from a politically uninterested group into a legion of dedicated voters “remains one of the most radical shifts in modern American politics,” the authors say. “From 1980 to 2000, the percent of Southern Baptist ministers who claimed a GOP party identification increased from 27 to 85 percent.”
Around the same time — from 1972 to 1997 — the number of Christian radio (1,648) and television (257) stations “grew exponentially,” the authors write, producing evangelists who became prominent figures at national Republican conventions, including a pair of Virginians, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. Robertson ran for the party’s 1988 presidential nomination. Four years later, Pat Buchanan lit up the Republican convention with his “culture wars” attack on an alleged Democratic agenda that included “abortion on demand, a litmus test for the Supreme Court, homosexual rights, discrimination against religious schools [and] women in combat units.”
The Long Southern Strategy has lasted 55 years and has mostly succeeded, interrupted only by the election of two Democrats who were themselves Southern Baptists, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, and one other Democrat, Barack Obama. The master plan led to Donald Trump, not exactly a role model for evangelical-fundamentalists, but a politician who championed their gut issues and won every Southern state but Virginia in 2016.
Today, Trump’s rallies echo with the same fervor that once characterized the appearances of segregationist George Wallace, who bedeviled the Democratic Party by running for president four times as a Southern maverick. His rallies were as passionate as tent revivals as he denounced progressive policies and taunted the press. The only difference today is that the speaker has a Queens accent rather than the rasp of the late Alabama governor, and Trump pummels a new “other” foreign to the South — immigrants.
By Angie Maxwell and Todd Shields
534 pp. $34.95