August 14, 2015
The Birth of the Southern Strategy

It is always discouraging to be reminded, again and again and again, that there is sure enough nothing new under the sun. But let’s do it anyway. Here’s a passage from Richard Hofstadter’s The Paranoid Style in American Politics. I had forgotten that the GOP’s Southern strategy dated back not to Nixon’s 1968 campaign but to Barry Goldwater’s four years earlier. So — discredit where discredit’s due:

Goldwater's departure from the Republican pattern was compounded by his position on civil rights. One of the oldest, though hardly the most efficacious, of the traditions of many conservatives in the north — and even to a degree in the South as well — has been a certain persistent sympathy with the Negro and a disposition to help them in moderate ways to relieve his distress. This tradition goes back to the Federalist party; it was continued by the Whig gentry; it infused the early Republican Party.

By adopting “the Southern strategy,” the Goldwater men abandoned this inheritance. They committed themselves not merely to a drive for a core of Southern states in the electoral college but to a strategic counterpart in the north which required the search for racist votes. They thought they saw a good mass issue in the white backlash, which they could indirectly exploit by talking of violence in the streets, crime, juvenile delinquency, and the dangers faced by our mothers and daughters.

Eisenhower, like Goldwater, had been unmoved by noble visions of progress toward racial justice, but he at least gave lip service to the ideal and thought it important to enforce the laws himself and to speak out for public compliance. But Goldwater arrived at the position, far from conservative in its implications, that the decisions [ed. note: Brown v. Board of Education] of the Supreme Court are “not necessarily” the law of the land. Of course, the decisions of the court have always had political content and they have often been highly controversial; there is no reason why they should suddenly be regarded with whispered reverence. But it is only in our time, and only in the pseudo-conservative movement, that men have become to hint that disobedience to the court is not merely legitimate but is the essence of conservatism.

It is not the authority and legitimacy of the court alone that the pseudo-conservative right calls into question. When it argues that we are governed largely by means of near-hypnotic manipulation (brainwashing), wholesale corruption, and betrayal, it is indulging in something more significant than the fantasies of indignant patriots: it is questioning the legitimacy of the political order in itself. The two-party system, as it has developed in the United States, hangs on the common recognition of loyal opposition: each side accepts the ultimate good intentions of the other. The opponent’s judgment may be held to be consistently execrable, but the legitimacy of his intent is not — that is, in popular terms, his Americanism is not questioned. One of the unspoken assumptions of presidential campaigns is that the leaders of both parties are patriots who, however serious their mistakes, must be accorded the right to govern. But an essential point in the pseudo-conservative worldview is that our recent presidents, being men of wholly evil intent, have conspired against the public good. This does more than discredit them: it calls into question the validity of the political system that keeps putting such men into office.


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Posted by Jerome Doolittle at August 14, 2015 04:01 PM
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