Fresh Eyes: Endgame for the Southern Strategy


by Charles Francis Wilson

My fascination with and active involvement in politics began in 1964 with the presidential contest between President Lyndon Johnson and Sen. Barry Goldwater. While I would never consider myself a political pundit, very little captures my interest and demands more of my time than a political campaign, be it local, state or national. Keeping updated on issues, political polls, trends, campaign financing and candidate personalities is far more exhilarating than any sporting event.

In the years since 1964, no presidential campaign has been more engrossing than the 2016 Republican primary. In the beginning of the primary there was a herd of 17 Republican aspirants vying for the most powerful political office on the planet. They formed a collage of every imaginable political and religious pedigree in the present Republican Party. There were candidates identified as Republican standard bearers, crusaders for religious purity, critics of big government and at least one candidate defying any standard classification.

The Republican establishment’s angst over the campaign success of candidate Donald Trump has dominated the media for months. Trump’s early victories were met with surprise and repeated predictions of his ultimate demise. Now that Trump is the presumed nominee, the Republican Party regulars face a dilemma of whether to support or not support a candidate many have vilified.

I understand the angst, but the bewilderment of the “old guard” leaves me perplexed. Why are party regulars dumbfounded by the success of an outsider who disregards all standards of the Grand Old Party and political rules of conduct? Isn’t this primary election the culmination of years of political strategizing and manipulation as a means to win elections? The political maneuvering over the past 50 years that brought us to this point is well established and beyond dispute.

In 1964 after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, Sen. Strom Thurmond and future Sen. Jesse Helms fled to the Republican Party. They urged fellow outraged conservative Democrats to follow, and all were welcomed with open arms. It is ironic that the Civil Rights Act would not have passed without bipartisan support. The Republican Party that supported the passage of the act was now recruiting racist defectors.

In 1968 presidential candidate Richard Nixon won in Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, and Tennessee. All these states had been part of the old Confederacy. It was during this period of time that the Republican Party developed the Southern Strategy. The goal of this political maneuver was to attract disgruntled, white Democratic Southerners to the Republican Party. President Johnson accurately predicted that the passage of the Civil Rights Act would deliver the South to the Republican Party.

In 1980, presidential candidate Ronald Reagan delivered the first speech of his campaign at the Neshoba County Fair near Philadelphia, Miss. He delivered the speech close to the burial site of three slain civil rights workers. Candidate Reagan spoke of his support of states rights. The symbolic nature of this campaign event wasn’t subtle. Why was such an important speech given in the Deep South near one of the most violent atrocities of the civil rights movement using obvious code words? For homegrown, white Southerners, states rights conjure up images of government overreach and the forced end of Jim Crow.

Later that year, Reagan spoke to 15,000 evangelicals in Dallas and told the adoring crowd, “I know you can’t endorse me. But…I want you to know that I endorse you.”

President Reagan did more to embolden the religious right than any president in my memory. He was also responsible for much of the anti-government sentiment we are witnessing in the Republican primary.  Perhaps President Reagan’s most familiar quote is, “Government is not the solution to our problems. Government is the problem.” He also uttered this ridiculous sentence: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’”

In the 2008 presidential contest between Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain, Sarah Palin made her national debut as McCain’s running mate. What is amazing is that this person with no credibility as a serious choice for vice president became the voice of the right wing of the Republican Party and the nation.

Beginning with the 2010 election, tea party obstructionists arrived in Washington. The tea party caucus has proven to be as much an irritant to the Republican majority as it is to the Democratic minority.

For years the Republican Party has been pandering to and garnering votes from the most conservative electorate in the country. This segment of the population tends to reflect extreme perspectives on ethnic diversity, racial equality, social values, religious ideology and the role of government. I contend that much of the anger in the Republican sector of the primary is a reaction to perceived failed promises. Abortion is still legal. The Affordable Care Act has not been repealed after 62 attempts. Same-sex marriage is a constitutional right. The list goes on.

It is clear that the party of Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Eisenhower is a footnote in our history, and the chickens have come home to roost.

Charles Francis Wilson is a retired Southern Baptist minister and worked 35 years with the department of pastoral care at Baptist Hospital in Winston-Salem. He currently serves as president of the local chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.