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What is the Southern Strategy?

By Jason C. Chavis
Updated May 17, 2024
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The Southern Strategy is the policy of the Republican Party in the United States to gain political support in the Southern section of the country. Politically, the concept generally uses themes traditionally supported by residents of the Southern states to win election in those locations. Since segregation continued well into the late 20th century in the region, the Republican Party officially attempted to utilize this wedge issue as a way of garnering support for their political faction in these states. In addition to the issue of segregation between white residents and African Americans, the party also utilized Southern values of religion, gun control and a distrust of counterculture to win votes.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the Republican Party generally opposed desegregation and the Civil Rights Movement. This stance caused a major shift in the voting practices of the African American community to the support of the Democratic Party, the faction which helped legislate laws such as the Voting Rights Act. Party officials, specifically President Richard Nixon's political strategist Kevin Phillips, understood that in order for the Republicans to win the Southern states, they needed to focus their attention on the Caucasian population.

The implementation of the Southern Strategy by the Republican Party represented a major shift in political power in the region. Since the Civil War, the Democratic Party was the primary force in the South due to its support of the region during Reconstruction. In addition, the Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln was seen as the primary instigator of the war by most Southern residents. Between the 1950s and the early 1980s, the South shifted to major support for the Republicans. At the same time, much of the North and the West became a major supporter of Democrats.

Despite the Republican shift, by the end of the 20th century, it was generally understood that the South had lost its importance as a major prize in presidential and national elections. Without a majority of electoral votes or heavy populations, the power distribution of the constituency moved to the Northeast, California, and Texas. According to the results of the elections since 1984, every president elected would have taken office regardless of the South's votes.

During the 1990s and early 21st century, the concept of the Southern Strategy focused less on the region known as the “Bible Belt” and more on a general principle. Using wedge issues such as family values, abortion and threats to gun ownership, both parties attempt to segment their ideology to different sides. Voters during this time period followed suit, making the factors involving leadership and legislation secondary to candidates positions on the wedge issues. The Republicans use the conservative principles of the Southern Strategy on a nationwide level to help generate support in new regions of the country.

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Discussion Comments
By anon994699 — On Feb 29, 2016

What a pile of horse crap this article is. The republican party is why there was a civil rights movement. All of its opponents were democrats. What a joke.

By anon991468 — On Jun 23, 2015

The GOP's Southern Strategy is a fully-documented part of American History.

Ofcourse the southern Dixiecrats were racists -- no one is denying that. That's why they deserted the pro-civil rights Democratic Party and went GOP. It was a successful strategy, for god sakes. But now it is biting back, and the GOP wants to erase their history of success using the "Southern Strategy".

And it worked like a dream for many years, and helped win many elections for GOP candidates. That's all in the historical record, like it or not.

Also, a good number of northern Liberal Republicans (extinct nowadays), back in the 50s/60s, strongly supported the civil rights movement. You know, politicians like Jacob Javits and Nelson Rockefeller, the kind of Republicans that do not exist anymore, anywhere in the US.

Also, Lee Atwater famously admitted to following a "dogwhistle-type" (i.e. euphemism/code-word-based)

of Southern Strategy in the elections of 1980 to 1988.

You can re-write history, or be honest and admit to it, grow up a bit more, and move on.

In my opinion, the denial indicates a desire to continue being racist while not admitting it, ever. As they say when referring to effective defense in basketball: "Deny, deny, deny".

By anon963309 — On Jul 28, 2014

Where do people get this crap? The article is spot on. I was growing up in Texas when all this was happening, and I remember it quite well. Do not gripe at me for telling you the truth as I lived it.

When I was a kid in Texas in the 1950s, "Republican" was a dirty word, as it was in all the South. Texas was as much a one-party state as it is now, except it belongs to the racist extreme right-wing Republicans. The same goes for the rest of the South.

Did you know that Republican Barry Goldwater filibustered the Civil Rights Act? Besides, what does it really matter now since both parties have changed so much since those days?

We all know where they both stand now, and that is what we have to deal with.

By anon927347 — On Jan 23, 2014

No, it's the Democrat party that is full of hate. They are the ones who fought against the civil rights act. Obviously, some people are extreme liberals who do not like the past of the Democratic party so they choose to and misrepresent the facts. It's a damn shame. People, please do your own research in this matter and find out the truth.

By anon925256 — On Jan 10, 2014

@anon122233: You are absolutely correct. This Progressive Communist Democrat Party and its trail of tears and lies is well past the point of absurdity with this Southern Strategy propaganda. It has all along been Republicans championing civil rights. Also of all the so called Dixiecrats, only two of them ever joined the Republican Party. All the rest remained democrats.

By anon351403 — On Oct 13, 2013

You know what's ironic to see southern conservatives waving around the confederate flag and saying that Lincoln was a republican. Lincoln was for more federal government, not state government, which would place him on the left.

Also, the north has always been more liberal than the south. Modern Republicans are anti-intellectuals and they can't grasp that their beliefs are linked to hate. The funny thing is that they were against interracial marriage not too long ago and gay marriage now.

By anon341845 — On Jul 15, 2013

@anon316862: You say the party's ideology's flipped after the 64' Civil Rights Act was passed. I don't think they flipped much. At the time, the Republicans were conservative and the Democrats were liberals. There views back then are the same today. Look during the Great Depression how FDR and his fellow Democrats touted the New Deal, which created a welfare, state and the conservative Republicans tried to black it and called it socialism. Sounds just like today's American politics. And a lot of segregationists stayed in the Democratic Party.

By anon341844 — On Jul 15, 2013

False. The Republicans were strongly supportive of desegregation in the 50's and 60's. Look who got the '64 Civil Rights Act passed through Congress. It was the Republicans who overall were more supportive of it than the Democrats.

By anon327241 — On Mar 26, 2013

Eisenhower, 1957, desegregation of schools even sending the National Guard to make it happen. Richard Nixon finished desegregating schools as Johnson didn't bother. Nixon is responsible for Affirmative Action. His only remarks about desegregation were directed at parents who did not want their children to be bused out of their neighborhoods. It had nothing to do with the total lies told in this article.

Sorry. I remember. I heard his words. He was no racist and neither are Republicans. Typical leftist lies and rewriting history.

By anon316862 — On Jan 30, 2013

The times changed a long time ago and anon120164 didn't get the memo! Just so you know: the Republican party and Democratic party flipped! It happened shortly after the passing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act! Have you ever heard of the Republican party's Southern Strategy? Look it up and stop reminding blacks about how racist the democratic party was! We know how racist the Democrats were! We are more concerned about the racists in the Republican party!

By anon316148 — On Jan 27, 2013

@anon128233: You are correct and the poster who said blacks who support democrats because they don't know what they are voting for needs to read your post. It is the lower middle class and poor whites who vote GOP who are being snookered.

By anon294589 — On Oct 02, 2012

I can't give a litany of facts, nor am I going to try to delineate what facts I do know, because I'm sure that regardless of the conclusions they come up with in either direction of opinion, they'll simply be ignored or challenged by yet another fact/opinion/observation. I will try to be balanced though, which might tick everyone off.

First: No, not all white, middle class Americans or any other level of white American is racist, regardless of their political affiliation.

Second: There are indeed white racists.

Third: Not every person who voted for Obama did so simply because he's black.

Fourth: Many did, and yes, there are indeed black racists who vote with the same sort of human resentments that all of us feel from time to time on varying personal reasons, usually not having to do with race. We compare ourselves and our situations to others all the time.

Fifth: I come from a white, well-off middle class family in Virginia. There are Baptists and Catholics in my family, mostly Republicans who support gun rights, oppose state funded abortions and who are generally, the kindest people you'd ever want to meet. They are active in charities. The only "racist" in the family (more like “diet-racist” in that he finds the “nappy-head” jokes, etc. funny and isn't shy about saying controversial things in a picking/joking manner) is my maternal grandfather, who is also the only full-fledged Democrat in the family, and he voted for Obama, even though he himself has been a life-long gun-owner and hunter.

The only other two I can think of in the family who voted for Obama are my great aunt and uncle. My uncle is a retired, soft-spoken, incredibly nice and fun-loving Baptist minister (seriously, he even enjoyed a Catholic Mass!). Another uncle is an equally uplifting and Christ-like Christian who won't ever vote for Obama, but not because he's black! He also hated the Clint Eastwood portion of the RNC because it belittled every shred of moral principle the GOP was trying to claim. Instead, they found their own use of Hollywood garbage that says vote "x" because the others are so bad while simultaneously spitting on any relevant notion of respect for others and personal, moral responsibility.

I could go on and on with true examples that feed the stereotypes, and true examples that obliterate the stereotypes. The point is, don't paint with such broad brushes!

I myself tend to lean to the conservative. The best idols, in my opinion, that one could possibly look to are Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Pope John Paul II, Martin Luther King Jr., and Jesus Christ (I'm sure there are others too). What do they all have in common? Civil rights, human rights, and morality was never a political, governmental, taxation issue; it was a personal issue.

Recently I saw a bumper-sticker saying that Jesus was a liberal, and another saying King was a conservative. In point of fact, Jesus said "give to Caesar that which is Caesar's, and to God that which is God's" (in other words, what you do for others/God has nothing to do with what you do for a government/state/etc. regardless of the programs they support), and King never said "let's change hearts and minds by voting Republican – or Democrat."

My take is, and you're plenty free to disagree, that gun-ownership is our right (though perhaps not machine guns -- no need to go hog-wild) -- in other words, responsibility -- speaking for my family since they're responsible people, even though I don't personally own a gun. There should be government support for those in need of help, but the definition of "need" ought be restricted, and churches and private charities should have more freedoms to provide care and not be demonized for the ridiculous notions such as "hating women." Mother Teresa couldn't tolerate abortion, for example, and she was the 20th century superwoman. Conversely, no politician should try to legislate the Bible, Q'uran (which is why we should oppose Sharia courts or any other such religious court) or any other religious ideology.

What the idols I mentioned did: they changed hearts and minds. They didn't believe that problems could be fixed by legislative action/law, and that the phrase "in it together" means personally taking care of others, loving others, and inviting others to serve, not acting through the ballot box.

You want to serve the poor? Then serve. You want to change gun violence? Teach moral responsibility. You disagree with "life at conception" and believe in abortion as legitimate? First advise of other options, and always stand against the notion that a baby is a punishment, and then if necessary donate to institutions with your view (others might, but I won't demonize anyone for believing differently on that issue). You oppose abortion? Don't demonize others' choices, but still push for better notions of responsibility in cases of "mistakes," at least allowing for understanding in extenuating circumstances.

This is hardly a racist country anymore, though racists of every race clearly still exist. However, the future collective culture of the country in question. What culture do you want? As for me, it's personal.

By anon294118 — On Sep 29, 2012

It's sad, really. The Republican party supported civil rights and desegregation all along and the racist southern Democrats never did. So many blacks blindly opposed Republicans who had championed civil rights, while at the same time those blacks were also voting in the 70s and 80s for Democrats who had opposed civil rights their whole lives.

A lot of racist southern Democrats were able to win election after election because of the blind support of black voters who never had a clue about what they were doing.

By anon287365 — On Aug 25, 2012

@Anon122233, no. 2: You are simply and factually wrong! As a person who lived in South Carolina, who was a part of that transition from Dixiecrats to GOP, who had firsthand knowledge of the agreement that Nixon made with Thurmond that his DoJ would have slack enforcement of civil rights laws, and who saw the old "yellow dogs", while true that some did not change their party affiliation (James F. Byrnes told Strom he was killing his career to move to GOP for the 66 race), vote GOP beginning in 1966, I know you to be incorrect factually.

By anon285811 — On Aug 17, 2012

Yes indeed, the southern strategy was and remains a racist card. Fact? RNC leadership apologized for their use of the southern strategy over the last 50 years, just in 2005. Indeed, they formally apologized in 2005! Now, back to school with most of you!

By anon281563 — On Jul 24, 2012

Sadly, the article is true. he Southern Democrats of the 1950's became the Southern Republicans of the 1970's and later. Today, at the beginning of the 21st century, those same Southern Republicans continue to, at least tacitly, and in some cases outright promote, Confederacy-worship and white supremacy. That's why so many white Republicans hated Barack Obama even before he got elected--can't have one of them thar "Negroes" (they used a much worse word, the N-word). And they're still scared of those "brown" folks gaining any political power to threaten their white supremacy. I hear and see it all the time.

By anon234258 — On Dec 11, 2011

It's very interesting that those who disagreed with this article listed fact after fact after fact. Those who agreed with it simply discuss their own opinions. However, the facts can't be changed, even if there are obviously those who want to ignore them. All of the governors who opposed desegregation were die-hard Democrats. Look it up.

By anon177355 — On May 18, 2011

Well I'd say its partially accurate. In the 50s and sixties the most of the GOP supported desegregation. After the Civil Rights movement, Dixiecrats either left the Democratic Party or dropped their segregationist positions.

By anon135347 — On Dec 18, 2010

This article is not accurate. First, the Republicans did not oppose the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s. Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican president, appointed Earl Warren to the supreme court. Earl Warren decided Brown v. Board of Education that overruled segregation in the schools. Eisenhower then enforced segregation.

Without these great civil rights leaders, there would have never been a civil rights act of 1964. The civil rights act of 1964 was overwhelmingly supported by republicans and not supported by democrats, other than Lyndon Johnson who signed the Bill after the republicans passed it in the house and senate.

The US Senator who deserves the credit for passing the Civil rights act was Everett Dirksen of Illinois, who fought tirelessly to gain the votes to pass the act. Ultimately, Republicans voted in favor of the civil rights act in much higher percentages than did democrats.

Affirmative action was made real under the Nixon administration, and Arthur Fletcher, who is called the father of affirmative action, was a Republican.

By anon128233 — On Nov 18, 2010

No, it's spot-on accurate. There is a concentration of cultural resentment, mostly among lower middle class whites, that gets exploited by the corporate interests behind the Republican Party.

A person with these resentments tends to passionately passionately oppose: civil rights legislation, abortion, separation of church and state and gun control.

Corporate interests don't care about these conservative social positions. They only care about deregulation and tax breaks. But they bankroll candidates who support these conservative social positions, and who also support deregulation and tax breaks for large corporations. It's a way of duping lower middle class whites into voting against their own economic interests.

In sum, corporate interests instruct political candidates to pander to cultural resentments largely concentrated within the lower middle class white psyche, as a way of getting that voting bloc to support policies that undermine their economic security.

By anon122233 — On Oct 27, 2010

Horrible article that corrupts the truth. Republicans didn't oppose desegregation and civil rights, in fact, not only did a Republican introduce the Voting Rights Act, they voted for the 1964 Civil Rights Act legislation at a much higher percentage than Democrats did and were the minority party.

The so called "Southern Strategy" was an attempt by the Republican party to woo incumbent constitutionalist Democrats who didn't subscribe to Southern Dixiecrat mantra over to their side. Those Democrats who still believed in Jim Crow, legal segregation, and discrimination, such as Al Gore Sr. and Robert Byrd, still remained Democrats.

By anon120164 — On Oct 20, 2010

Great article. I found it very useful. --edie

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