Forty years after his ignoble resignation in the face of impeachment Richard Nixon’s shameful legacy lives on. No, it’s not Watergate and the related cover-up. It’s Nixon’s politics of race-baiting, contempt and bigotry known as his Southern Strategy that, under different labels, continues to blight our politics today.
When Lyndon Johnson advanced the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he predicted Democrats would lose the South for generations. He was right as Republicans, instead of reaffirming the extraordinary and long overdue bipartisan legislation they actually voted for, wasted no time cynically preying on Southern white resentment and exploiting racism for political gain. At the time, there were no southern Republican congressmen to speak of. Now as a result of their tactics the South is a hotbed of Republican reactionism.
Nixon watched in 1964 as Barry Goldwater, couching racist appeals under the guise of permitting owners of public accommodations to refuse service to, implicitly, blacks in contravention of the Civil Rights Act — incredibly a position advanced last year by Sen. Rand Paul — became the first Republican to win the electoral votes of any Deep South state since Reconstruction, collecting five of them. Nixon watched as Alabama governor George Wallace openly pandered to racists, eventually winning four Southern states as well as significant support from whites, especially white men, across the country as an independent presidential candidate in 1968.
The lessons were not lost on Nixon as he and his political guru, Kevin Phillips, who believed “politics turned on animosity,” devised their Southern Strategy for the 1968 campaign, which embraced the politics of racial division using dog-whistle code words like “states’ rights,” “forced busing” and “property values” to get the message across that Nixon would not be disposed to enforcing civil rights legislation on the states. This was enough of a fig leaf to allow Negro-phobic Republicans and what came to be called Reagan Democrats to cloak their own racism with a disturbing acceptability.
It took until 2005 for the then-Republican National Committee chairman to apologize to African-Americans for the party’s behavior, but by then the party had become the catch-all for closet racists, homophobes, misogynists, xenophobes, militia and eventually birthers, secessionists, dead-enders and an assortment of other wing-nuts who intimidated the judicious, constructive, mainstream of the party into political nihilism.
Instead of telling these bigots there was no place for them in the GOP, as Dwight Eisenhower had shunned the John Birchers in the 1950s, they crassly welcomed them to win elections at any cost. Now because of grossly gerrymandered congressional districts attracting increasingly bizarre fringe candidates, they’re stuck with them. And the country is stuck with the codification of crazy, fouling our political system in ways from which it may never recover.
Marty Moore is a freelance writer living in Port Richey.