Lee Atwater and the Southern Strategy
Republicans bristled with indignation during the 2012 campaign any time someone suggested that there might be a racial undertone (or overtone, or just a tone) to attacks on President Obama. You know, that he was a Kenya–born socialist Muslim just passing himself off as an American. There was no racial intent there, no “dog whistle.”
But manipulating the racial fears, ethnic resentments and xenophobia of some American voters is in the warp and woof of the modern Republican Party. That bitter fact was vividly driven home yesterday by The Nation, which published a tape recording of a 41-minute, 1981 interview with Lee Atwater, the political operative who led the Republican Party’s “southern strategy” and formulated the politics of division and cultural warfare in the 1980s.
The political scientist who conducted the interview, Alexander Lamis, had previously made the interview available in print form. But it’s more chilling to actually hear Mr. Atwater describe the true underpinnings of the Republican electoral strategy in his soft lilt.
The words he uses are not ones I would normally use in this blog, or anywhere in the opinion pages of the Times, but the quotes require them.
You start in 1954 by saying ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘Nigger.’ That hurts you. It backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states rights and all that stuff and you get so abstract. Now you talk about cutting taxes and these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that’s part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract and that coded, we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. Obviously sitting around saying we want to cut taxes and we want this, is a lot more abstract than even the busing thing and a hell of a lot more abstract than nigger nigger. So anyway you look at it, race is coming on the back burner.
The results of this evolution were evident in the recent election. Eighty-eight percent of Romney voters were white. African-Americans and Hispanic Americans voted for President Obama by huge majorities.
Lee Atwater recognized at the end of his life what a monster he had helped unleash. In a 1991 article for Life he even apologized to Michael Dukakis for the “naked cruelty” of the 1988 campaign. The Republican Party seems worried about its race problem, but it’s not clear that its leaders really get the message. They seem to think they just haven’t done a good enough job talking to ethnic and racial minorities. But the real problem is their policies, not their rhetorical choices, and their history.