American politics is Southernized

Published 12:01 am Wednesday, October 31, 2018

While Alabama governor George Wallace briefly campaigned for the Democratic nomination for president in 1964, he ventured into what all assumed would be the hostile ground of the North.

Here, at the high water mark of the Civil Rights Movement, he was defying the tides of history, running as a Bible-thumping segregationist.

And still, he garnered a third of the vote in primaries in Wisconsin and Indiana, and 40 percent in Maryland. Four years later, running for president as an Independent, he would carry five Southern states, but also drew enthusiastic crowds of 70,000 to the Boston Commons, and 20,000 to Madison Square Garden in New York.

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These cheering Yankees led Wallace to a startling revelation. As journalist Douglas Kiker put it, he saw that “They all hate black people, all of them. They’re all afraid, all of them. Great God! That’s it! They’re all Southern! The whole US is Southern.”

The country’s politics were ripe to be polarized into white and non-white, moralized into a no-compromise, apocalyptic battle between good and evil. In short, “Southernized.” 

No, Wallace never won the presidency, but he was to be, said Emory University historian Dan Carter, “the alchemist of the new social conservatism,” which compounded “racial fear, anticommunism, cultural nostalgia, and traditional right-wing economics.” It was a brew that Republican Richard Nixon brought into the mainstream in his reelection bid of 1972. 

To be normalized, though, crude racism had to be masked as something more suited to the new times and new political terrain. With admirable honesty, Lee Atwater, campaign advisor to Ronald Reagan and Bush I, explained the dishonest technique.

“You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘N-word.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘n-word’ — that hurts you, backfires.” So, to achieve the same effect, “you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff.” It’s commonly called “dogwhistling.” Dan Carter called it “soft-porn racism.”

Whatever the term, Reagan mastered the craft. In 1980, as the Republican nominee for President, he gave a speech at Mississippi’s Neshoba County Fair. In it, he omitted any mention of the notorious assassination of the three civil rights workers by Klansmen just a few miles up the road from the fairgrounds 16 years earlier.

He did, though, make a point to praise states-rights, the very doctrine long used to avert federal interference in state-level racial injustices, from slavery to disfranchisement to lynching — such as the Klan murders a few miles up the road 16 years earlier. 

The “backfiring” n-word, of course, never crossed the ever-genial Reagan’s lips, and therefore, those who accused him of racism were themselves branded as “racists.”

Of course, this through-the-looking-glass moment when the racist is transformed into offended victim of racism is pure ecstasy for the expert dogwhistler. Only willing dupes were deceived, though. Reagan’s message was unmistakable. It cracked like an overseer’s whip.

There is a lesson here. Racism is a moral flaw and an intellectual error. But, too, it is the product of centuries of conscious effort by political/economic elites to divide and rule.

More specifically, it is intended to exploit the human need for social belonging in order to tribalize the ruled and turn them against one another for the benefit of those elites. As such, it worked far too well to be easily abandoned. It was adapted to survive the end of slavery in 1865, and then, with dogwhistling, the end of Jim Crow in 1965. 

But those Republicans who lay down with sly dogwhistlers have gotten up with bellowing, bigoted fleas. Racism is adapting again. The mask is slipping.

JIM WIGGINS is a retired Copiah-Lincoln Community College history instructor.