Most of us could write volumes on the transgressions of our two major political parties. Historically, machine politics has been almost the exclusive domain of northern big-city Democrats. And although their reign ended with the 1968 Voting Rights Act, few political organizations were more corrupt than the southern rural small-county Democratic oligarchies. But what about the GOP?
Founded in 1852 as the party of freedom, from the profiteering during the Civil War and Reconstruction period the Republicans quickly became the party of wealth and privilege. The Democrats once supported slavery, then slavery’s stepchild, segregation. But after President Lyndon Johnson pushed through civil and voting rights legislation in the 1960s, there was a mass exodus of southern Democratic senators to the GOP. This permanently altered America’s political landscape.
With his “Southern Strategy” in his 1964 presidential campaign, Senator Barry Goldwater avoided taking an outright anti-civil rights stance but subtly hinted he thought some of the civil rights legislation might be unconstitutional. As a result, Goldwater took five southern states in 1964 and spurred the movement that eventually led to the defection of Dixiecrat senators to the GOP. States’ rights? Come on, now! These were the 1960s, not the 1860s.
No group feeds more greedily at the federal government’s trough than southerners, irrespective of party. Every Southern state gets far more money back from Washington than it sends there in taxes. Some get double or more, such as Mississippi and Louisiana. If anyone wonders, Georgia ranks seventh in receipts from Washington and Tennessee is third.
In his two campaigns for governor of California, Ronald Reagan embraced the standard Republican civil rights rhetoric. California is a progressive, multi-ethnic state where it would be political suicide do otherwise. But in his 1980 presidential campaign Reagan was forced to tread more gingerly because he needed at least some of the electoral votes of the former states of the Old Confederacy. Thus, he moderated his views on certain racial questions to woo southern voters without losing his northern and western support. His staff decided on a pro-states’ rights emphasis rather than a guaranteed-to-fail anti-civil rights campaign.
GOP strategists decided to kick off Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign with a speech at the Neshoba County Fair located only seven miles from Philadelphia, Miss., the site of the 1964 murders of three young civil rights workers. Without openly saying it, this was a blatant, in-your-face appeal to southern racism and a callous expansion on Nixon’s and Goldwater’s southern strategies. The term “states’ rights,” by the way, has always been a less-than-subtle term for anti-civil rights. During his speech Reagan declared “I believe in states’ rights, and I believe we’ve distorted the balance of our government today by giving it powers that were never intended in the constitution to that federal establishment.” Reagan could have injected a little balance into his message if he had just once mentioned civil rights, but he didn’t.
Reagan carried the GOP from its post-Watergate lows to the favored position it enjoys today, partly through the defection of former Dixiecrats. And today Donald Trump has won over a group he actually despises with the same thinly-disguised racist innuendos and empty promises he has no intention of keeping. Southerners love to be duped, don’t we?