Few names conjure the recalcitrant South, fighting integration with fire-breathing fury, like that of George Wallace. The central image of this “redneck poltergeist,” as one biographer referred to him, is of Wallace during his inauguration as governor of Alabama in January 1963, before waves of applause and the rapt attention of the national media, committing himself to the perpetual defense of segregation. Speaking on a cold day in Montgomery, Wallace thundered his infamous call to arms: “Today I have stood, where once Jefferson Davis stood, and took an oath to my people. It is very appropriate then that from this Cradle of the Confederacy, this very Heart of the Great Anglo-Saxon Southland ... we sound the drum for freedom. ... In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny . . . and I say ... segregation now ... segregation tomorrow ... segregation forever!”
The story of dog whistle politics begins with George Wallace. But it does not start with Wallace as he stood that inauguration day. Rather, the story focuses on who Wallace was before, and on whom he quickly became.
Before that January day, Wallace had not been a rabid segregationist; indeed, by Southern standards, Wallace had been a racial moderate. He had sat on the board of trustees of a prominent black educational enterprise, the Tuskegee Institute. He had refused to join the walkout of Southern delegates from the 1948 Democratic convention when they protested the adoption of a civil rights platform. As a trial court judge, he earned a reputation for treating blacks civilly—a breach of racial etiquette so notable that decades later J.L. Chestnut, one of the very few black lawyers in Alabama at the time, would marvel that in 1958 “George Wallace was the first judge to call me ‘Mr.’ in a courtroom.” The custom had been instead to condescendingly refer to all blacks by their first name, whatever their age or station. When Wallace initially ran for governor in 1958, the NAACP endorsed him; his opponent had the blessing of the Ku Klux Klan.
In the fevered atmosphere of the South, roiled by the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision forbidding school segregation, the moderate Wallace lost in his first campaign for governor. Years later, the victor would reconstruct the campaign, distilling a simple lesson: the “primary reason I beat [Wallace] was because he was considered soft on the race question at the time. That’s the primary reason.”4 This lesson was not lost on Wallace, and in turn, would reshape American politics for the next half-century. On the night he lost the 1958 election, Wallace sat in a car with his cronies, smoking a cigar, rehashing the loss, and putting off his concession speech. Finally steeling himself, Wallace eased opened the car door to go inside and break the news to his glum supporters. He wasn’t just going to accept defeat, though, he was going to learn from it. As he snuffed out his cigar and stepped into the evening, he turned back: “Well, boys,” he vowed, “no other son-of-a-bitch will ever out-nigger me again.”
Four years later, Wallace ran as a racial reactionary, openly courting the support of the Klan and fiercely committing himself to the defense of segregation. It was as an arch-segregationist that Wallace won the right to stand for inauguration in January 1963, allowing him to proclaim segregation today, tomorrow, and forever. Summarizing his first two campaigns for governor of Alabama, Wallace would later recall, “you know, I started off talking about schools and highways and prisons and taxes—and I couldn’t make them listen. Then I began talking about niggers—and they stomped the floor.”
Wallace was far from the only Southern politician to veer to the right on race in the 1950s. The mounting pressure for black equality destabilized a quiescent political culture that had assumed white supremacy was unassailable, putting pressure on all public persons to stake out their position for or against integration. Wallace figures here for a different reason, one that becomes clear in how he upheld his promise to protect segregation.
During his campaign, Wallace had vowed to stand in schoolhouse doorways to personally bar the entrance of black students into white institutions.
In June 1963, he got his chance. The federal courts had ordered the integration of the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, and US Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach flew down from Washington, DC, to enforce the order. More than 200 national reporters and all three of the major broadcast networks were on hand for the promised confrontation. From behind a podium, Wallace stood in the June heat and raised his hand to peremptorily bar the approach of Katzenbach. Then he read a seven-minute peroration that avoided the red-meat language of racial supremacy and instead emphasized “the illegal usurpation of power by the Central Government.” In footage carried on all three networks, the nation watched as Wallace hectored Katzenbach, culminating with Wallace declaiming, “I do hereby denounce and forbid this illegal and unwarranted action by the Central Government.”8 It was pure theater, even down to white lines chalked on the ground to show where the respective thespians should stand (Katzenbach approached more closely than expected, but ultimately that only heightened the drama). Wallace knew from the start that he would back down, and after delivering his stem-winder, that is what he did. Within two hours, as expected, the University of Alabama’s first two black students were on campus.
Over the next week, the nation reacted. More than 100,000 telegrams and letters flooded the office of the Alabama governor. More than half of them were from outside of the South. Did they condemn him? Five out of every 100 did. The other 95 percent praised his brave stand in the schoolhouse doorway.
The nation’s reaction was an epiphany for Wallace, or perhaps better, three thunderbolts that together convinced Wallace to reinvent himself yet again. First, Wallace realized with a shock that hostility toward blacks was not confined to the South. “He had looked out upon those white Americans north of Alabama and suddenly been awakened by a blinding vision: ‘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 United States is Southern.’” Wallace suddenly knew that overtures to racial resentment would resonate across the country.
His second startling realization was that he, George Wallace, had figured out how to exploit that pervasive animosity. The key lay in seemingly non-racial language. At his inauguration, Wallace had defended segregation and extolled the proud Anglo-Saxon Southland, thereby earning national ridicule as an unrepentant redneck. Six months later, talking not about stopping integration but about states’ rights and arrogant federal authority—and visually aided by footage showing him facing down a powerful Department of Justice official rather than vulnerable black students attired in their Sunday best—Wallace was a countrywide hero. “States’ rights” was a paper-thin abstraction from the days before the Civil War when it had meant the right of Southern states to continue slavery. Then, as a rejoinder to the demand for integration, it meant the right of Southern states to continue laws mandating racial segregation—a system of debasement so thorough that it “extended to churches and schools, to housing and jobs, to eating and drinking ... to virtually all forms of public transportation, to sports and recreations, to hospitals, orphanages, prisons, and asylums, and ultimately to funeral homes, morgues, and cemeteries.” That’s what “states’ rights” defended, though in the language of state-federal relations rather than white supremacy. Yet this was enough of a fig leaf to allow persons queasy about black equality to oppose integration without having to admit, to others and perhaps even to themselves, their racial attitudes.
“Wallace pioneered a kind of soft porn racism in which fear and hate could be mobilized without mentioning race itself except to deny that one is a racist,” a Wallace biographer argues. The notion of “soft porn racism” ties directly to the thesis of "Dog Whistle Politics." Wallace realized the need to simultaneously move away from supremacist language that was increasingly unacceptable, while articulating a new vocabulary that channeled old, bigoted ideas. He needed a new form of racism that stimulated the intended audience without overtly transgressing prescribed social limits. The congratulatory telegrams from across the nation revealed to Wallace that he had found the magic formula. Hardcore racism showed white supremacy in disquieting detail. In contrast, the new soft porn racism hid any direct references to race, even as it continued to trade on racial stimulation. As a contemporary of Wallace marveled, “he can use all the other issues—law and order, running your own schools, protecting property rights—and never mention race. But people will know he’s telling them ‘a nigger’s trying to get your job, trying to move into your neighborhood.’ What Wallace is doing is talking to them in a kind of shorthand, a kind of code.”
Finally, a third bolt of lightening struck Wallace: he could be the one! The governor’s mansion in Montgomery need not represent his final destination. He could ride the train of revamped race-baiting all the way to the White House. Wallace ran for president as a third-party candidate in 1964, and then again in 1968, 1972, and 1976. It’s his 1968 campaign that most concerns us, for there Wallace ran against a consummate politician who was quick to appreciate, and adopt, Wallace’s refashioned racial demagoguery: Richard Nixon. We’ll turn to the Wallace-Nixon race soon, but first, another set of weathered bones must be excavated—the remains of Barry Goldwater.
The Rise of Racially Identified Parties
The Republican Party today, in its voters and in its elected officials, is almost all white. But it wasn’t always like that. Indeed, in the decades immediately before 1964, neither party was racially identified in the eyes of the American public. Even as the Democratic Party on the national level increasingly embraced civil rights, partly as a way to capture the growing political power of blacks who had migrated to Northern cities, Southern Democrats—like George Wallace— remained staunch defenders of Jim Crow. Meanwhile, among Republicans, the racial antipathies of the rightwing found little favor among many party leaders. To take an important example, Brown and its desegregation imperative were backed by Republicans: Chief Justice Earl Warren, who wrote the opinion, was a Republican, and the first troops ordered into the South in 1957 to protect black students attempting to integrate a white school were sent there by the Republican administration of Dwight Eisenhower and his vice president, Richard Nixon. Reflecting the roughly equal commitment of both parties to racial progress, even as late as 1962, the public perceived Republicans and Democrats to be similarly committed to racial justice. In that year, when asked which party “is more likely to see that Negroes get fair treatment in jobs and housing,” 22.7 percent of the public said Democrats and 21.3 percent said Republicans, while over half could perceive no difference between the two.
The 1964 presidential election marked the beginning of the realignment we live with today. Where in 1962 both parties were perceived as equally, if tepidly, supportive of civil rights, two years later 60 percent of the public identified Democrats as more likely to pursue fair treatment, versus only 7 percent who so identified the Republican Party. What happened?
Groundwork for the shift was laid in the run-up to the 1964 election by rightwing elements in the Republican Party, which gained momentum from the loss of the then-moderate Nixon to John F. Kennedy in 1960. This faction of the party had never stopped warring against the New Deal. Its standard bearer was Barry Goldwater, a senator from Arizona and heir to a department store fortune. His pampered upbringing and wealth notwithstanding, Goldwater affected a cowboy’s rough-and-tumble persona in his dress and speech, casting himself as a walking embodiment of the Marlboro Man’s disdain for the nanny state. Goldwater and the reactionary stalwarts who rallied to him saw the Democratic Party as a mortal threat to the nation: domestically, because of the corrupting influence of a powerful central government deeply involved in regulating the marketplace and using taxes to reallocate wealth downward, and abroad in its willingness to compromise with communist countries instead of going to war against them. Goldwater himself, though, was no racial throwback. For instance, in 1957 and again in 1960 he voted in favor of federal civil rights legislation. By 1961, however, Goldwater and his partisans had become convinced that the key to electoral success lay in gaining ground in the South, and that in turn required appealing to racist sentiments in white voters, even at the cost of black support. As Goldwater drawled, “We’re not going to get the Negro vote as a bloc in 1964 and 1968, so we ought to go hunting where the ducks are.”
This racial plan riled more moderate members of the Republican establishment, such as New York senator Jacob Javits, who in the fall of 1963 may have been the first to refer to a “Southern Strategy” in the context of repudiating it. By then, however, the right wing of the party had won out. As the conservative journalist Robert Novak reported after attending a meeting of the Republican National Committee in Denver during the summer of 1963: “A good many, perhaps a majority of the party’s leadership, envision substantial political gold to be mined in the racial crisis by becoming in fact, though not in name, the White Man’s Party. ‘Remember,’ one astute party worker said quietly . . . ‘this isn’t South Africa. The white man outnumbers the Negro 9 to 1 in this country.’ ” The rise of a racially-identified GOP is not a tale of latent bigotry in that party. It is instead a story centered on the strategic decision to use racism to become “the White Man’s Party.”
That same summer of 1963, as key Republican leaders strategized on how to shift their party to the far right racially, the Democrats began to lean in the other direction. Northern constituents were increasingly appalled by the violence, shown almost nightly on broadcast television, of Southern efforts to beat down civil rights protesters. Reacting to the growing clamor that something be done, President Kennedy introduced a sweeping civil rights bill that stirred the hopes of millions that segregation would soon be illegal in employment and at business places open to the public. Despite these hopes, however, prospects for the bill’s passage seemed dim, as the Southern Democrats were loath to support civil rights and retained sufficient power to bottle up the bill. Then on November 22, 1963, Kennedy was assassinated. His vice president, Lyndon Johnson, assumed the presidency vowing to make good on Kennedy’s priorities, chief among them civil rights. Only five days after Kennedy’s death, Johnson in his first address to Congress implored the assembly that “no memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy’s memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill for which he fought so long.” Even under these conditions, it took Johnson’s determined stewardship to overcome three months of dogged legislative stalling before Kennedy’s civil rights bill finally passed the next summer. Known popularly as the 1964 Civil Rights Act, it still stands as the greatest civil rights achievement of the era.
Indicating the persistence of the old, internally divided racial politics of both parties, the act passed with broad bipartisan support and against broad bipartisan opposition—the cleavage was regional, rather than in terms of party affiliation. Roughly 90 percent of non-Southern senators supported the bill, while 95 percent of Southern senators opposed it. Yet, heralding the incipient emergence of the new politics of party alignment along racial lines, Barry Goldwater also voted against the civil rights bill. He was one of only five senators from outside the South to do so. Goldwater claimed he saw a looming Orwellian state moving to coerce private citizens to spy on each other for telltale signs of racism. “To give genuine effect to the prohibitions of this bill,” Goldwater contended from the Senate floor, “bids fair to result in the development of an ‘informer’ psychology in great areas of our national life—neighbor spying on neighbor, workers spying on workers, businessmen spying on businessmen.” This all seemed a little hysterical. More calculatingly, it could not have escaped Goldwater’s attention that voting against a civil rights law associated with blacks, Kennedy, and Johnson would help him “go hunting where the ducks are.”
Running for president in 1964, the Arizonan strode across the South, hawking small-government bromides and racially coded appeals. In terms of the latter, he sold his vote against the 1964 Civil Rights Act as a bold stand in favor of “states’ rights” and “freedom of association.” States’ rights, Goldwater insisted, preserved state autonomy against intrusive meddling from a distant power—though obviously the burning issue of the day was the federal government’s efforts to limit state involvement in racial degradation and group oppression. Freedom of association, Goldwater explained, meant the right of individuals to be free from government coercion in choosing whom to let onto their property—but in the South this meant first and foremost the right of business owners to exclude blacks from hotels, restaurants, movie theaters, and retail establishments. Like Wallace, Goldwater had learned how to talk about blacks without ever mentioning race.
No less than Wallace, Goldwater also demonstrated a flair for political stagecraft. A reporter following Goldwater’s campaign through the South captured some of the spectacle: “to show the country the ‘lily-white’ character of Republicanism in Dixie,” party flaks filled the floor of the football stadium in Montgomery, Alabama, with “a great field of white lilies—living lilies, in perfect bloom, gorgeously arrayed.” To this tableau, the campaign added “seven hundred Alabama girls in long white gowns, all of a whiteness as impossible as the greenness of the field.” Onto this scene emerged Goldwater, first moving this way and then that way through “fifty or so yards of choice Southern womanhood,” before taking the stand to give his speech defending states’ rights and freedom of association. If these coded terms were too subtle for some, no one could fail to grasp the symbolism of the white lilies and the white-gowned women. Much of the emotional resistance to racial equality centered around the fear that black men would become intimate with white women. This scene represented “what the rest of his Southern troops—the thousands in the packed stands, the tens of thousands in Memphis and New Orleans and Atlanta and Shreveport and Greenville—passionately believed they were defending.” Goldwater made sure white Southerners understood he was fighting to protect them and their women against blacks.
How would Goldwater fare in the South? Beyond his racial pandering, that depended on how his anti-New Deal message was received. The Great Depression had devastated the region, which lagged behind the North in industry. Federal assistance to the poor as well as major infrastructure projects, such as the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) that brought electricity for the first time to millions, made Southerners among the New Deal’s staunchest supporters. Yet despite the New Deal’s popularity in the South, Goldwater campaigned against it. While he was willing to pander racially, Goldwater also prided himself on telling audiences what he thought they needed to hear, at least as far as the bracing virtues of rugged individualism were concerned. Thus he made clear, for instance, that he favored selling off the TVA, and also attacked other popular programs. As recounted by Rick Perlstein, a Goldwater political biographer, at one rally in West Virginia, Goldwater “called the War on Poverty ‘plainly and simply a war on your pocketbooks,’ a fraud because only ‘the vast resources of private business’ could produce the wealth to truly slay penury.” Perlstein singled out the tin-eared cruelty of this message: “In the land of the tar-paper shack, the gap-toothed smile, and the open sewer—where the ‘vast resources of private business’ were represented in the person of the coal barons who gave men black lung, then sent them off to die without pensions—the message just sounded perverse. As he left, lines of workmen jeered him.”
Another factor also worked against Goldwater: he was a Republican, and the South reviled the Party of Lincoln. If across the nation neither party was seen as more or less friendly toward civil rights, the South had its own views on the question. There, it was the local Democratic machine that represented white interests, while the GOP was seen as the proximate cause of the Civil War and as the party of the carpetbaggers who had peremptorily ruled the South during Reconstruction. The hostility of generations of white Southerners toward Republicans only intensified with the Republican Eisenhower’s decision to send in federal troops to enforce the Republican Warren’s ruling forbidding school segregation in Brown. Most white Southerners had never voted Republican in their lives, and had vowed—like their parents and grandparents before them— that they never would.
Ultimately, however, these handicaps barely impeded Goldwater’s performance in the South. He convinced many Southern voters to vote Republican for the first time ever, and in the Deep South, comprised of those five states with the highest black populations, Goldwater won outright. The anti-New Deal Republican carried Louisiana, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and South Carolina, states in which whites had never voted for a Republican president in more than miniscule numbers. This was a shocking transformation, one that can only be explained by Goldwater’s ability to transmit a set of codes that white voters readily understood as a promise to protect racial segregation. It seemed that voters simply ignored Goldwater’s philosophy of governance as well as his party affiliation and instead rewarded his hostility toward civil rights. In this sense, Goldwater’s conservatism operated in the South less like a genuine political ideology and more like Wallace’s soft porn racism: as a set of codes that voters readily understood as defending white supremacy. Goldwater didn’t win the South as a small-government libertarian, but rather as a racist.
If in the South race trumped anti-government politics, in the North Goldwater’s anti-civil rights attacks found much less traction. Opposing civil rights smacked too much of Southern intransigence, and while there was resistance to racial reform in the North, it had not yet become an overriding issue for many whites. That left Goldwater running on promises to end the New Deal, and this proved wildly unpopular. To campaign against liberalism in 1964 was to campaign against an activist government that had lifted the country out of the throes of a horrendous depression still squarely in the rear view mirror, and that had then launched millions into the middle class. More than that, though, to campaign against liberalism in 1964 was to attack government programs still largely aimed at whites—and that sort of welfare was broadly understood as legitimate and warranted
Goldwater’s anti-welfare tirades produced a landslide victory, but for Lyndon Johnson. Voters crushed Goldwater’s last-gasp attack on the New Deal state. Outside of the South, he lost by overwhelming numbers in every state except his Arizona home. Voters were offended by his over-the-top attacks on popular New Deal programs as well as by his penchant for saber rattling when it came to foreign policy. Goldwater especially suffered after the release of “Daisy,” a Johnson campaign ad that juxtaposed a little girl picking the petals off a flower with footage of a spiraling mushroom cloud, sending the message that Goldwater’s militarism threatened nuclear Armageddon. In the end, the Democrats succeeded in making Goldwater look like a loon. “To the Goldwater slogan ‘In Your Heart, You Know He’s Right,’ the Democrats shot back, ‘In Your Guts, You Know He’s Nuts.’ ” The country as a whole, it seemed, had solidly allied itself with progressive governance, and big-money/small-government conservatism was finally, utterly dead.
Or at least, this was the lesson most people took from the 1964 election. But like the clang of a distant alarm barely perceptible against the buzzing din of consensus, a warning was rising from the South: racial entreaties had convinced even the staunchest Democrats to abandon New Deal liberalism. If race-baiting had won over Southern whites to anti-government politics, could the same work across the country?
Notwithstanding the emerging racial strategy initiated by Goldwater, when Richard Nixon secured the Republican nomination in 1968, the new racial politics of his party had not yet gelled, either within the party generally, or in Nixon himself. Indeed, the moderate Nixon’s emergence as the party’s presidential candidate reflected the extent to which the Goldwater faction had lost credibility in the wake of their champion’s disastrous drubbing. Nevertheless, the dynamics of the presidential race would quickly push Nixon toward race-baiting. Nixon’s principal opponent in 1968 was Johnson’s vice president, Hubert Humphrey. But running as an independent candidate, George Wallace was flanking Nixon on the right. By October 1, just a month before the election, Wallace was polling more support in the South than either Humphrey or Nixon. Nor was his support limited to that region. Wallace was siphoning crucial votes across the country, and staging massive rallies in ostensibly liberal strongholds, for instance drawing 20,000 partisans to Madison Square Garden in New York, and 70,000 faithful to the Boston Common—more than any rally ever held by the Kennedys, Wallace liked to crow. Republican operatives guessed that perhaps 80 percent of the Wallace voters in the South would otherwise support Nixon, and a near-majority in the North as well.
Late in the campaign, Nixon opted to publicly tack right on race. He had already reached a backroom deal with South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond— an arch-segregationist who had led the revolt against the Democratic Party in 1948 when it endorsed a modest civil rights plank, and who switched to become a Republican in 1964 to throw his weight behind Goldwater. Nixon bought Thurmond’s support during the primary season by secretly promising that he would restrict federal enforcement of school desegregation in the South. Now he would make this same promise to the nation. On October 7, Nixon came out against “forced busing,” an increasingly potent euphemism for the system of transporting students across the boundaries of segregated neighborhoods in order to integrate schools. Mary Frances Berry pierces the pretense that the issue was putting one’s child on a bus: “African-American attempts to desegregate schools were confronted by white flight and complaints that the problem was not desegregation, but busing, oftentimes by people who sent their children to school every day on buses, including mediocre white private academies established to avoid integration.” “Busing” offered a Northern analog to states’ rights. The language may have referred to transportation, but the emotional wallop came from defiance toward integration.
Nixon also began to hammer away at the issue of law and order. In doing so, he drew upon a rhetorical frame rooted in Southern resistance to civil rights. From the inception of the civil rights movement in the 1950s, Southern politicians had disparaged racial activists as “lawbreakers,” as indeed technically they were. In the Jim Crow regions, African Americans had long pressed basic equality demands precisely by breaking laws mandating segregation: sit-ins and freedom rides purposefully violated Jim Crow statutes in order to challenge white supremacist social norms. Dismissing these protesters as criminals shifted the issue from a defense of white supremacy to a more neutral-seeming concern with “order,” while simultaneously stripping the activists of moral stature. Demonstrators were no longer Americans willing to risk beatings and even death for a grand ideal, but rather criminal lowlifes disposed toward antisocial behavior. Ultimately, the language of law and order justified a more “quiet” form of violence in defense of the racial status quo, replacing lynchings with mass arrests for trespassing and delinquency.
By the mid-1960s, “law and order” had become a surrogate expression for concern about the civil rights movement. Illustrating this rhetoric’s increasingly national reach, in 1965 FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover denounced the advocacy of nonviolent civil disobedience by civil rights leaders as a catalyst for lawbreaking and even violent rioting: “‘Civil disobedience,’ a seditious slogan of gross irresponsibility, has captured the imagination of citizens. ... I am greatly concerned that certain racial leaders are doing the civil rights movement a great disservice by suggesting that citizens need only obey the laws with which they agree. Such an attitude breeds disrespect for the law and even civil disorder and rioting.” This sense of growing disorder was accentuated by urban riots often involving protracted battles between the police and minority communities. In addition, large and increasingly angry protests against the Vietnam War also added to the fear of metastasizing social strife. Exploiting the growing panic that equated social protest with social chaos, one of Nixon’s campaign commercials showed flashing images of demonstrations, riots, police, and violence, over which a deep voice intoned: “Let us recognize that the first right of every American is to be free from domestic violence. So I pledge to you, we shall have order in the United States.” A caption stated boldly: “This time. . . . vote like your whole world depended on it ... NIXON.”
Nixon had mastered Wallace’s dark art. Forced bussing, law and order, and security from unrest as the essential civil right of the majority—all of these were coded phrases that allowed Nixon to appeal to racial fears without overtly mentioning race at all. Yet race remained the indisputable, intentional subtext of the appeal. As Nixon exulted after watching one of his own commercials: “Yep, this hits it right on the nose . . . it’s all about law and order and the damn Negro-Puerto Rican groups out there.”
Nixon didn’t campaign exclusively on racial themes; notably, he also stressed his opposition to anti-war protesters, while simultaneously portraying himself as the candidate most likely to bring the war to an end. Nevertheless, racial appeals formed an essential element of Nixon’s ’68 campaign. Nixon’s special counsel, John Ehrlichman, bluntly summarized that year’s campaign strategy: “We’ll go after the racists.” According to Ehrlichman, the “subliminal appeal to the anti-black voter was always present in Nixon’s statements and speeches.”
Nixon’s Southern Strategy
Nixon barely won in 1968, edging Humphrey by less than one percent of the national vote. Wallace, meanwhile, had captured nearly 14 percent of the vote. Had Nixon’s coded race-baiting helped? Initially there was uncertainty, and in his first two years in office Nixon governed as if he still believed the federal government had some role to play in helping out nonwhites. For instance, Nixon came into office proposing the idea of a flat wealth transfer to the poor, which would have gone a long way toward breaking down racial inequalities. But over the course of those two years, a new understanding consolidated regarding the tidal shift that had occurred.
On the Democratic side, in 1970 two pollsters, Richard Scammon and Ben Wattenberg, published The Real Majority, cautioning their party that “Social Issues” now divided the base. “The machinist’s wife in Dayton may decide to leave the Democratic reservation in 1972 and vote for Nixon or Wallace or their ideological descendants,” Scammon and Wattenberg warned. “If she thinks the Democrats feel that she isn’t scared of crime but that she’s really a bigot, if she thinks that Democrats feel the police are Fascist pigs and the Black Panthers and the Weathermen are just poor, misunderstood, picked-upon kids, if she thinks that Democrats are for the hip drug culture and that she, the machinist’s wife, is not only a bigot, but a square, then good-bye lady—and good-bye Democrats.” How, then, could the party get ahead of these issues? Scammon and Wattenberg were frank: “The Democrats in the South were hurt by being perceived (correctly) as a pro-black national party.” The solution was clear: the Democratic Party had to temper its “pro-black stance.”
On the Republican side, a leading Nixon strategist had come to the same conclusion about race as a potential wedge issue—though, predictably, with a different prescription. In 1969, Kevin Phillips published The Emerging Republican Majority, arguing that because of racial resentments a historical realignment was underway that would cement a new Republican majority that would endure for decades. A young prodigy obsessed with politics, Phillips had worked out the details of his argument in the mid-1960s, and then had gone to work helping to elect Nixon. When the 1968 returns seemed to confirm his thesis, he published his research—nearly 500 pages, with 47 maps and 143 charts. Beneath the details, Phillips had a simple, even deterministic thesis: “Historically, our party system has reflected layer upon layer of group oppositions.” Politics, according to Phillips, turned principally on group animosity—“the prevailing cleavages in American voting behavior have been ethnic and cultural. Politically, at least, the United States has not been a very effective melting pot.”
As to what was driving the latest realignment, Phillips was blunt: “The Negro problem, having become a national rather than a local one, is the principal cause of the breakup of the New Deal coalition.” For Phillips, it was almost inevitable that most whites would abandon the Democratic Party once it became identified with blacks. “Ethnic and cultural division has so often shaped American politics that, given the immense midcentury impact of Negro enfranchisement and integration, reaction to this change almost inevitably had to result in political realignment.” Phillips saw his emerging Republican majority this way: “the nature of the majority—or potential majority—seems clear. It is largely white and middle class. It is concentrated in the South, the West, and suburbia.”
The number crunchers had spoken. The Southern strategy, incipient for a decade, had matured into a clear route to electoral dominance. The old Democratic alliance of Northeastern liberals, the white working class, Northern blacks, and Southern Democrats, could be riven by racial appeals. Beginning in 1970, Richard Nixon embraced the politics of racial division wholeheartedly. He abandoned the idea of a flat wealth transfer to the poor. Now, Nixon repeatedly emphasized law and order issues. He railed against forced busing in the North. He reversed the federal government’s position on Southern school integration, slowing the process down and making clear that the courts would have no help from his administration. But perhaps nothing symbolized the new Nixon more than his comments in December 1970. Reflecting his initially moderate position on domestic issues, early in his administration Nixon had appointed George Romney—a liberal Republican and, incidentally, Mitt Romney’s father—as his secretary of housing and urban development. In turn, Romney had made integration of the suburbs his special mission, even coming up with a plan to cut off federal funds to communities that refused to allow integrated housing. By late 1970, however, when these jurisdictions howled at the temerity, Nixon took their side, throwing his cabinet officer under the bus. In a public address, Nixon baldly stated: “I can assure you that it is not the policy of this government to use the power of the federal government . . . for forced integration of the suburbs. I believe that forced integration of the suburbs is not in the national interest.”41 That dog whistle blasted like the shriek of an onrushing train.
In 1963, Robert Novak had written that many Republican leaders were intent on converting the Party of Lincoln into the White Man’s Party. The following year, Goldwater went down in crushing defeat, winning only 36 percent of the white vote. Even so, less than a decade later, the racial transmogrification of the Republicans was well underway. In 1972, Nixon’s first full dog whistle campaign netted him 67 percent of the white vote, leaving his opponent, George McGovern, with support from less than one in three whites. Defeated by the Southern strategy, McGovern neatly summed it up: “What is the Southern Strategy? It is this. It says to the South: Let the poor stay poor, let your economy trail the nation, forget about decent homes and medical care for all your people, choose officials who will oppose every effort to benefit the many at the expense of the few—and in return, we will try to overlook the rights of the black man, appoint a few southerners to high office, and lift your spirits by attacking the ‘eastern establishment’ whose bank accounts we are filling with your labor and your industry.”42 McGovern erred in supposing that the Southern strategy pertained only to the South. Nixon had already learned from Wallace, and then later from the number crunchers, that coded racial appeals would work nationwide. Other than that, especially in its class and race dimensions, McGovern had dog whistle politics dead to rights.
Excerpted from "Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class" by Ian Haney López. Copyright © 2014 by Ian Haney López. Reprinted by arrangement with Oxford University Press, a division of Oxford University. All rights reserved.