From Nixon to Walker: The death of the GOP’s racist ‘Southern Strategy’ has been greatly exaggerated
Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s drive for an anti-labor “right to work” law covering private-sector workers is deeply rooted in the racism of the Deep South’s former slaveholding states.
They are yet more evidence that he is following a template known as the Republican Party’s “Southern strategy,” which plays to white voters’ racial resentment, even though his budding presidential campaign is based in snow-encrusted Wisconsin.
This emerging strategy is reminiscent of Richard Nixon’s original “Southern strategy” of 1968 and Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign kickoff event. Reagan started his campaign by championing state’s rights in Neshoba County in Mississippi, a site whose only national symbolic significance was serving as the site of the 1964 murders of three civil rights workers.
Many progressive commentators have asserted that major demographic shifts among Latinos and the young have utterly closed off the road to the White House for any GOP candidate. But Thomas B. Edsall cautioned that a different scenario could emerge.
“If the Republicans can downplay overt racial animus at an overt level while subliminally signifying their lack of sympathy for people of color, they can potentially build a durable coalition of whites,” he wrote. “The trick for Republicans in their quest to maintain white majoritarian hegemony is to allow this fusion of issues [racial fears and resentment, economic instability, social conservatism] to do its mobilizing work at a subliminal level, without triggering widespread resistance to explicit manifestations of bias and race prejudice.”
Walker’s emerging presidential campaign appears to be following this scenario. It is remarkably close to the approach Walker has long used in racially polarized Milwaukee, where he began his political career, and can increasingly be seen in his record as governor.
Here are five examples of the way Walker plays the race card.
1. Riding an anti-union law rooted deeply in racism.
This week, Wisconsin’s GOP-controlled legislature took up so-called “right to work” legislation, which would ban unions from requiring all employees to pay dues. While Walker is promoting the “right to work” in the name of “free choice,” this anti-union movement has explicitly racist roots in the Deep South, where the purpose of the original right-to-work laws was precisely to deny free choice to workers who want unions to help them escape misery-level wages and tyrannical control.
“Right-to-work” laws have a clear purpose: to divide workers and undermine and destroy unions. Right to work incentivizes management to hire anti-union employees, and discourages union membership or even payment of fees for the services unions provide to workers. The outcome in a state like Mississippi is that only 3.7 percent of workers are union members.
The legacy of “right to work” laws reaches back to the 1930s, when white supremacists like oil lobbyist Vance Muse initially pioneered the concept to divide and eliminate unions. Muse formed the Christian American Alliance to spread the combined gospel of racism and anti-unionism, pushing the “right-to-work” notion and developing alliances with like-minded groups including the Ku Klux Klan. Muse concluded that the only solution for maintaining segregation was to make union membership or any payment of union dues or fees voluntary. Without such laws, whites would be “forced” to mingle with blacks, although there had been many interracial unions over previous decades.
Crude as it was, Muse’s segregationist argument intersected perfectly with the mentality of corporate managers committed to holding down wages. They recognized that Muse’s “right-to-work” concept would serve to break up unified worker efforts to claim the rights granted under the 1935 National Labor Relations Act. Some major corporations directly fused the segregationist and anti-union appeals. As late as 1944, wrote Diane McWhorter in her book Carry Me Home, “U.S. Steel set up a League to Maintain White Supremacy to spread ‘the white supremacy gospel of Simpson [Jim Simpson, an anti-New Deal politician in Alabama] among the grassroots (that is, its workforce)… to baldly promote racial strife.”
But over time, employers increasing dropped their overtly racist pitch and sold “right-to-work” in terms of individual rights and the phantom threat of “compulsory unionism” (no one can be forced to join, but can be expected to pay fees for the costs of union representation). The laws spread slowly from the Deep South over the past eight decades to encompass 24 states, with Wisconsin likely becoming the symbolically important 25th state. This milestone will be seen as a major accomplishment in the eyes of the Republican conservatives Walker is cultivating. It also adds to Walker’s credentials at this past weekend’s Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington.
2. “Right-to-work” also fits neatly with Walker’s racialized politics.
If the Wisconsin “right-to-work” bill passes the Assembly (after clearing the Senate Wednesday on a 17-15 vote), the primary victims will be low-paid black and Latino workers who have been unable to raise their low wages in fast-food and big-box stores like Walmart despite visible protests. These minority workers have shown a decisive interest in unionizing and have been long targeted by right-wingers.
Conservatives, including the Milwaukee-based Bradley Foundation—America’s largest right-wing foundation—have spent decades demonizing unions, public employees and government programs as unnecessary, and social welfare recipients as undeserving opportunists. Their rhetoric raises the specter of an ever-growing class of welfare dependents, who are often hinted to be mainly dark-skinned and draining the tax dollars of hard-working Americans.
Walker used this same line of attack and rhetoric as he has moved to eliminate almost all union bargaining rights through the passage of Act 10 in 2011 and now to weaken union membership further through “right-to-work” legislation. While Wisconsin was still reeling from the economic insecurity generated by the Great Recession during Walker’s tenure as governor, he has blamed supposedly over-paid public employees for the economic anxieties experienced by other Wisconsinites.
The Bradley Foundation has over $800 million in assets and is guided by racial attitudes similar to those of the John Birch Society members who started the foundation. It has funded “academic” research by figures like Charles Murray, who contended poverty was intractable because of welfare programs—with minorities widely perceived as the recipients—and the supposed dependence and moral flaws that were encouraged. Most notoriously, Bradley also spent about $1 million publishing and promoting the 1994 book The Bell Curve by Murray and John Hernnstein, which argued for the inherent intellectual inferiority of African Americans and Latinos. The book garnered a surprising amount of respectable media responses, despite its weak “scientific” basis and white supremacist implications.
Walker’s political activities have been closely interwoven with the foundation. Its president Michael Grebe, the former state GOP party chair, has served as his campaign chair. Its sizeable public-relations resources have also helped give Walker national attention, and Bradley-funded think tanks and advocacy groups actively push Walker’s agenda—and vice-versa. Undoubtedly, the foundation’s contacts have opened doors to conservative donors. But on policy, Walker’s tight relationship with the foundation has aligned him with powerful forces that continually seek to prove that government programs aiding the poor are hopeless.
3. Making black/brown majority Milwaukee his foil.
This disregard for the poor can be seen throughout Walker’s career, as state legislator, Milwaukee County executive and governor. Starting in Milwaukee, Walker consistently neglected the plight of the poor. While the city has a population that is about 40 percent black and 17 percent Latino, Walker has relentlessly fought to downsize public institutions poor residents depend on.
“As Milwaukee County executive for eight years, he presided over the decline of once-exemplary transit and park systems,” observed John Gurda, the author of numerous works on Milwaukee history. “As Wisconsin’s governor since 2010, Walker worked with the Republican Legislature to make the deepest cuts to public education in state history—cuts that Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s largest and poorest public school system, felt disproportionately.” Walker’s latest state budget proposals reflect the same mindset.
Many observers argue his policies have only exacerbated the city’s social misery and decline. He has portrayed Milwaukee’s poverty as the result of failed public safety-net institutions, rather than its abandonment by corporations that closed shop seeking higher profits in southern states or exporting jobs to lower-wage Mexico and China. During his gubernatorial recall election in 2012, he said, “We don’t want Wisconsin to become like Milwaukee.”
In reality, Milwaukee has experienced a rapid decline from a relatively prosperous middle-class city into the nation’s fourth poorest because of drastic deindustrialization and many corporations moving out-of-state or overseas. Milwaukee has lost over 80 percent of its industrial base since 1977. The destruction of family-sustaining job opportunities has driven down wages and created widespread unemployment that has devastated African-American workers.
Milwaukee was once dubbed the “Star of the Snowbelt” by the Wall Street Journal because of its initial success in retaining jobs and was long known as the “machine tool capital of the world” because of its uniquely skilled workforce. But it has been on a decades-long slide as wages have been dragged down by right-to-work states, as well as by Mexico and China. “In 1970, median African-American family income was 19 percent above the national black average; 30 years later, it was 23 percent lower,” Richard Longworth noted in Caught in the Middle.
It is telling that Walker’s lone initiative for injecting money into Milwaukee is a measure pushed by the city’s business elite: providing $220 million in state bonds for a new arena for the Bucks NBA basketball team, owned by three billionaires.
4. Replacing the poll tax with voter ID and redistricting.
Walker and his allies have strenuously worked to police and restrict voting, with measures that will make it much more difficult for African Americans and Latinos to vote and via partisan redistricting, which redraws district lines to intentionally dilute Democratic strongholds.
Walker’s bill restricting voter rights came almost immediately after the Occupy-style labor revolt against his push to crush public-sector unions. Frances Fox Piven, author of many books on voting rights and social movements, told me, “We saw labor protests of unprecedented size and intensity over limiting their voice as workers. And then [protesters] were greeted with a law to limit their power electorally, too.”
Walker sees his electoral chicanery as one of his significant accomplishments. At this winter’s Iowa Freedom Summit for prospective 2016 presidential candidates, Walker boasted to right-wingers that he had signed voter ID law in 2011—although it has been used just for one small-scale election and now hangs in legal limbo. The state’s Common Cause chapter called it “the most restrictive, blatantly partisan and ill-conceived voter identification legislation in the nation.”
The law would effectively disenfranchise large numbers of African American, Latino, poor elderly, and college students who lack the required state-issued voter IDs to get a ballot. One Wisconsin study showed that requiring a state-issued ID like a driver’s license would have a high impact on African Americans, Latinos and the elderly, saying, “Among black males between ages 18 and 24, 78 percent lacked a driver’s license.”
The law also requires longer residency requirements to be eligible to vote, and cuts back on early voting options in Milwaukee, which has been highly popular among black churches and organizations as a central means of encouraging voter turnout.
Walker’s Republican allies also diluted the voice of poor and working-class voters, especially minorities in the state’s industrial cities through a secretively crafted redistricting plan that put Democratic-leaning voters into smaller number of districts. In 2012, the Democrats won 174,000 more votes than the Republicans in Wisconsin legislative races, yet the electorate wound up with an overwhelming 60-39 Republican majority in the Assembly. The Republicans won 46 percent of the vote, but due to the newly drawn districts that translated into 61 percent of the seats.
5. Walker has a history of race-baiting.
In one revealing episode of the 2012 recall campaign, Walker put up a TV ad reminiscent of the Republican Party’s ugly race-baiting politics many believed had been consigned to the past. “Walker ran an ad charging [his opponent, Milwaukee Mayor Tom] Barrett with covering up violence in Milwaukee featuring an image of a brutalized toddler—a Willie Horton–style spot one rarely sees in other parts of the country anymore,” recalled historian John Gurda, referring to the TV spot George H.W. Bush’s 1988 presidential campaign used against Massachusetts’ Democratic Gov. and party nominee, Michael Dukakis.
Such race baiting is not new to Walker and his key supporters. Two influential right-wing radio talk-show hosts, Charlie Sykes and Mark Belling, have helped his climb in politics by putting him on the air often and applauding him. They are known for their frequent remarks about the purported moral deficiencies of blacks and Latinos, but have a vast following of suburban conservatives they can mobilize politically in a way no left-leaning media outlet has approached.
As former GOP legislator Scott Jensen remarked, “The listenership is just so much higher here [in the Milwaukee suburbs]. And the ability to get people to march in step when [the shows] are all hammering the same themes is extraordinary.”
Walker’s Extremist Right-Wing Base
Walker has also benefitted from relationships with other wealthy right-wingers, such as Wisconsin’s Diane Hendricks, Las Vegas gambling magnate Sheldon Adelson, and the Koch brothers. All have been central to Walker’s political success in Wisconsin and his emergence as a serious presidential contender for 2016 among Republican.
But Walker’s turn to “dog-whistle” politics, or the manipulation of whites’ racial resentments, is as noteworthy as it is notorious. It begins with an agenda that is hostile to government programs benefitting the poor and big government programs of any kind—except for those providing subsidies to corporations and the rich. However, there is a not-so-subtle subtext of pro-white racism.
There are many dots that connect this ugly picture: Walker’s war against labor and support for “right-to-work” laws despite their racist legacy and present-day impacts; his willingness to use Willie Horton-style ads which stoke white fears of blacks; his support for restricting the right of blacks and Latinos; his institutional ties to long-standing institution like the Bradley which are tacitly approving of white supremacy; his links to media personalities who thrive on feeding racism; and his policies punishing urban citizens, especially people of color.
Essentially, Walker embodies the lessons outlined by the late Lee Atwater, the ruthless Republican strategist. In a remarkably frank interview, Atwater once described the evolution of conservative politics and the “Southern strategy”: “You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968 you can’t say nigger—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites… .’We want to cut this,’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than ‘nigger, nigger.'”
Walker, in governing Wisconsin and running for president, is showing himself to be a consummate practitioner of the Southern strategy long advocated by Atwater and warned about by the liberal Thomas Edsall. The overt racism is scrapped on the surface, but the core of the ever-congenial Walker’s policies is profoundly hostile to people of color and to social justice.