More than half a century has passed since President Richard Nixon launched his infamous “southern strategy,” which found the Republican Party pursuing the votes of white racists who had angrily left the Democratic Party because of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And after all these years, history professor Leonard Steinhorn asserts in an October 30 op-ed for the Washington Post, the GOP is still grappling with its racism problem.
The GOP certainly didn’t start out as the party of racism. The first Republican president was Abraham Lincoln, who became an ally of the abolitionist movement. And when Republican Teddy Roosevelt was president in the 1900s, African-American neighborhoods in northern cities like New York, Philadelphia and Boston leaned GOP. However, the Democratic Party made a lot of inroads with black voters under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his New Deal in the 1930s.
In the 1960s, Steinhorn explains, Nixon saw a golden opportunity for his party: appealing to a sense of white grievance. The professor recalls, “Nixon inflamed the ‘silent majority’ and ‘forgotten Americans’ with coded language about race and ‘law and order’ that played to their sense of grievance and victimization.”
Many of Nixon’s positions — from favoring universal health care to the launch of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to expanding Medicare — would be deal breakers in the GOP of 2019. Author Noam Chomsky has described Nixon, with some irony, as the United States’ “last liberal president.” But while Nixon supported elements of the New Deal and President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society, he certainly wasn’t shy about using racism to bring white ex-Democrats into the GOP. And Republicans, Steinhorn notes, were reaching out to racists long before Donald Trump ran for president and won the 2016 Republican nomination.
President Ronald Reagan, Steinhorn points out, appealed to racists “with his appeals to ‘states’ rights’ and his condemnation of ‘welfare queens.’ The white populist politics that Trump demagogues are therefore nothing new; he’s simply more unvarnished and unfiltered in using them.”
Steinhorn recalls that back in October 1964, Life Magazine published an article by journalist Theodore White that reflected on the future of the Republican Party. White stressed that the GOP would have to “choose whether it abandons its tradition and becomes the white man’s party or refreshes its tradition by designing a program of social harmony” — and 55 years later, Steinhorn laments, “we know which path Republicans took.”
“One can trace a direct line from what he described in October 1964 to Trump’s 2016 electoral college victory and his ability to conjure up and exploit decades of racial resentment and brooding white anger,” Steinhorn concludes. “The question ahead is whether this next generation will continue to live with the sins of the past — or finally put to rest the politics of backlash. Younger Republicans, are you listening?”