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Nixon's Racial Legacy

Richard Nixon's "Southern strategy" has polarized racial politics.
Richard Nixon's "Southern strategy" has polarized racial politics.

Forty years ago today Richard Nixon addressed the nation to announce he was resigning the presidency, effective at noon the next day, August 9, 1974.

Nixon then flew to exile in California, leaving behind his legacy: The political realignment stemming from his “Southern strategy” — a not very subtle appeal to white racism — that continues to plague the nation.

The realignment did not begin with Nixon. In the 1930s, New Deal Democrats began to court the urban black vote, and after World War II the Truman Administration’s tentative forays on civil rights led to the Dixiecrat rebellion of 1948. In 1964, Barry Goldwater ran for president as an opponent of civil rights legislation endorsed by the incumbent, Lyndon Johnson.

Nor were Richard Nixon’s politics comparable to the tea party's right-wing extremism that dominates today’s Republican Party. Nixon was no ideologue; he advocated many policies that would be considered liberal by the Republican base. As president, he signed legislation raising the minimum wage, and he proposed a comprehensive reform of health care that would have provided insurance for most Americans.

Labeling Nixon liberal or conservative misses the essential Richard Nixon. He was a cynical, pragmatic politician whose amorality allowed him to do whatever necessary — in his estimation — to win. If courting the white vote by appealing to baser, racist instincts was the way to the White House, then Nixon would court the white vote. Nixon’s racial politics recognized the truth of Johnson’s assertion upon signing the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act: “We just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come.”

The new racial realignment had not gelled when Nixon received the 1968 Republican nomination. Nixon was perceived by many as a moderate antidote to Goldwater’s extremism which resulted in Republicans carrying only five deep South states and the candidate’s native Arizona.

The dynamics of the 1968 presidential race pushed Nixon to the right on race. Liberals may have viewed Nixon’s Democratic opponent, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, as tarnished by his association with Johnson and support of the Vietnam War, but none questioned Humphrey’s credentials as a liberal on race. Nixon was also opposed on his right flank by George Wallace, an avowed segregationist, who was outpolling both Nixon and Humphrey in the South and drawing huge crowds to rallies in the North.

Nixon campaign officials believed that upwards of 80 percent of Wallace voters in the South would vote for Nixon in a two-party contest; in the North, they thought, Wallace might siphon off enough Nixon votes to affect the outcome in close contests.

How to counter the Wallace threat? The answer was obvious to a politician as amoral as Nixon: Cater to the white racist vote. Early in the campaign Nixon promised South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond — the 1948 Dixiecrat candidate who became a Republican in 1964 to support Goldwater — that he would ease up on federal enforcement of school desegregation in the South. On October 7 — a month before election day — Nixon publicly came out against “forced busing,” a linguistically charged euphemism for overcoming housing segregation by transporting students across school district lines. Northerners outwardly protested a mode of “transportation,” but the real issue was opposition to integration.

A similar dynamic worked on the issue of law and order, originally framed as a demand for tougher enforcement of the criminal justice system and as an antidote to so-called “liberal” judges whose decisions aimed at protecting the rights of all citizens, whether law-abiding or not. In the hands of Nixon (and later Ronald Reagan as well), law and order became a way to oppose the civil rights movement without appearing to be an outright bigot. In the South, and later in the North, African Americans used the techniques of civil disobedience, often breaking unjust laws that enforced discrimination and segregation. White invocation of “law and order” when referencing sit-ins and freedom rides effectively shifted the issue away from segregation to a more benign concern with civic “order.”

The urban riots of the 1960s made law and order an even more potent issue. So did the ongoing anti-Vietnam War demonstrations. One of Nixon’s campaign commercials had Nixon’s voice-over against a background of demonstrations and riots: “I pledge to you, we shall have order in the United States.” Then a caption: “This time… vote like your whole world depended on it…. NIXON.”

Race-baiting worked. Nixon squeaked by in 1968, and later Republicans learned the lesson. In 1980, Reagan went to Neshoba County, Mississippi, where sixteen years earlier three civil rights workers had been murdered, and testified to his dedication to “states rights.” Racists got the message

The party of Lincoln became the party of white men — old white men, it seems. By 2012, Republicans lost not only the African American vote, but the vote as well of other minorities: Hispanics and Asian Americans.

In providing a political haven for white racists, Nixon guaranteed that race would continue to foul our political discourse. Instead of making clear that racism has no place in civil society, Nixon’s race-baiting appeal has given bigots legitimacy within the political system, forcing the Republican Party ever further to the right as it pursues new avenues of bigotry, such as the incomprehensible call to deport children.

Nixon was forced from office because of his abuse of power in the Watergate scandal. Unfortunately, his cynical abuse of racial politics continues to poison our democracy.

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