Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Southern Strategy

If you are over the age of 50, you probably remember Gov. George Wallace of Alabama. Virulently opposed to the civil rights movement, he made his name during the early 1960’s by famously standing in front of the schoolhouse door to prevent integration, and in his inaugural address as governor in 1963, he proclaimed, “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.” He ran for president in 1968 riding the wave of white resentment against the progress of civil rights and got 13% of the vote, and again in 1972 until he was shot and paralyzed in an assassination attempt.

Mr. Wallace knew how to whip up a crowd, tempering his rhetoric slightly so that he didn’t come right out and use the n-word, but you knew who he was talking about when he railed against the welfare queens in their Cadillacs and strong young men who bought t-bone steaks with their food stamps. His slogan of “Stand Up For America” left little doubt who he was standing up against, and the Republican Party knew it too. When Richard Nixon ran on the Southern Strategy, he was ripping off George Wallace, and Ronald Reagan followed along, putting the nice Disney polish on the ugly old formula. The late Lee Atwater, the Republican strategist, laid it out:

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 forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me — because obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”

So when Newt Gingrich stands up in a debate in South Carolina and says that Barack Obama is the “food stamp president,” he’s following Mr. Atwater’s scenario to the letter.

There’s no doubt that what Mr. Gingrich is doing here; as I noted yesterday, this isn’t a dog whistle, it’s an air-raid siren.

Later in life, Gov. Wallace acknowledged he had been wrong and expressed regret for his ways, saying that he was mistaken, as did Mr. Atwater. Don’t expect any such epiphany from Newt Gingrich, especially if he keeps getting a standing ovation for the “food stamp president” line. He knows what sells.