The Long Southern Strategy: How Chasing White Voters in the South Changed American Politics, by Angie Maxwell and Todd Shields

Book of the week: Angelia Wilson applauds a bold new analysis of how the Republican Party’s determination to appeal to patriarchal, racist and religious voters reshaped politics in the US

October 31, 2019
Richard Nixon’s rhetorical dog-whistles lured whites in, and his close relationship with evangelist preacher Billy Graham      confirmed that he could ‘perform religion’ and endear himself to southern white voters
Source: Getty
Richard Nixon’s rhetorical dog-whistles lured whites in, and his close relationship with evangelist preacher Billy Graham confirmed that he could ‘perform religion’ and endear himself to southern white voters

In 1968, Barry Goldwater challenged incumbent president Lyndon Johnson on the grounds that the American people deserved a “choice not an echo” – a Republican candidate who diverged from the Democrats and resisted moves towards racial equality. His strategy, Operation Dixie, employed coded language to appeal to Dixiecrats, those southern whites hostile to the ending of the segregationist Jim Crow laws.

While Johnson won that particular battle, by 1972 political strategist Kevin Phillips convinced Richard Nixon that, because Republicans would never need more than 10 per cent of the black vote, his southern strategy should also evoke white fear and racism. Nixon won 70 per cent of the popular vote in the South and took 49 states.

In The Long Southern Strategy, Angie Maxwell and Todd Shields demonstrate that this strategy was not, as political scientists might be tempted to think, just about electoral politics. Instead, to fully understand the history (and contemporary implications) of the southern strategy, one must look at the interdependence of racism, religion and patriarchy.

While Nixon’s rhetorical dog-whistles lured whites in, his close relationship with evangelist preacher Billy Graham confirmed that he could “perform religion” and endear himself to southern white voters. In 1972, Nixon had the support of 86 per cent of white southern regular churchgoers, although many of them were registered Democrats. He won 76 per cent of southern Baptists and lower-income voters. The racism of Nixon’s southern strategy arrived on the political stage holding the hands of patriarchal, religious conservatives.

The art of the grand narrative is not dead. Maxwell and Shields encourage the reader to see the intricacies of these interwoven threads while avoiding unsubstantiated generalisations. Facts are the driver in this comprehensive analysis. For the authors, large survey data, such as the American National Electoral Survey, under-represent southern whites and therefore miss a key factor motivating voters: southern identity. Funded by the Diane D. Blair Center for Southern Politics and Society, they therefore conducted their own national surveys in 2010, 2012 and 2016 which focused on capturing the voices of those in the 11 states of the former Confederacy. Their results reveal the southernisation of the Republican Party and the use of skilful, fluid methods that inherently appeal to those three fundamentals of southern culture.

According to the 1949 memoir of the social activist Lillian Smith, Killers of the Dream, the southern white masses made a “grand bargain” in relinquishing political power to the few in exchange for maintaining their social status as “better than the black man”. Therefore, in a culture where equality means a loss of privilege, the election of Obama could only reasonably be interpreted as a threat. Maxwell and Shields trace, for example, the anxiety felt by southerners who believe themselves to be experiencing reverse racism and the current high levels of resentment towards African Americans. They warn against believing in the myth of a post-racial America: “to point to symbolic change while ignoring the facts of structural racism, or to resent efforts to address racial inequality, is not choosing to be colourblind. It is choosing to be blind.”

Controversially, the authors challenge the Second-Wave feminist concept of a “gender gap” which assumes women would vote Democrat and thus leave the Republican Party with a lack of female voters. Maxwell and Shields argue that this is a misconception on two counts: first, the gender gap was made not just by some women moving to the left but by many men moving to the right – attracted to the promises of Republican patriarchal male authority; second, and importantly, not all women are feminists. On the latter point, the book’s data speak volumes. White southern women voters are mobilised by their “privilege” as women protected by patriarchy. Moreover, they are just as racist as white southern men. The Republicans know this and offer southern women a political home where their traditions and families can be protected from the racial other. 

Patriarchy remains alive and well in the South. According to the data, southern white men are more sexist than non-southerners, and resentment towards, and distrust of, working women and feminists is high. This affinity for patriarchy and traditional gender roles is shared by southern white men and women. What feminists see as oppression, many southern white women see as privilege. For them, southern tradition is a cause worth fighting for and Christian faith is their best defence.

Why is it that, in the 21st century, racism and patriarchy are seen as acceptable in the most powerful country in the West? For Maxwell and Shields, the final piece of the trinity of racism and patriarchy is southern Christianity: “Southern religious identity is built on the foundation of whiteness and patriarchy both in content and in structure, which is polarizing, definitive, unflinching, partisan.” What was previously referred to as “social conservativism”, based on opposition to abortion and gay rights, has now morphed into a theologically inspired political ideology justifying economic libertarianism, anti-environmental dominionism and nationalistic protectionism.

Maxwell and Shields detail the connectedness of racism and religion. For many southern fundamentalist voters, it does not really matter if a presidential candidate is actually a Christian, as long as he is perceived to be “one of us”. For example, despite early cues from religious leaders that Mormonism was a cult, 51.5 per cent of southern fundamentalists believe Mitt Romney is a Christian, with 86.7 per cent of them voting for him. He was “our guy” even if we weren’t sure of his religion. This foreshadows why Trump is most definitely “our guy”. In 2010, by contrast, 38.5 per cent of southern fundamentalists believed Obama was a Muslim. Only 18 per cent correctly identified him as a Christian. In this case, the Christian was not “our guy”.

All three components of the long southern strategy – racial resentment, Christian fundamentalism and patriarchy – were necessary for Republicans to build a solid red base in the old Confederacy. Academics, journalists, politicians and voters need to know, and better understand, this history and its impact upon contemporary American politics.

For 50 years, Republicans have denied the existence of a southern strategy. But in 2005, Ken Mehlman, speaking at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, admitted that “some Republicans gave up on winning the African American vote, looking the other way or trying to benefit politically from racial polarization. I’m here today as the Republican chairman to tell you we were wrong.” At that moment, the GOP had the choice to offer amnesty to undocumented Latinos, apologise for the southern strategy and reach out to a growing racial demographic. Instead, Mehlman was cut loose and Republican strategists doubled down on white racism.

Nixon’s strategy won the first battle, but with the GOP’s long game, the election of Trump and the loyal support for him of southern fundamentalists, the polarisation of American politics appears permanent. The South, for Maxwell and Shields, may be winning the war.

Angelia R. Wilson is professor of politics at the University of Manchester.

The Long Southern Strategy: How Chasing White Voters in the South Changed American Politics
By Angie Maxwell and Todd Shields
Oxford University Press
560pp, £22.99
ISBN 9780190265960
Published 12 August 2019

The authors

Angie Maxwell, associate professor of political science at the University of Arkansas, was born in a small town in Louisiana. Crucial to her intellectual development, she believes, was a PhD in American studies at the University of Texas at Austin, where “some of the best interdisciplinary scholars in the country” made it clear to her that “no single discipline has a market on the truth. Every methodological approach has value and gives us pieces of the puzzle. Answers can be found in archival work, fieldwork and quantitative analysis, and the big picture comes into clearest focus when utilising all of the tools at our disposal.” 

Todd G. Shields, also associate professor of political science at the University of Arkansas, was born in Fort Monmouth, New Jersey and grew up largely in the north east and the upper Midwest. After studying for an undergraduate degree at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, he went on to the University of Kentucky, where a course on southern politics “changed how I viewed all of American history, the development of our political institutions, and the origins of most of the political problems we face today…Unfortunately, not nearly enough scholars have examined the politics of the South or the influence of the South on the rest of the country and the world.

“The realignment of the American South from solidly Democratic to Republican is the single greatest transformation in all of American political history,” adds Maxwell. Although the pair had begun the book before Trump was a candidate, their research had made them realise that “a Trump-like figure loomed on the horizon. Republican leaders decided to chase southern white voters as an Electoral College strategy, and over 40 years, they remade the party in the southern white image, nationalising and perpetuating its darkest elements.”

Matthew Reisz


Print headline: Appealing to the racist patriarchy

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.

Related articles


Featured jobs