A lot of people know about the “Southern Strategy,” the multi-year plan of 20th century Republicans like Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon to get white voters in the South to stop voting for Democrats. But what isn’t widely known is that the GOP itself was changed by the electoral coalition that it attracted.
While lingering support for racial segregation played an important role in flipping the South toward the Republican Party, the voters who changed their partisanship and the ones who followed them have views that do not reduce to simple racism.
In her book “The Long Southern Strategy: How Chasing White Voters in the South Changed American Politics,” Angie Maxwell, a professor at the University of Arkansas, takes a deep look at how conservative politics was changed in both policy and style as Republicans reconfigured their entire concept of outreach around appealing to white fundamentalist Protestants.
In this episode of Theory of Change, Maxwell discusses how the loss of the Civil War and negative media coverage of the John Scopes evolution trial in Tennessee were some of the reasons that many white Southerners felt aggrieved from the rest of the country, and how this set the stage for a politics that pandered to this resentment. Some white Protestants went to Republicans because the party decided to rebuild itself into a party for fundamentalist Christians. Other party switchers went to the GOP because it stopped supporting the Equal Rights Amendment and other policies they believed to be violations of traditional roles for women.
As Maxwell notes, those choices by GOP elites and voters ultimately led to the rise of Donald Trump, an event which many political observers couldn’t anticipate. The idea that voters constantly concerned with cosmic and earthly battles with Satan would support a thrice-married serial adulterer who owned strip clubs and casinos didn’t make sense.
But, as Maxwell argues in the discussion, the white evangelical bargain with Republicans was never about shared ideals, so much as it was about politicians obeying and genuflecting to the ideas and the culture.
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