What was the Southern Strategy?

Richard Nixon used social unrest to appeal to voters.
Richard Nixon used social unrest to appeal to voters.
President Donald Trump says that he is "your president of law and order," a term once associated with the 37th president, Richard Nixon. At the same time, news articles mention another phrase associated with Nixon: the Southern Strategy.

    The terms are connected in history, both referring to Nixon's successful plan to win the presidency in 1968. Here is an overview, along with sources for further study:

Background: First, consider the political landscape of the 1960s. The Democrats had built a formidable coalition of voters, the result of decades of effort.
     In the 1930s and 1940s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Democratic Party "assembled a political coalition so vast and diffuse that it included the solid south voting bloc of white supremacists, but also included most African-American voters, who were attracted to the New Deal's economic program and who were beginning to be incorporated into some Northern political machines," according to in The Atlantic magazine.
    How good was the Democratic coalition? In 1964, Lyndon B. Johnson won reelection with one of the largest landslides in U.S. history. "Johnson defeated [Arizona Republican Sen. Barry] Goldwater handily, winning by more than 15 million votes and capturing 61 percent of the vote," recounts Encyclopedia Britannica online. "The electoral vote domination was even greater; Johnson won 44 states and Washington, D.C., for 486 electoral votes, while Goldwater won 6 states accounting for 52 electoral votes."

America in the 1960s: But periods of social unrest also marked the 1960s. The Civil Rights movement and U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War prompted heated protests. There were two assassinations during the year of the 1968 election. On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, prompting riots nationwide. Two months later, June 6, 1968, Robert F. Kennedy, a Democratic candidate for the presidency, died after being shot at a campaign event.

The strategy: Republican strategists knew that in order to win in 1968, they, too, had to build a coalition.
     They focused on the unrest. When accepting the Republican nomination, Nixon described the U.S. as "the nation with the greatest tradition of the rule of law ...  plagued by unprecedented lawlessness." But he also added, "to those who say that law and order is the code word for racism, ... here is a reply: Our goal is justice for every American."
    Kevin P. Phillips, a Republican staffer credited as a key figure behind the Southern Strategy, later wrote a book about it. "Nearly 500 pages long and filled with facts, figures, and maps, The Emerging Republican Majority contended that the GOP needed to move beyond its traditional base in the Northeast and reach out to white voters in the South and Southwest—a region Phillips dubbed the 'Sun Belt'—and in suburbs across the nation with polarizing appeals on racial and social issues," according to and Kevin M. Kruse in How the Republican Majority Emerged, in The Atlantic.

Dog whistles: The term "law and order," is often referred to as a dog whistle. A dog whistle is a sound only dogs can hear. In this case, it refers to Nixon's embedded message: He would bring an end to the protests.

How it turned out: Nixon won 43.4 percent of the vote to Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey’s 42.7 percent. George Wallace, an Alabama governor and independent candidate, took 13.5 percent, according to Encyclopedia Britannica.

Now and then: There are parallels. Specifically, we are living through a period of unrest that, in some ways, is evocative of the 1960s.
     But there are differences too.
     In 1968, eight years had come and gone since Nixon served as Dwight D. Eisenhower's vice president. His opponent, Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey, was the sitting vice president under Lyndon Johnson. So, from Nixon's point of view, he was the outsider who would come to the rescue.
    Trump, on the other hand, has been president since 2016. 

     To know more:


     Three presidents and the price of scandal

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