How Southern voters reshaped national politics

How many times have you heard people in the South say their vote doesn’t matter? For the most part, it’s a one-party region when it comes to statewide elections, even if that party has flipped over time.

But the South does play an outsized role in shaping national politics. Vice President Joe Biden’s candidacy was considered dead in the rival until South Carolina voters overwhelmingly delivered the state for him – just a week later the so-called SEC primary cemented his victory. In 2016, President Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton also secured their candidacies in the South.

But beyond that, the parties have reshaped themselves based on Southern movements and ideologies. This week on the Reckon Interview, we speak with Dr. Angie Maxwell, a professor at the University of Arkansas, about her work on “The Long Southern Strategy,” examining the Republican Party transformed itself to court Southern voters in response to the civil rights movement, feminist movement and rise of fundamentalist Christianity. And the Washington Post’s Dave Weigel, author of weekly political newsletter, The Trailer, explains how the national parties are spending their resources in the South in 2020.

Here are a few excerpts from the conversation with Dr. Maxwell to get you started. But you can listen to the whole episode here.

And go ahead and subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Acast or wherever else you get your podcasts to stay informed about the South this election season.

Angie Maxwell on the commonly understood “Southern Strategy”

I like to call it the “Short Southern Strategy” because that’s kind of what we’ve been taught or heard about, and that is defined as the Republican Party’s decision in the 1960s — first with Barry Goldwater in 1964 and then with Richard Nixon in 1968 — to really kind of recruit Southern white voters who were upset about Civil Rights changes to leave the Democratic Party and vote with the Republican Party. You know, the South had been so solidly Democratic since forever, minus a short period after the Civil War. So for as long as we kind of had these things. So it was seen as a big turn for the Republican Party to kind of take that direction.

And so you saw white Southern voters vote Republican. And then you saw in 1968, after the Voting Rights Act, you saw an influx of African American voters, based on that position the RNC took, start aligning with the Democratic Party. Right? And so that’s kind of the Southern Strategy was exploiting that racial angst that people felt, not all people, but a lot of people in the South. A lot of white voters. And using it to shift partisan realignment in the region.

Angie Maxwell on the Long Southern Strategy

The newest thing is this important connecting of the dots. You know, that Short Southern Strategy that’s kind of like that’s our story of how the South turn red. Except in 1976 all the Southern states vote for Jimmy Carter, and it goes back to blue.

And so at that point, I mean, what do we do when a party loses an election? I mean, we just like analyze it to death, right? The postmortems. And the Republican Party did that. And there were folks going, “see that was a mistake? We need to go this direction.”

But ultimately to get an Electoral College map victory, you know, the strategists that said, “You’ve got to break that block in the South or we we’ve got no path.” They won out.

But come the late 70s standing in the doorway blocking integration is seen as too extreme or we’ve kind of accepted some civil rights changes, you know, it doesn’t have that same sense of urgency maybe that it had in the 60s. And so Ronald Reagan’s team polls 40,000 American women and realizes watching the anti-ERA movement, which starts in 73, and ends up killing the Equal Rights Amendment. And a lot of Southern white women get involved with that. That’s when they got politicized and organized, with that anti-ERA movement. [The Reagan team] see[s] that and they think “maybe we can get those voters. Maybe we can pull the people who are upset about changes” — or the way they see it as changes — “to traditional gender roles.”

And so the Republican Party in 1980, drops the ERA from its platform, after having it in there for 40 years. I mean, they were the first party to put it in. And there was a whole huge contingency of Republican feminists who were devastated that the party went that direction, but it brought those Southern white women. A lot of Southern white men had gone on the race issues, but not all. But it really brought along Southern white women to the Republican Party.

And then again in 1992, Bill Clinton wins back five Southern states and starts making inroads in more Southern states. And so that’s when, you know, Republicans kind of go back to the drawing board and say, “what else can we double down on?” And they really push the relationship with kind of fundamentalist churches, and their leadership and the kind of social conservative, and kind of morphs into some Christian nationalism, really becomes a political kind of thing.

And it’s the combination of the three: appealing to people with racial resentment; appealing to people with, what we call kind of modern sexism, which is a kind of distrust of feminism; and a Christian nationalist kind of spirit, that gets you that, you know, majority victory, you know, in the South. So it takes a lot longer. It was a long effort to flip the South.

Angie Maxwell on how to push for better politics in the South

You know, our democracy is best when there’s two party competition, I’d even like multi-party competition but in our current system, because then it becomes a contest of ideas. You know, what happens when one party politics rule? And it was true for the Democrats, it’s true for the Republicans, is it becomes a contest of personality.

That’s what V.O. Key, the famous political scientist of the South wrote in 1949. He called it the “droll facade,” which means when they’re not fighting about policies and reforms, it becomes “who’s like me? “who’s outrageous?” It became a politics of entertainments, like tent revival-like giant rallies. That has a long history in the South.

And so we lose focus on holding these politicians accountable, on both sides, for reforms that help the people in your district, whether that’s your state senate district, or your congressional district or your whole state, And that’s, you know, problematic, but to have real two party competition, you have to have infrastructure for both parties. The reason it took Republicans 40 years to go from getting people to vote nationally for like Goldwater or Nixon, to really turning their whole state red, down to a lot of the local level, is because they didn’t have a Republican Party infrastructure. It takes a long time to build it.

Now what happened to Democrats? They had it for so long, they ran everything for so long. They kind of let it slip. I mean, how much party work and building and organizing do you have to do when you’re the only game in town?

And so Democrats now have been in the slow process of trying to reintroduce the party to young people, to reach, you know, communities that don’t vote or are apathetic about voting, and try to say, you know, “this is what we stand for.” But it takes several cycles. You know, it just takes time, takes data, it takes organizing, it takes like a consistent, you know, kind of brand.

I do think, in Texas, Florida, Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, they’re getting close to real two party competition, and you will see their states benefit from that. Because politicians behave better and they do more for people when they know it’s not a foregone conclusion that they won’t even be opposed the next election cycle. They’re held accountable.

So what I would encourage people to do in the South is look at each office, it’s okay to split ticket vote. If there’s good Democrats locally that are helping your city, but you like a Republican candidate for something else. That’s okay. That’s when it works well. If there are some local Republicans in your state representatives that you really think have done well for your city and helped higher education or public education, but you don’t like where the national party’s going? Show them that in your vote.

Because what will happen is that, you know, there’s a group in that party that has been fighting to try to turn that party around and get it off of some of these subjects and focus more on some of its like real conservative principles. And if Trump’s reelected, they lose all momentum, because they’ll say, “see, this is what works.” When a party loses, everyone goes back to the drawing board and goes, why did we lose? Why did it work? You know, if they want to see a different Republican Party, if they’re upset about it’s gone too far, there’s a way to send that message. You know, and I think that’s important.

And Democrats, their biggest struggle is when you become the party that’s really trying to build giant coalitions and give everyone a seat at the table, it’s also really hard to bring people together behind whoever the nominee turns out to be. That’s real tough, but they’re going to have to invest in the party, in its long term effort. And if it’s not the candidate, you like… African American women, for example, do we think Dukakis was their first choice? Because they know the issues affect other people, and they vote because of that. Not just the personality or whatever, or it’s my favorite candidate. Odds are, it’s not.

If you don’t like where your party’s going, get involved in change your party.

I have a lot of empathy for people who are just like sick of both parties. I get it. I really do. But it is the system. So forget party.


Think about at your school system, right? Do you want a principal or a superintendent that’s just the one you like? Who says, you know, things you like to hear, but really doesn’t manage things well? Like competency, experience, gravitas, caring about the whole country, those things are critical.

And if the Democratic candidate doesn’t seem like that kind of person, fine. But it’s definitely not the situation we have now, because it has been a policy failure to not have a national strategy on this pandemic. And that isn’t a partisan issue. It’s just a crisis.

And so I’m hoping that people will realize that like, you know, this country can face real hardships and it matters, the kind of leaders that you have in charge, and will they work across the aisle, and will they put the state first, you know, regardless of what party they are. And I’m hoping people you know, see its significance because this is touching kind of everybody’s lives.

I tell people when they’re really sick of it, go local. What can you do with your city council? What spots are not filled on different commissions and different things? What do you care about? About the streets in your town, the policies at the school, whatever. Because you can really see the actual change it creates, you know, when you get involved at that local level. Just don’t disengage completely. I know the national noise is tough. But we need all hands on deck. And so I’m hoping we see civic engagement, you know, swell after this pandemic. 

For more about how Southern politics shaped America, listen to the full conversation here.

Tomorrow, the Washington Post’s Dave Weigel tells us what to watch for this election cycle.

Episode One: How America undermined the Voting Rights Act

The Reckon Report.
Sign up to receive the Reckon Report newsletter in your inbox every Tuesday.