Lee Atwater and the Southern Strategy (VIDEO)

Published On June 19, 2014 | By Michael Potter |
by Micheal Allen Potter

The Southern Strategy has been around for a long time. It involves gaining political support by appealing to racism. It began when civil rights issues began to fragment the formerly “Solid South” coalition during the 1950’s and 1960’s.

Speaking for the anti-civil rights faction of the Democratic Party in 1948, SC Senator Strom Thurmond made the following statement:

“All the laws of Washington and all the bayonets of the Army cannot force the negro into our homes, into our schools, our churches and our places of recreation and amusement.”

He went on to perform the longest one man filibuster in United States history in opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1957.

The Democratic Party feared a split and one did, in fact, occur after the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That was when Thurmond left the Democratic Party to become a Republican and the Party of Lincoln died.

A young man named Lee Atwater was involved in some of Thurmond’s later senatorial campaigns. He then became a campaign advisor to both Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush during the 1980’s. He fabricated poll results, stabbed other aides in the back, called constituents and planted negative ideas about opposing candidates in their minds and used wedge issues in order to help his team win.

Atwater couldn’t afford to make brash, overtly racist statements as Senator Thurmond had during the 40’s and 50’s. The 1960’s and the 1970’s were a time of “peace, love and understanding” in response to opposition to the Vietnam War and in accord with the Civil Rights Movement and the milieu prevailed well into the 1980’s. So he and others used thinly veiled code words in an attempt to appeal to conservative southern voters without alienating minorities and (at least somewhat) liberal whites. This was the time period when Ronald Reagan used the phrase “welfare queens” to describe what he viewed to be minorities taking advantage of government funded social programs.

Atwater is most well known for his actions as a political strategist for George H.W. Bush during the 1988 presidential race. He destroyed Michael Dukakis’ political career by spreading rumors that his wife had burned an American flag and by lambasting him for having vetoed a bill as governor that would have ended a prison furlough program, which allowed prisoners to temporarily leave prison in order to visit friends and family.

During the campaign, a commercial featuring men leaving and entering prison via a set of revolving doors played on television. All of the men leaving had their heads down, except for one large black man who looked directly into the camera. This was racial fear mongering at play.

Despite a non-reversible foundational shift in the make-up of American demographics, the Southern Strategy is still alive and thriving. Karl Rove and George W. Bush were two of Atwater’s closest friends. President Bush was widely criticized for his slow response to the effects of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which affected many minority communities.

During an interview with Chris Matthews in 2011, South Carolina’s Speaker of the House, Thom Tillis (R), stated that “what we have to do is find a way to divide and conquer the people who are on assistance.” Who are these people, you may ask? Well, during an interview in 2012, Tillis lamented the fact that North Carolina’s “traditional voting bloc” was not growing as quickly as the minority population. For him, “traditional” means “white”, apparently. He and NC Governor Pat McCrory – along with several Tea Party-led states –  are still fighting to cut social programs and to enact strict Voter ID laws today, which disproportionately affect non-whites.

In a 1981 interview with Harold Lamis, the audio of which you can hear in the video below, Atwater outlines how the Strategy has evolved over time:

“You start out in 1954 by saying, “Ni**er, ni**er, ni**er.” By 1968 you can’t say “ni**er” — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busingstates’ 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 “Ni**er, ni**er.”


Michael Potter
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Michael Potter

Michael Potter is an Anthropology major at UNC Charlotte. He studies History and Politics in his spare time. He is a great admirer of Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt the Kennedys and FDR. He also administers a Facebook group called The New Jeffersonian Democrats, and he also writes for the Examiner.
Michael Potter
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