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Conscience Magazine

White Backlash: NEW BOOK EXAMINES HISTORY OF CONSERVATIVE REALIGNMENT IN THE SOUTH

May 4, 2021
“The Long Southern Strategy: How Chasing White Voters in the South Changed American Politics” Angie Maxwell and Todd Shields (Oxford University Press, 2019. 558 pages)

THE SOUTHERN STRATEGY IS usually defined as the GOP strategy of the 1970s and 1980s by which the Republican Party exploited Southern white backlash against the civil rights movement to siphon white Southern voters from the Democratic Party. The result was a rightward shift in the GOP and the partisan realignment in the South. Once a reliably Democratic stronghold, the South became the staunchly Republican bloc it is today.

That’s the usual definition of the Southern strategy, anyway. But it is too narrow, according to Angie Maxwell and Todd Shields. Their clearly written and carefully researched book, “The Long Southern Strategy: How Chasing White Voters in the South Changed American Politics,” challenges and complicates the story in two major ways.

First, as the title suggests, they challenge the idea that the Southern strategy was confined to the era of Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon. Instead, they argue, the Southern strategy has con-tinued over decades, recycling a variety of strategies to court white Southern voters. Second, they argue that what they call the Long Southern Strategy did not only appeal to white Southern racist resentment. That would not have been enough for the strategy to succeed. Rather, the GOP has engaged in “relentlessly fishing” for white Southern votes, using three kind of “bait”: racism, antifeminism and religion. As the authors explain, the GOP “needed all three kinds of voters; because it turns out, they are not necessarily one and the same.”

This fishing netted a lot of white Southern (and quite a few white Northern) voters, but it also had an obscuring effect that has inhibited subsequent analyses. Such tactics made it difficult to determine whether a voter was brought into the GOP because of racist resentment, antifeminism, religious beliefs or some combination.

“The Long Southern Strategy” draws on some historical and political analysis, but above all uses social science research to clarify those muddy waters. This enables the authors to correct misconceptions about voter characteristics and behavior. For example, they debunk the myth of the gender gap in voting behavior, demonstrating that white Southern women are about as conservative as white Southern men, and that white Southern women, too, were attracted by the anti-feminism of Phyllis Schlafly.

Because the book deals with the heavily Protestant South, it offers little analysis specific to Catholicism, though, of course, it addresses the political alliance between anti-abortion Catholics and historically anti-Catholic fundamentalists and evangelicals. Yet the ecumenical character of contemporary faith-based politics—on the left as well as the right—makes the book’s insights important for politically active Catholics.

One of the book’s most striking discussions of religion debunks the “myth of the social conservative.” You have likely heard that socially conservative religious voters drifted toward the GOP in the 1970s and 1980s because of a handful of policy positions on issues like abortion. Wrong, Maxwell and Shields say. The Southern strategy produced such voters.

That is, the Southern strategy gave evangelical and fundamentalist Christians a seat at the political table. Once there, the Christian right did not simply insist on getting their way when it came to so-called social or religious issues like abortion, homosexuality and gender roles. Their demands touched on every issue—from taxes to military policy to environmental standards. They provided a powerful, militant base of voters and organizers to the GOP, but they didn’t do it for free: Their support was conditional on getting what they wanted. And, Maxwell and Shields note, “They wanted everything.” As a result, they took more power in the party than its leaders probably bargained for, changing the GOP platform and U.S. politics in deep and enduring ways.

“The Long Southern Strategy” is heavy with data analysis and is probably better suited to social scientists than to political theory or history buffs. Because it is not a history book, it works better as a companion piece to a history book for Northern readers unfamiliar with Southern culture—particularly the history of progressive and left organizing in the South. Being data-driven, the book focuses on the prevalence of specific, measurable political behaviors and attitudes and does not focus much on Southern populist traditions and radical movements. This is not a criticism of the book, just a statement about the sort of book it is.

It is also a word of caution from a Southern, left organizer to Northern readers. I believe such a word of caution is warranted because the South, like Appalachia, is often dismissed as inherently and irredeemably backward. This is a mistake. For one thing, as the authors note, racism, anti-feminism and religion are not confined to the South—indeed, many of the most recognizable leaders of the Southern strategy were from the North.

Further, no region or culture is unorganizable, and no political strategy — however powerful—is unbeatable. “The Long Southern Strategy” raises a crucial question: How do we fight the Southern strategy, and how do we win? It doesn’t answer that question, but its analysis of the Christian right may offer a key.

From the beginning, the Christian right understood, as they do now, that politics is about power. It requires coalition- building, clear moral narratives and unwavering commitment. The Christian right took over the GOP and changed U.S. politics for generations. No half measures, no apologies, no compromise or bipartisanship for its own sake. They wanted everything.

We must also want everything. As I write on St. Patrick’s Day, I am reminded of a favorite quote from the Irish Catholic socialist James Connolly: “Our demands most moderate are—we only want the earth.”