Exclusive: Lee Atwater’s Infamous 1981 Interview on the Southern Strategy
It has become, for liberals and leftists enraged by the way Republicans never suffer the consequences for turning electoral politics into a cesspool, a kind of smoking gun. The late, legendarily brutal campaign consultant Lee Atwater explains how Republicans can win the vote of racists without sounding racist themselves:
You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”
Now, the same indefatigable researcher who brought us Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” remarks, James Carter IV, has dug up the entire forty-two-minute interview from which that quote derives. Here, The Nation publishes it in its entirety for the very first time.
Listen to the full forty-two-minute conversation with Atwater:
The back-story goes like this. In 1981, Atwater, after a decade as South Carolina's most effective Republican operative, was working in Ronald Reagan's White House when he was interviewed by Alexander Lamis, a political scientist at Case Western Reserve University. Lamis published the interview without using Atwater's name in his 1984 book The Two-Party South. Fifteen years later—and eight years after Atwater passed away from cancer—Lamis republished the interview in another book using Atwater’s name. For seven years no one paid much attention. Then the New York Times' Bob Herbert, a bit of an Atwater obsessive, quoted it in an October 6, 2005 column—then five more times over the next four years.
Those words soon became legend—quoted in both screeds (The GOP-Haters Handbook, 2007) and scholarship (Corey Robin's 2011 classic work of political theory, The Reactionary Mind). Google Books records its use in ten books published so far this year alone. Curious about the remarks' context, Carter, who learned Lamis had died in 2012, asked his widow if she would consider releasing the audio of the interview, especially in light of the use of race-baiting dog-whistles (lies about Obama ending work requirements for welfare; "jokes" about his supposed Kenyan provenance) in the Romney presidential campaign. Renée Lamis, an Obama donor, agreed that very same night. For one thing she was “upset,” Carter told me, that “for some time, conservatives believed [her] husband made up the Atwater interview.” For another, she was eager to illustrate that her husband's use of the Atwater quote was scholarly, not political.
So what does the new contextual wrapping teach us? It vindicates Lamis, who indeed comes off as careful and scholarly. And no surprise, it shows Atwater acting yet again in bad faith.
In the lead-up to the infamous remarks, it is fascinating to witness the confidence with which Atwater believes himself to be establishing the racial innocence of latter-day Republican campaigning: “My generation,” he insists, “will be the first generation of Southerners that won’t be prejudiced.” He proceeds to develop the argument that by dropping talk about civil rights gains like the Voting Rights Act and sticking to the now-mainstream tropes of fiscal conservatism and national defense, consultants like him were proving “people in the South are just like any people in the history of the world.”
It is only upon Professor Lamis’s gently Socratic follow-ups, and those of a co-interviewer named “Saul” (Carter hasn't been able to confirm his identity, but suspects it was the late White House correspondent Saul Friedman), that Atwater begins to loosen up—prefacing his reflections, with a plainly guilty conscience, “Now, y’all aren't quoting me on this?” (Apparently , this is the reason why Atwater’s name wasn’t published in 1984 but was in 1999, after his death).
He then utters his infamous words. The interlocutors go on to kibitz about Huey Long and barbecue. Then Atwater, apparently satisfied that he'd absolved the Southern Republican Party of racism once and for all, follows up with a prediction based on a study he claims demonstrates that Strom Thurmond won 38 percent of South Carolina’s middle-class black vote in his 1978 Senate campaign (run by Atwater).
“That voter, in my judgment,” he claims, “will be more likely to vote his economic interests than he will anything else. And that is the voter that I think through a fairly slow but very steady process, will go Republican.” Because race no longer matters: “In my judgment Karl Marx [is right]... the real issues ultimately will be the economic issues.” He continues, in words that uncannily echo the “47 percent tape” (nothing new under the wingnut sun), that “statistically, as the number of non-producers in the system moves toward fifty percent,” the conservative coalition cannot but expand. Voila: a new Republican majority. Racism won't have anything to do with it.
Not bloody likely. In 2005, the political scientists Nicholas Valentino and David Sears demonstrated that a Southern man holding conservative positions on issues other than race is no more likely than a conservative Northerner to vote for a Democrat. But when the relevant identifier is anti-black answers to survey questions—like whether one agrees “If blacks would only try harder they could be just as well off as whites”—white Southerners were twice as likely than white Northerners to refuse to vote Democratic. As another political scientist, Thomas Schaller, wrote in his 2006 book Whistling Past Dixie (which naturally quotes the infamous Atwater lines), “Despite the best efforts of Republican spinmeisters...the partisan impact of racial attitudes in the South is stronger today than in the past.”
Which one particular Republican spinmeister, when he wasn't preening before political scientists, knew fully well—which was why, seven years after that interview, in his stated goal to “rip the bark off the little bastard [Michael Dukakis]” on behalf of his candidate George H.W. Bush, Atwater ran the infamous ad blaming Dukakis for an escaped Massachusetts convict, Willie Horton, “repeatedly raping” an apparently white girl. Indeed, Atwater pledged to make "Willie Horton his running mate." The commercial was sponsored by a dummy outfit called the National Security Political Action Committee—which it is true, was a whole lot more abstract than saying "nigger, nigger, nigger."
For more on the GOP's effort to roll back enfranchisment, read Ari Berman's Why We Still Need Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.