The Way Down South
The last thing my daddy wanted to do on a fine crisp fall Saturday in 1972, he made quite clear, was drive forty-five minutes in traffic just to hear "a bunch of Republicans yammering their rich man's nonsense." But I begged and whined until he caved. By the time Air Force One glinted down the runway of the Greensboro airport for the big rally, this die-hard Democrat--a blue-collar veteran of World War II who would sooner cast a posthumous vote for Mussolini than pull the lever for a candidate of the Grand Old Party--was straining under the bulk of his fat, nerdy 9-year-old boy, aloft on his shoulders as I chanted with a lusty throng of pent-up crackers: "Nixon now! Nixon now!"
No wonder I was carried away by the excitement: We were, after all, witnessing one of the most brazen acts of political thievery in American history. Not only had Democrats owned the South since Reconstruction (a grip so tight that there was not a single Republican governor or US senator in the region when I was born), the party had also personified the political philosophy that long knit white Dixie voters together almost as strongly as their segregated "way of life": that shape-shifting beast called populism. Before the backlash set off by President Lyndon Johnson's championing of civil rights in the 1960s, the region's Republicans were so anemic that historian V.O. Key wrote in 1949 that the Dixie GOP "scarcely deserves the name of a party," more closely resembling "an esoteric cult on the order of a lodge." My maternal grandfather, a violent yellow-dog Democrat who'd been known to wield his cane against outspoken Republicans, called it the "lily-livered cocktail party," and his opinion had long been nearly universal in the South. Democrats were us; Republicans were meddlesome, superior, pro-corporate Ivy Leaguers endlessly devising fresh ways to screw us over.
Now Republicans were doing the unthinkable: convincing folks they were on their side. Up on a platform erected on the runway, two key architects of the GOP's new Southern strategy, President Nixon and North Carolina's own Jesse Helms, were railing against hippies and atheists and other un-American elements holding down the "silent majority" of white working folk. Mixing pietistic appeals for school prayer and nostalgia for "traditional American values," they were mouthing a neopopulist pitch borrowed from George Wallace's scarily successful 1968 backlash campaign and scripted by Kevin Phillips's The Emerging Republican Majority. And the blue-collar Democrats were eating it up, roaring approval at every racially coded "law and order" applause line and spitting epithets back and forth with antiwar protesters. All except for my father, who had glanced around forlornly when we arrived and seen a depressing array of crew cuts, work shirts with names on the patches and rebel-flag mesh caps. "Good grief," he muttered. "Looks like a bunch of Democrats. What in the world?"
It was a neat trick, really: Stepping into the void created for white Southern conservatives when the Democrats became the party of civil rights and 1960s-style social liberalism, Republicans were adapting the old rhetoric of populism--the sword so long wielded against them--to "flip" white Dixie and create an electoral stronghold of their own. But Republican populism would be all about white cultural unity, not economic fairness. The enemy would no longer be the greedy corporate "Big Mules" scorned by legendary Alabama populist Jim Folsom but the broad coalition of "pointy-headed intellectuals" ridiculed by Wallace.
Far more than Nixon, who privately cursed conservative Southerners' "right-wing bitching" while publicly courting their votes, Helms embodied the new Republican breed. The son of a small-town police chief, the owl-faced Helms became the voice of white backlash in 1960s North Carolina with rabble-rousing, "lubrul"-whacking, nightly TV commentaries. "What is needed is a revolt against revolution," he prophesied in 1964. In his '72 campaign to become the state's first Republican US senator in the twentieth century, Helms was facing a Greek-American Democrat with the funny-sounding name of Nick Galifianakis. The culture warrior knew just what to do: Helms boiled down the new Republican populism to a campaign slogan that spoke volumes in four simple words: "He's One of Us."
It worked like a charm--or better yet, a spell. Just three days after my disgusted father and I watched Nixon and Helms clasp hands in a "V" for victory at that raucous airport rally, Helms got his breakthrough win on the coattails of the President's stunning Southern sweep. Not only was Nixon the first Republican ever to ride a "solid South" to victory, he napalmed the old "Southern Democracy," capturing a gaudy 70 percent of the region's votes. Giddy with triumph, Nixon's chief Southern strategist, arch-segregationist Harry Dent of South Carolina, was widely quoted as boasting that "the South will never go back." Southerners, Dent said, "now realize they have been Republicans philosophically for a long time."
And so commenced the most misleading and destructive myth of contemporary American politics: the notion that the century-long Democratic "solid South" had morphed into an equally solid and enduring Republican South.
It was a threadbare myth from the start. The uniformity of Southern politics has always been overblown, even before the demise of Jim Crow in the 1960s. In what is still the most insightful book on the subject, 1949's Southern Politics in State and Nation, V.O. Key found that "even on the question of race the unity of the region has been greatly exaggerated in the national mind. Nor do the conventional stereotypes of Southern politics convey any conception of the diversity of political attitude, organization and tradition among the Southern states. The term 'Southern,'" Key concluded, "conjures up notions that have little resemblance to reality."
Democrats were bound to take a hit after Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts of 1964 and '65. The Texan worried out loud that he had "handed the South to the Republicans" for decades to come. But while segregationist whites did slowly but steadily defect to the formerly hated "party of Lincoln," voting rights brought a massive infusion of Southern blacks into the Democratic Party. Progressives had long nourished the hope that integration would spawn a new coalition of blacks with moderate and liberal whites--a revival of the short-lived, biracial Southern Farmers' Alliance led by Georgia's Tom Watson in the 1890s. Even as Nixon took Dixie in 1972, there were encouraging signs--none more so than the election of moderate-to-progressive governors in ten of the eleven old Confederate states, most calling for both economic fairness and racial reconciliation. In Georgia, Jimmy Carter--replacing segregationist Governor Lester Maddox--bracingly declared in his 1971 inaugural address that "the time for racial discrimination is over." In Florida, Reubin Askew hailed the emergence of "a humanistic South, which has always been there, just below the surface of racism and despair, struggling for a chance to emerge." A new cadre of black elected officials was pointing forward in the same direction. "We in the South have an exciting opportunity," Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson wrote in 1972, "to prove that, ultimately, black and white have only one enemy: not each other, but those economic, social, educational, and political conditions which cause and maintain hunger, neglect, bigotry and disease."