Little over a decade ago, the Republican establishment finally admitted to their definition of “States Rights”. It was doozy!
Lee Atwater, one of the leading GOP strategists of the 1980s. He ran George H.W. Bush’s successful campaign in ’88 and later served as chair of the RNC. This is a clip from an interview that took place in 1981, but the audio only surfaced two decades later. Atwater explains how Republican candidates can win over white voters by appealing to racist views with coded language:
“Here’s how I would approach that issue as a statistician or a political scientist—or, no, as a psychologist, which I’m not, is how abstract you handle the race thing. In other words, you start out—now, ya’ll aren’t quoting me on this. 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 liked “forced busing,” “states’ rights” and all that stuff. And you’re getting so abstract now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all of these things you’re talking about are totally economic things, and the byproduct of them is: 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’re doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. Do you follow me? Because, obviously, sitting around saying we want to cut taxes, we want to cut this, and we want—is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “nigger, nigger,” you know. So, any way you look at it, race is coming on the back burner.” – Lee Atwater, 1981
Let’s go back a few years to see how this works.
It starts with George Wallace. In 1960, 29% of African Americans identified as Republican. Both parties in 1960 were similarly supportive of civil rights; however, in this turbulent decade politicians begin to look around for a way to get elected, and they realize race baiting can do that.
And so you have George Wallace, a Democrat. He runs as a racial moderate initially in 1958, and he loses. After he loses, he has this incredible moment. He’s about to give his concession speech, and he turns to his cronies and he says “No other son of a bitch is ever going to out-nigger me again.” In other words: “I’ve just lost to somebody who ran as a racial reactionary. I’m going to run as a racial reactionary.”
And that’s what he sets out to do, and when he does, he wins. It’s this moment where it becomes clear: Using race can help you win elections. It goes from George Wallace to Barry Goldwater, a Republican candidate. He uses race. He loses nationally, but wins in the South.
Let’s go to Ronald Reagan, 1980 speech, Neshoba County Fair in Mississippi, just a few miles from Philadelphia, Mississippi, the site of the 1964 murders of the civil rights activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner. This was Reagan’s first speech after accepting the Republican nomination for president. He proclaimed his fidelity to states’ rights.
“I believe in states’ rights. I believe in people doing as much as they can for themselves at the community level and at the private level. And I believe that we’ve distorted the balance of our government today by giving powers that were never intended in the Constitution to that federal establishment.” – Ronald Reagan, 1980
Let’s be very clear: When Reagan talks about states’ rights, he’s actually picking up on Barry Goldwater. Barry Goldwater campaigned in the South in 1964 saying states’ rights, and everybody understood that states’ rights meant the right of Southern states to resist integration. Now, when Reagan campaigns using that same term in 1980, that’s just 16 years after these civil rights workers had been slain there. There isn’t a voter alive in that town who hadn’t been alive when these civil rights workers were lynched. And for him to go and say “states’ rights,” it’s a clear dog whistle, saying, “I understand that this term is about the ability of whites to resist integration.”
So, on one level, we have states’ rights, which is a clear sort of signal of opposition to integration; on the other, and here’s the dynamic that I think that’s really being picked up by today’s GOP, states’ rights is also a way of saying: “We will devolve power over social justice programs, over safety net programs to the states, because we know that the states will use that to restrict these programs to whites.” That was the compromise that FDR and the Democrats made with the Southern Democrats in the New Deal that made sure that the New Deal programs didn’t help African Americans and didn’t help Latinos. It was the compromise that Clinton made in the ’90s. And now it’s the Republican policy.
Just as recent as 2012, during the 2012 Republican primary, Newt Gingrich was widely accused of employing the so-called Southern Strategy to appeal to the prejudice of white voters in the South. At the Republican debate, Fox News moderator Juan Williams questioned Newt Gingrich about his description of President Obama as the “food stamp president.” This was Gingrich’s response.
“The fact is that more people have been put on food stamps by Barack Obama than any president in American history. Now, I know among the politically correct, you’re not supposed to use facts that are uncomfortable.” – Newt Gingrich, 2012
This bring us back to the Lee Atwater quote. It’s a powerful admission. Atwater says, you know, you start in the ’50s saying “nigger, nigger, nigger.” And that’s important because we should realize we’re not saying that race has entered politics recently; we’re saying racism has been central to American politics for centuries, but it has changed in form.
After the civil rights movement, you couldn’t use open slurs like that. It’s political suicide now for any politician to use an open racial slur, so that the new public racism is coded. It always operates on two levels—on one level, triggering racial anxiety; on another, allowing plausible deniability. And Atwater traces that evolution. He says from “nigger, nigger, nigger” to states’ rights, to forced busing, and now—and this is really important—cutting taxes.
Why would cutting taxes operate as a dog whistle?
It operates as a dog whistle because it comes against this background understanding that government is really about helping poor minorities, right? And so it’s this sense that my taxes as a hard-working white person, are being taken to pay for these undeserving minorities. That’s the way in which you can have this Republican sort of constant drum beat: “The solution to all of our problems is to cut taxes.” Right? It’s coming against this background that taxes are somehow being hijacked and siphoned off to undeserving minorities.
They’re using these sort of coded appeals to say to people two things: One, the biggest threat in your life is not concentrated wealth, it’s minorities; and two, government coddles minorities, and all these government assistance programs, it’s all about giveaways to minorities—oppose them—government is taking your taxes and giving it to undeserving minorities. So when we think about why it is that so many people would—in the midst of an economic crisis, would vote to slash taxes for the rich, to favor deregulation and to slash social services, partly—in fact, I’d say primarily—they’re doing so because of the sort of racial narrative employed with dog whistle politics.