Racial Dog Whistles, The Confederate Flag And The Long Shadow Of The GOP’s ‘Southern Strategy’


In April 2000, shortly after bowing out of the Republican presidential primary, John McCain expressed deep regret for not speaking out about the flying of the Confederate flag at the South Carolina state capital. “I should have done this earlier, when an honest answer could have affected me personally. I did not do so for one reason alone. I feared that if I answered honestly, I could not win the South Carolina primary,” McCain said.

More than 15 years later, the massacre of nine African-Americans — allegedly by a young man obsessed with the Confederate flag and other white supremacist imagery — has placed the issue at the center of the political conversation again. (The flag, in a purported compromise, no longer flies atop the South Carolina statehouse but in front of it.)

There are twelve Republicans officially seeking their party’s nomination for President next year. Not a single one has explicitly called for the Confederate flag to be taken down in South Carolina. Their ambivalence has drawn wide criticism, including from David Gergen, who served as an advisor to three Republican presidents:

The candidates are not uniform in their statements. Some, like Mike Huckabee, refused to address the issue at all. “This is not an issue for someone running for president,” he said. Others, like Jeb Bush, cited his own move to remove the Confederate flag from the Florida state capitol building, adding that he is “confident” the people of South Carolina “will do the right thing.” Still Bush, and all of the other candidates, stopped short of actually calling for South Carolina to remove the flag.

The Republicans hesitancy on the issue is a missed opportunity to distance themselves from the ‘Southern Strategy,’ which then-RNC chairman Ken Mehlman apologized for in 2005. The Republican Party, according to Mehlman, historically tried to “benefit politically from racial polarization.” Lee Atwater, one of the architects of the strategy, explained how the strategy worked and could be adapted to the times.

You start in 1954 by saying ‘N*****, n*****, n*****.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘N*****.’ That hurts you. It backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states rights and all that stuff and you get so abstract. Now you talk about cutting taxes and these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that’s part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract and that coded, we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. Obviously sitting around saying we want to cut taxes and we want this, is a lot more abstract than even the busing thing and a hell of a lot more abstract than n***** n*****. So anyway you look at it, race is coming on the back burner.

The ‘Southern Strategy’ is almost certainly a losing strategy in a modern American general election, due to demographic changes and shifting attitudes about race. It’s unclear, however, if it still has a role in Republican primary politics which are dominated by overwhelmingly white party activists.

The current controversy on the flag was an opportunity for the Republican field to put the nail in the coffin of the ‘Southern Strategy.’ They’ve taken a pass.