This week in a televised press conference, Republican South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley called for the removal of the Confederate Battle Flag from the South Carolina Statehouse grounds.
Before this week, Haley, like other Republican politicians, resisted calls for its removal. Now Haley joins prominent southern Republicans—Tennessee Senators Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander, along with 2016 presidential hopefuls Lindsey Graham and Jeb Bush—in calling for the flag to be taken down.
What accounts for this dramatic turnabout? Surely, the massacre at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church last week was a decisive factor. But the abandonment of the symbol of the Confederacy reflects a slow—but definitive—shift away from the Southern Strategy that had long tied white, southern racial animus to national Republican goals.
Beginning in the mid-20th century, the campaigns of Republican presidential nominees exploited race to win over white Democrats, first in the South and then nationally.
In the 1964 presidential election, Republican Senator Barry Goldwater ran in opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Bill. He won only five states outside his home state of Arizona—but all of them were in the Deep South.
Four years later, Richard Nixon sought to siphon votes from segregationist Alabama Governor George C Wallace by claiming to represent a silent majority of Americans who stood for “law and order”—those alarmed by the black protests sweeping through cities nationwide, and opposed to school desegregation via forced busing.
Reagan opened his 1980 campaign in Neshoba County, Mississippi (where civil rights workers James Cheney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman were murdered in 1964), telling voters, “I believe in states’ rights”—a euphemism for opposition to federal civil rights enforcement.
And eight years later, George H W Bush’s campaign strategist Lee Atwater race-baited Bush’s Democratic opponent Michael Dukakis though a series of ads featuring a convicted black rapist.
Why, then, are Republicans now turning their backs on the symbol of white southern resistance they once depended on?
Political scientists have long debated when, why and how partisan political identities and interests change. They often point to dramatic events or the emergence of crucial new issues as “trigger moments.”
But we can also look at slower, more subtle changes in the ideas and commitments of political actors to understand how micropolitics produce broader shifts.
So what happened with the GOP and its relationship with race?
First, in the 1990s, the Democratic Party also began exploiting white fears for political gain. Bill Clinton—under the influence of the conservative, southern-based Democratic Leadership Council—pushed through anti-crime legislation that’s largely responsible for creating the current prison-industrial complex (where blacks are overwhelmingly represented). He also dismantled welfare through instituting lifetime limits for recipients, reducing benefits and enforcing work requirements.
Second, with the absence of a strong black freedom struggle, a new generation of Republicans sought to interpret the legacy of the civil rights movement for their own gain.
These leaders included George W. Bush, who acknowledged and apologized for the Southern Strategy while arguing for neo-liberal and individualist forms of black empowerment. Later, prominent conservative figures like Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed and Fox News commentator Glenn Beck would regularly invoke Martin Luther King, Jr.
Third, the nation’s changing racial demographics have forced Republicans to try to shed their image of the party of “stuffy old men” (as a 2012 report from the Republican National Committee put it).
Meanwhile, a number of prominent Republican conservatives of color have emerged in the last decade. These include former Florida House member Allen West, Utah Representative Mia Love, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and Tea Party-backed presidential hopefuls such as Herman Cain and Dr Ben Carson. Even two of the Palmetto State’s most prominent politicians are minorities: Senator Tim Scott and Governor Nikki Haley.
Yet Haley’s announcement isn’t so much evidence that the Southern Strategy is over; rather, it shows that it’s done its job.
Republicans no longer need to court white southerners in overtly racist ways, because they’ve already fully absorbed them into the Republican coalition. Where else can they go?
This is not to say that the GOP has resolved its race problem. Indeed, Republican positions on voter ID laws, affirmative action, and social and economic policies are at odds with the political views of the overwhelming majority of African Americans. The GOP can simply pursue these ends without direct appeal to blatant symbols of white supremacy.