Perhaps the least noble element of the "Reagan Revolution" was the strategic decision made by the president and his advisers to mobilize long-simmering racial controversies to build up his own base of political support. By all accounts, racial concerns were not central to Ronald Reagan's own political worldview. Fighting Communism, shrinking government, cutting taxes—these were the issues that Reagan cared about most deeply. But Reagan's top political strategists realized that many Americans, by 1980, felt a passionate anger about government racial policies like school busing and affirmative action, and that the president could use that passion to build support for his own broader objectives.
A generation after the Civil Rights Movement ended Jim Crow-style segregation in the United States, therefore, Reagan perfected a sophisticated and subtle appeal to the prejudices and resentments that motivated some whites in both the South and the North. In doing so, Reagan bolstered the electoral prospects of his Republican Party. More importantly, he managed to channel anti-black prejudice into a broader anti-government politics; by cultivating the impression that federal social welfare programs were mostly wasted on "undeserving" black people, Reagan built support for his own anti-government ideology.
To acknowledge that this happened is not to argue that Ronald Reagan was himself a racist. Racism was not a central pillar of Reaganism, and the vast majority of Reagan's supporters were not racists either. But—as top Reagan advisers later frankly acknowledged—the president did make a deliberate decision to reach out to the minority of white American voters who were motivated by anti-black sentiment. And that decision had significant political and social consequences.
The significance of Reagan's racial politics only becomes clear with an understanding of the long-term role of race in American partisan politics. The story begins nearly 150 years ago, with the Civil War. In that terrible conflict, the Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln led the North to victory, ending the southern system of black slavery in the process. Many embittered southern whites did not forgive the Republicans for more than a century; after Reconstruction ended in 1876, southerners rebuilt a white supremacist caste society under the virtual one-party rule of the Democratic Party. Southern Democrats, backed by the Ku Klux Klan—which functioned, in its early years, as the paramilitary wing of the Democratic Party in the South-imposed the Jim Crow system of legal segregation late in the nineteenth century, and enforced it into the middle of the twentieth. As long as Democrats at the national level supported segregation, they could count on the electoral support of the "Solid South" to anchor their congressional delegations and presidential campaigns.
In the 1930s, Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt built a lasting governing majority—the "New Deal Coalition"—that included southern whites, northern urbanites (including both blacks and ethnic whites), union workers, and intellectuals. Roosevelt's New Deal Coalition—which maintained its uneasy truce between southerners and northerners by trying to avoid politicizing the issue of segregation in the South altogether—allowed the Democratic Party to dominate American politics through the middle decades of the twentieth century.
Everything changed with the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and '60s. When southern blacks mounted a sustained challenge to the racial subjugation of segregation, national Democratic leaders chose—after considerable hesitation—to abandon the "Solid South" by throwing the weight of their party behind the freedom struggle. In 1964, Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law, pledging to use all powers of the federal government to end Jim Crow in America. As he signed that momentous bill into law, Johnson remarked with some regret that his party had "just lost the South for a generation."28 Johnson's prediction immediately began to prove itself correct: In the 1964 elections, held just months after the Civil Rights Act took effect, conservative Republican Barry Goldwater carried five states in the Deep South—the only states in the entire country, outside Goldwater's home of Arizona, to vote against Johnson's bid for reelection.
Picking up the pieces after Goldwater's crushing nationwide defeat—Johnson won 61% of the national popular vote and carried 44 states—Republican strategists noted their candidate's surprising strength in the South and identified southern whites as a voting bloc that could help restore their party to national electoral dominance. A brilliant young Republican strategist named Kevin Phillips helped to shape the GOP's so-called "Southern Strategy," which identified disaffected, white southern ex-Democrats as the potential core of what Phillips called an "emerging Republican majority" nationwide.29 Phillips later explained the essential dynamic of the Southern Strategy: "The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans. That's where the votes are."30 In 1968, Phillips helped to coordinate campaign strategy for Richard Nixon, who employed the Southern Strategy to great success. In 1968, Nixon won a crushing nationwide victory over Democrat Hubert Humphrey as Democrats were completely shut out in the South for the first time since the Civil War. (Nixon won five states in the region; segregationist Alabama Governor George Wallace, running as an independent candidate, won five more; Humphrey won none.) Southern voters have leaned heavily toward Republican candidates ever since; in recent decades, the old Democratic "Solid South" has become a nearly solid voting bloc once again—solidly Republican.
At the same time as many southern whites began voting Republican for the first time since the Civil War, many northern whites also began to nurse their own racial grievances. In the late 1960s and 1970s, the Civil Rights Movement moved from the South to the North. Many northern whites who had supported earlier efforts to end blatant forms of racial discrimination in the South suddenly felt victimized by new efforts to help black people in their own towns and cities. Many parents objected to mandatory school desegregation programs that bussed children to schools far from their own neighborhoods in order to create racially mixed student bodies. Many workers opposed affirmative action programs that gave minority applicants an edge over whites seeking the same jobs; affirmative action in college admissions proved just as controversial. In short, many northern whites—many of whom felt, not unjustly, that they had never personally done any harm to black people and thus owed no special debt to them—came to resent the feeling that blacks might be getting special treatment at a time when a languishing American economy threatened to plunge millions of working- and middle-class citizens of all races into poverty.
By the late 1970s, any pro-civil rights consensus that Americans had established in the 1960s had been shattered by a rising white backlash throughout the country. White students in California sued the state university system, charging that its affirmative action programs amounted to reverse discrimination. White citizens in Boston rioted in protest against school desegregation. (In one particularly horrific incident, the rioters attempted to impale an innocent black passerby with an American flag on the doorstep of Boston City Hall.) Racial resentment swept the land, and the racial politics of the Southern Strategy expanded far beyond the borders of the old Confederacy.
Enter Ronald Reagan. Reagan bore no similarity whatsoever to old-fashioned racist firebrands like Alabama Governor George Wallace, who once proclaimed, "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever," or Birmingham Sheriff Bull Connor, who unleashed attack dogs and fire hoses on peaceful civil rights marchers. There's little or no evidence that Reagan, personally, held racist views at all. But Reagan mastered the art of speaking about race in code, obliquely appealing to white prejudice without turning off voters who might be offended by more naked displays of racism. Reagan thus managed to appeal to racists without being overtly hateful himself.
Lee Atwater, the most influential Republican political operative of the 1980s and Reagan's campaign manager in 1980, called Reagan's subtle approach to white backlash voters the "New Southern Strategy."31 Atwater acknowledged in 1981 that the strategy had been designed to appeal to "the racist side of the [George] Wallace voter" without antagonizing other Americans who might be offended by ugly Wallace-style racism. As Atwater explained, "You start out in 1954 by saying, 'N-----, n-----, n-----.' By 1968 you can't say 'n-----'—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like 'forced busing,' 'states' rights,' and all these things that you're talking about are totally economic things and a by-product of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it... because obviously sitting around saying, 'We want to cut this,' is much more abstract than even the busing thing and a hell of a lot more abstract than 'N-----, n-----.'"32
Reagan's abstract, coded appeals to race began with the candidate's very first appearance of the 1980 general election campaign. After accepting his party's nomination for president at the Republican National Convention in Detroit, Reagan traveled to Philadelphia, Mississippi, the site of one of the most horrific hate crimes of the civil rights era—the 1964 murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner, three young civil rights activists who were killed for trying to help local black citizens register to vote. Local government authorities then sought to thwart any real investigation of the crime and ensure that the young men's murderers would not be punished.
Sixteen years later, Reagan arrived in Philadelphia, Mississippi. Speaking at the Neshoba County Fair, just a few miles from the earthen dam where the bodies of the three civil rights activists had been buried in 1964, Reagan reassured an enthusiastic audience of 10,000 people that "I believe in states' rights."33 Reagan promised, if elected, to "restore to states and local governments the power that belongs to them."34 During the 1950s and '60s, "States' rights" had been the mantra of southern segregationists who insisted the federal government had no right to intervene to force them to stop discriminating against black people. And "the power that belongs to local governments" had been used in Neshoba County to protect the murderers of civil rights activists.
Reagan supporters—including, most recently, conservative pundit David Brooks, in a prominent New York Times column published in November 200735—have insisted that Reagan's defense of "states' rights" in Mississippi was nothing more than a standard invocation of Reagan's general small-government philosophy. And it's true; the principle of "states' rights" has a long intellectual history in American politics, much of it having nothing whatsoever to do with race or racism. Further, the concept of "states' rights" did overlap considerably with Reagan's anti-government views. That said, the historical evidence clearly indicates that Reagan's particular embrace of "states' rights" in Neshoba County was no coincidence; the statement was not ad-libbed, but rather written into his remarks beforehand, in a sharp deviation from his standard stump speech. (Reporters assigned to cover the Reagan campaign could not recall him ever using the term "states' rights" before, anywhere else in the country.36) Considering that Reagan only came to the Neshoba County Fair after Mississippi's Republican national committeeman wrote his campaign to advise that it would be a good place to reach out to "George Wallace inclined voters," it's impossible to believe that Reagan didn't understand exactly what he was doing.37 This was Atwater's "New Southern Strategy" in action. Without saying a single word directly pertaining to racial issues, Reagan communicated a clear message to the white folk of Philadelphia, Mississippi: I'm on your side.
Reagan developed similar coded appeals to the racial resentments of northern whites as well. His criticisms of federal welfare policy often included an anecdote about a Cadillac-driving "Chicago welfare queen," a black "woman in Chicago. She has 80 names, 30 addresses, 12 Social Security cards, and is collecting veteran's benefits on 4 non-existing deceased husbands. And she's collecting Social Security on her cards. She's got Medicaid, is getting food stamps, and she is collecting welfare under each of her names. Her tax-free cash income alone is over $150,000."38 (In fact, there was no "Chicago welfare queen." Like many of Reagan's anecdotes, this one might charitably be called apocryphal.) The story's accuracy (or lack thereof) notwithstanding, Reagan's "welfare queen" anecdote indulged the prejudice of many northern whites, who came to see welfare as a government-funded scam that allowed lazy, undeserving black people to prosper at the expense of hardworking white taxpayers.
The politics of racism were certainly nothing new in American history, and Reagan was no more guilty than any number of other major political figures in our past for appealing to the least noble sentiments of the American character. What made Reagan's brand of racial politics uniquely powerful, however, was Reagan's success in channeling prejudice against black people into scorn for the government. Implicit in Reagan's multitude of "Chicago welfare queen"-style anecdotes was the notion that federal government spending on social programs was mostly wasted on pointless handouts to black recipients. In fact, during the 1980s more than 85% of the federal budget was allocated to defense spending, Social Security, Medicare, and payments on the national debt—all utterly colorblind expenditures. Even welfare, which Reagan often implied was a program for black people, benefited far more whites than African-Americans. But Reagan carefully cultivated the impression that "government spending" meant "free money for black people," and happily watched as some whites' resentment of blacks morphed into loathing of the government that supposedly coddled them.
Of course, the Reagan Revolution was about much, much more than racism. Most Americans were not racists, and most Reagan voters were not racists. Race was clearly only a peripheral issue in the president's own worldview, and millions of Reagan voters were undoubtedly oblivious to their candidate's coded racial appeals. There were plenty of other political and ideological reasons to support Reagan's movement. But racism was still an undeniable factor in American life in the 1980s, and the Reagan campaign did pursue a deliberate strategy to win the votes of the significant minority of the American population motivated by racial resentment.
Thus, while it's clearly not fair to say that racism alone can explain the Reagan phenomenon, neither is it fair to say that racism played no role.