This is just a brief excerpt from the 42-minute interview, which is available here (along with the following quotes):
It has become, for liberals and leftists enraged by the way Republicans never suffer the consequences for turning electoral politics into a cesspool, a kind of smoking gun. The late, legendarily brutal campaign consultant Lee Atwater explains how Republicans can win the vote of racists without sounding racist themselves:
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 like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”
... The back-story goes like this. In 1981, Atwater, after a decade as South Carolina's most effective Republican operative, was working in Ronald Reagan's White House when he was interviewed by Alexander Lamis, a political scientist at Case Western Reserve University. Lamis published the interview without using Atwater's name in his 1984 book The Two-Party South. Fifteen years later—and eight years after Atwater passed away from cancer—Lamis republished the interview in another book using Atwater’s name. For seven years no one paid much attention. Then the New York Times' Bob Herbert, a bit of an Atwater obsessive, quoted it in an October 6, 2005 column—then five more times over the next four years.
Those words soon became legend... Curious about the remarks' context, Carter, who learned Lamis had died in 2012, asked his widow if she would consider releasing the audio of the interview, especially in light of the use of race-baiting dog-whistles (lies about Obama ending work requirements for welfare; "jokes" about his supposed Kenyan provenance) in the Romney presidential campaign. Renée Lamis, an Obama donor, agreed that very same night. For one thing she was “upset,” Carter told me, that “for some time, conservatives believed [her] husband made up the Atwater interview.” For another, she was eager to illustrate that her husband's use of the Atwater quote was scholarly, not political. ...
In 2005, the political scientists Nicholas Valentino and David Sears demonstrated that a Southern man holding conservative positions on issues other than race is no more likely than a conservative Northerner to vote for a Democrat. But when the relevant identifier is anti-black answers to survey questions—like whether one agrees “If blacks would only try harder they could be just as well off as whites”—white Southerners were twice as likely than white Northerners to refuse to vote Democratic. As another political scientist, Thomas Schaller, wrote in his 2006 book Whistling Past Dixie (which naturally quotes the infamous Atwater lines), “Despite the best efforts of Republican spinmeisters...the partisan impact of racial attitudes in the South is stronger today than in the past.”
Which one particular Republican spinmeister, when he wasn't preening before political scientists, knew fully well—which was why, seven years after that interview, in his stated goal to “rip the bark off the little bastard [Michael Dukakis]” on behalf of his candidate George H.W. Bush, Atwater ran the infamous ad blaming Dukakis for an escaped Massachusetts convict, Willie Horton, “repeatedly raping” an apparently white girl. Indeed, Atwater pledged to make "Willie Horton his running mate." The commercial was sponsored by a dummy outfit called the National Security Political Action Committee—which it is true, was a whole lot more abstract than saying "nigger, nigger, nigger."
This is the Republican Party's 'Southern strategy,' which I've mentioned many times before. But I'll keep mentioning it, because we Americans don't seem to understand our own political history. And it's important, very important.
The Democratic Party was created in the 1830s from the earlier Democratic-Republican Party, but our country's dispute over slavery caused anti-slavery members to leave the party in 1854, joining with former Whigs to create the brand-new Republican Party.
For more than a century after that, the South was solidly Democratic. African-Americans tended to vote Republican, when they were allowed to vote at all. Back then, New England was the Republican base.
But there were cracks in the Democratic Party as early as the 1930's - and an open revolt in 1948, when President Harry Truman integrated the U.S. military. (He'd established, by executive order, the President's Committee on Civil Rights and then, following that committee's recommendations, integrated both the federal work force and the armed services, also by executive order.)
Southern whites were furious! In 1948, Strom Thurmond (later, Republican Strom Thurmond) ran for president in the breakaway Dixiecrat Party. This is from the Dixiecrat platform:
We stand for the segregation of the races and the racial integrity of each race; the constitutional right to choose one's associates; to accept private employment without governmental interference, and to earn one's living in any lawful way. We oppose the elimination of segregation, the repeal of miscegenation statutes, the control of private employment by Federal bureaucrats called for by the misnamed civil rights program. We favor home-rule, local self-government and a minimum interference with individual rights.
We oppose and condemn the action of the Democratic Convention in sponsoring a civil rights program calling for the elimination of segregation, social equality by Federal fiat, regulations of private employment practices, voting, and local law enforcement.
The Dixiecrats ended up taking Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina - and one electoral vote from Tennessee. (Apparently, Truman wasn't even on the ballot in Alabama!)
Now, remember, the South was solidly Democratic back then. Heck, Truman himself was from Missouri. The Dixiecrat revolt was why the presidential election was so close (leading to that famous photo, below), because those 39 Electoral College votes would otherwise have gone to the Democrats.
The Dixiecrat Party folded soon after the election, but Southern whites remained furious at the northerners in their party. Then, in 1964, another Democratic president, Lyndon B. Johnson, signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act into law. (Note that Johnson was from the South - Texas - himself.)
This law basically outlawed state-sponsored racial segregation - and discrimination against women, too. As an aside, you might find this of interest:
Historians speculate that [Virginia Democrat Howard W.] Smith was trying to embarrass northern Democrats who opposed civil rights for women because the clause was opposed by labor unions. Representative Carl Elliott of Alabama later claimed, "Smith didn't give a damn about women's rights...he was trying to knock off votes either then or down the line because there was always a hard core of men who didn't favor women's rights," and the Congressional Record records that Smith was greeted by laughter when he introduced the amendment.
That may or may not have been Smith's motivation, but can you imagine laughing at the very idea of civil rights for women?
Anyway, Southern whites were, predictably, enraged by the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and Republicans saw their opportunity to take the South. (Both sides knew what would happen, but to their credit, northern Democrats - and President Johnson - did the right thing, anyway.) Thus, in their notorious 'Southern strategy,' Republican leaders deliberately planned to appeal to white racists.
And it was hugely successful. Sure, they lost the African-American vote, but black people were a minority everywhere. As time went on, they started losing moderate whites, too - Republicans who were uncomfortable with such racism or simply uncomfortable with becoming, in effect, Dixiecrats. But taking the entire South from the Democrats more than made up for those minor losses.
Today, there is no part of America as solidly Republican as the South. Just think of what a huge political shift that was. The South had been solidly Democratic for more than a hundred years - since before the Civil War, in fact. And now, it's been flipped completely in reverse. White southerners have become Republicans, while African-Americans have overwhelmingly abandoned the 'party of Lincoln' for the Democrats (the party of slavery, those many years ago).
But keep in mind that cultures don't change so dramatically. Sure, the South is not what it was like decades ago, not at all, but racism hasn't completely vanished, either. Heck, last year, a poll showed that almost half of Mississippi Republicans still thought that interracial marriage should be illegal.
Yeah, it's more than six decades after the Dixiecrat Party folded - and 45 years after Loving v. Virginia - but this kind of thinking still exists. But now, they're Republicans, not Democrats. In fact, now they're the Republican base. And that has hugely changed the Republican Party. This is no longer the party of Lincoln!
Atwater's interview indicated how their Southern strategy worked. "Nigger, nigger, nigger" could work in 1954, but it was counterproductive even by 1968. Oh, it would attract some people, but it would turn off a lot more. So they had to start using code words. Everyone knew what they meant, but it wasn't racist if you used polite language, right?
(As another aside, I remember accusing my parents of racism when I was a kid. They would indignantly deny it,... and then they would turn around and say something racist. "I'm not racist, but..." They just couldn't see how racist they were. They'd simply bought into the stereotypes they'd heard all their life - here in Nebraska, they'd never really known anyone of another race - and it's not racist if it's true, is it?)
Republican leaders knew what they were doing - and what they're still doing - but they can deny it when they don't go too far. (And that's a moving target, because we are progressing as a nation.) Still, it's not working nearly as well for them as it used to.
But make no mistake, this was hugely successful for the Republican Party! By taking the South, they've been able to dominate nationally for decades, steering America to the far right, despite such disasters as Richard M. Nixon and George W. Bush. True, they didn't bring back segregation - they didn't even try - but that wasn't their intent, anyway.
After all, they didn't really want to change their party. What they wanted was political power. And what they wanted it for was mostly to give tax cuts to the rich. Their motivation wasn't race-based, that was only the means. They just wanted to use those racists in order to make right-wing economic changes. And it worked.
At the time of this interview, in 1981, Atwater was working for Ronald Reagan. Remember those 'Reagan Democrats'?
In 1985, Stanley Greenberg, then a political scientist, immersed himself in Macomb County, a blue-collar Detroit suburb where whites had abandoned the Democratic Party in droves. He found that the Reagan Democrats there understood politics almost entirely in racial terms, translating any Democratic appeal to economic justice as taking their money to subsidize the black underclass. And it didn’t end with the Reagan era. Piles of recent studies have found that voters often conflate “social” and “economic” issues. What social scientists delicately call “ethnocentrism” and “racial resentment” and “ingroup solidarity” are defining attributes of conservative voting behavior, and help organize a familiar if not necessarily rational coalition of ideological interests. Doctrines like neoconservative foreign policy, supply-side economics, and climate skepticism may bear little connection to each other at the level of abstract thought. But boiled down to political sound bites and served up to the voters, they blend into an indistinguishable stew of racial, religious, cultural, and nationalistic identity.
Sounds familiar, doesn't it? Atwater knew this. Atwater used race - coded language, nothing so vulgar as "nigger, nigger, nigger" (not because of any ethical concerns, but simply because being too blatant would "backfire") - to push Republican politicians and Republican policies. And Republicans continue to do this.
But there are two things to keep in mind. The first is that you can't fill your political party with racists without having some effect on the party itself. Republican leaders thought to use those people - maybe just throwing them a bone on occasion - but as the party filled up with racists, and as blacks and non-racist whites left the party, this new GOP base was no longer satisfied with just an occasional bone.
More and more, they've been throwing their weight around. Well, they're now the GOP base. Republican leaders thought to use them, but now no Republican dares to cross them. Do you wonder why the Republican Party keeps nominating such crazy people - Todd Akin, Richard Mourdock, Christine O'Donnell, Sharron Angle, etc.?
Do you wonder why Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, Donald Trump, and Herman Cain all led in polls at one time or another during the 2012 Republican presidential primary - and why Mitt Romney had to deny everything sane he's ever done in his life? Do you wonder how we got George W. Bush in the White House?
I'd say that the tail has begun to wag the dog, but this is the GOP dog these days. And it's all a result of their 'Southern strategy.' This is where deliberately appealing to white racists has gotten them. This is where deliberately encouraging racial fear and resentment has gotten them.
But it's worked. Oh, it's been very, very successful for them. Only,... maybe not this year.
After the complete disaster of George W. Bush, it's not at all surprising that a Democrat took the White House in 2008. A black Democrat,... well, that's more surprising. But still, look what happened after Richard M. Nixon, when the president, the vice-president, and the attorney general were all forced to resign and half of his senior administration officials went to jail.
Democrats won big after that,... but it didn't last. The Republicans' Southern strategy was just too powerful. Taking the entire South from the Democrats was just a fantastic political win, and they've used that power to turn America to the right (certainly in economic terms, and they've been trying to force us into right-wing social policies, too).
If the Democrats had lost this year, we'd be right back in that same pattern again. Sure, a disastrous Republican would give them an opening, but it wouldn't last. But now, well, maybe that Southern strategy has run its course. In fact, maybe it's become a disadvantage to the GOP.
I don't know about you, but I'd be very pleased to learn that deliberately wooing white racists has ended up being a disadvantage to the Republican Party. No, I'm not ready to say that, not yet. After all, they've had a lot of successes from using that strategy. They've pushed America down a right-wing path (and, not the least of it, they've packed the Supreme Court with far-right-wing justices).
They got Citizens United out of it. They got Fox 'News' out of it. They got record income-inequality out of it, and perpetual war, and Super PACs, and... well, they've had a lot of successes which aren't going to go away easily or quickly.
So, I guess we'll see, huh? This is what's fascinating about politics. We're creating history in real-time. What we do today matters.
PS. My thanks to Jeff for the original link.