Hillary Clinton and the Southern Strategy

In 1984, I was college coordinator for the Mondale-Ferraro campaign in Western New York. On the eve of election day, I actually believed that my candidates would win New York State and the national election. I based my optimism on seeing huge crowds of working-class men and women turn out to see Mondale in Buffalo. I also was confident that the New Deal coalition, an unlikely alliance of white Southerners and blue-collar white and African-American voters in the North, would prevail as it had in most elections since 1936.

In my makeshift office the day after Ronald Reagan’s historic landslide, I heard a phrase for the first time that explained why, beyond poor planning, we had just lost: the Southern strategy.

Adopted by President Richard Nixon and the Republican Party in the wake of the Civil Rights movement, the Southern strategy involved building a conservative majority by exploiting racial and class tensions between white and black Democrats. First used by George Wallace in 1964 and 1968, Richard Nixon co-opted Wallace’s anti-liberal and anti-Civil Rights message to become the first Republican to sweep the South since Reconstruction. This set the stage for Reagan’s electoral triumph in 1984.

In the last month, I have come to the uncomfortable conclusion that the Southern strategy is alive and well. It’s not being used by a deft Republican candidate but rather by the campaign of Democrat Hillary Clinton.

On Tuesday, her opponent Barack Obama acknowledged the “old racial wounds” in a speech in Philadelphia, saying that America is not “irrevocably bound to a tragic past.”

But consider the pattern of the Clinton campaign’s comments about race. Most conspicuous were Bill Clinton’s efforts to portray Obama as exclusively a race candidate whose stunning electoral victory in South Carolina was akin to Jesse Jackson’s 1988 primary win.

Less conspicuous is the eerie racial subtext of Hillary Clinton’s “3 a.m. ad,” featuring Clinton as the defender of a blonde girl against unnamed dangers lurking in the dark.  The ad is effective by linking its two unnamed absences: the shadowy terrorist who ostensibly poses a threat to the girl’s security and Clinton’s unnamed opponent. Most extraordinary have been the recent comments of Geraldine Ferraro, who claimed that Obama has received preferential treatment because of his skin color, and that she was being attacked by Obama’s supporters “because she was white.” Here is the most elemental dimension of white racial anger and the motivating energy behind the Southern strategy: white victimhood.

White people being victimized by unnamed black people who are getting ahead at white people’s expense -- this powerful narrative has a long and tragic history in the United States. If white victimhood could be bottled, it could end the energy crisis -- it seems endlessly renewable and truly homegrown.

White victimhood has provided the energy behind the Republican Party’s Southern strategy and also behind the Clinton campaign’s recent efforts to stimulate and harness a backlash against Obama and his alleged preferential treatment in the media. The audience for the Clinton campaign’s Southern strategy is not only whites in the South or Hispanics in the Southwest, but the other voters who responded to Wallace in 1968 and 1972: working-class ethnic voters in Northern states like Pennsylvania, whose votes, Clinton hopes, will carry her to the nomination.

Is Clinton’s Southern strategy working? In Virginia and Wisconsin, states where Wallace garnered lots of support in 1968, a majority of white voters chose Obama.

But that was before the Clinton campaign retooled its Southern strategy in Ohio and Texas, contests in which Obama’s support among white and Hispanic voters eroded.

Whether Clinton’s Southern strategy “succeeds” in the remaining primaries depends in part on how Obama responds to the growing salience of race in the campaign. On Tuesday, he moved away from the politics of comparative victimization by acknowledging the legitimate anger of both blacks and whites but urging the country to move beyond the “racial stalemate.” But Clinton’s Southern strategy ultimately depends on how voters in the remaining primaries respond to it.

Will voters embrace a familiar terrain of a victimized identity politics, with hierarchies of pain vying for dominance? I hope not. The best hope for Democrats and the country they love is to defeat the Southern strategy, both inside and outside their party.

Peck is the Fred W. Shaffer Associate Professor of History and Public Policy at Duke University’s Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy.