Lots of people like to talk about Nixon’s “southern strategy,” but this is a mistake. As the late Hugh Davis Graham pointed out, it was a *border South* strategy. Nixon saw that he could appeal to the upper South with his “silent majority” schtick and win historically Democratic voters that way, but to win the votes of hardcore segregationists in the deep South, he would have to compete with George Wallace, which would cost more moderate voters than it was worth.
Nixon won in 1968, while Wallace carried the deep South. Nixon won despite choosing to forego a chunk of voters as a matter of strategy.
The Democratic candidate, whoever that is, in 2020, should pursue a similar strategy. The impluse to chase every voter is mostly admirable and sensible, especially for Democrats, who strive to include everyone.
In the current climate, however, anyone who is still loyal to Trump must also have imbibed the noxious partisanship of the Republican Party according to which all Democrats are hopeless and not worth listening to. This is similar to the segregationist position that there was no reason to pay any attention to African Americans.
As with the diehard segregationist position, Trump loyalty is the minority position in the United States. He lost the popular vote in 2016, and his Party of sycophants lost again in 2018. Once people got a taste of Trump as president, they didn’t much like it. His victory was apparently a wake up call for a lot of people.
Nixon’s position in 1968 was subtle and required careful navigation. He wanted to send a signal that was racist enough to attract the border South, but not so racist as to alienate other voters who did not support overt racism. His claim to speak for the “silent majority” did the trick.
The Democrat in 2020 will have an easier task. That person has the advantage of knowing that the Democrat can win with energized African American voters, as Obama did twice. The Democrat can and should, for strategic and moral reasons, write off loyal Trump voters as presumptive white supremacists and go whole hog on an agenda that explicitly addresses the concerns of African Americans.
Appealing to Trump voters would require risking the loyalty of African American voters, who are essential to a victory for the Democrat. Trump voters are expendable. They are citizens, and any Democrat will do a better job of representing everyone than Trump is doing. “Represent Everyone” might be the campaign slogan.
We hear denunciations of “identity politics,” whatever that is. If it assumes some tension or exclusivity between policies that appeal to African Americans versus policies that appeal to white voters, it is nonsense. One reason why the Affordable Care Act offends Republicans is that it benefits African Americans disproportionately because they still fall out, as a class, at the bottom of every metric of well being, including access to health care. Obama won in 2008 running on health care reform, and the ACA was working well before Republicans started to sabotage it. It benefited African Americans disproportionately, but it benefited everyone, whether Republicans want to admit it or not.
African Americans have prized education since the end of slavery. Free college education will appeal to them, and to nearly everyone else. Lots of people are increasingly concerned about environmental issues. Environmental racism is a huge problem unto itself that efforts to reduce pollution and make alternative energy sources available will help address.
To state what should be obvious, African Americans are not stupid. They voted for Trump at the lowest rate of any identifiable group. They can make the connection to policies that benefit everyone. But they are reasonably frustrated with the Democratic Party. A platform that appeals explicitly to them is the right thing to do and smart politics.
Trump is an anomaly. In 1948, Harry Truman built his long shot reelection campaign around African American civil rights. He ordered the desegregation of the US military that year, sort of the opposite of Trump’s decision to reimpose the ban on transgender troops, although that analogy would only carry so far. But Truman won in 1948 when most observers expected him to lose.
In 1960, Nixon competed with Kennedy for African American votes, mostly relying on the residual loyalty of African Americans to the Republican as the Party of Lincoln. Kennedy won barely, but he promised major civil rights legislation, which Lyndon Johnson pursued with his unmatched political skill after major protests in Birmingham showed the horror of segregation to the country and Kennedy died a tragic death, leaving the country ready for major reform. After leading the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Johnson won his nickname, “Landslide Lyndon” by winning easily against a Republican who explicitly ran against the Civil Rights Act as an excessive government overreach.
A candidate who wins on explicit racism is the exception. Candidates who explicitly oppose racism typically win.
Every advance meets with a backlash. Trump is the backlash to our first African American president. Obama didn’t do everything we wanted him to do, but that was never a realistic expectation. Trump shows us how bad the alternative can be.
At this point, anyone who cannot or will not see how horrible he is as president is a lost cause, as were die hard segregationists in 1968.
Let’s support Democratic candidates who do not bother to try to chase them. They’re not worth the trouble.