Gerard Alexander disputes a narrative that we keep hearing:
The narrative usually begins with Barry Goldwater opposing provisions of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and with Richard Nixon scheming to win the presidency through a “Southern strategy” — appealing to the racial prejudice of working-class whites in the South to pry them away from the Democratic coalition assembled by Franklin Roosevelt. In this telling, bigoted Southerners were the electoral mountain to which the Republican Moses had to come, the key to the GOP winning the White House. Wooing them entailed much more than shifting the party slightly away from Democrats on racial issues; in return for political power, Republicans had to move their politics and policies to where bigots wanted them to be. This alliance supposedly laid the foundation for a new American politics. . . .
First, Republicans did not decisively depend on white Southerners to create their modern presidential majorities when the race issue was at its most polarizing. The conventional wisdom is that the GOP had little choice in the 1960s but to seek out Southern white voters and tacked hard to the right on civil rights to do it. But Republican presidential candidates pried apart the New Deal coalition in the 1950s, with the performance of Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and Nixon in 1960. This chronology has big implications. From 1952 through the 1980s, GOP presidential candidates consistently beat or nearly matched their Democratic opponents, with the clear exceptions only of 1964 and 1976. Republicans did this mostly by crafting majority coalitions in the Great Plains and Rocky Mountain states, in the industrial Midwest and mid-Atlantic, and ultimately in California — and only partially by realigning several Southern states. Moreover, these were the least “Southern” states, such as Florida, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia.This means that the GOP presidential majority and much of the party’s modern policy agenda were forged not in the racial heat of the 1960s South, but first in the 1950s and across the country. . . .
The remainder of the region — the race-obsessed Deep South — repeatedly tried to be a presidential kingmaker in the 1960s but failed. Instead of reforming the GOP in its image, the Deep South’s white electorate was among the last to join an already-winning Republican presidential coalition in the early 1970s. Wallace voters ended up supporting Nixon, Reagan and other Republicans, but much more on the national GOP’s terms than their own. The Republican Party proved to be the mountain to which the Deep South had to come, not the other way around. . . .
This explains why the second assumption is also wrong. Nixon made more symbolic than substantive accommodations to white Southerners. He enforced the Civil Rights Act and extended the Voting Rights Act. On school desegregation, he had to be prodded by the courts in some ways but went further than them in others: He supervised a desegregation of Deep South schools that had eluded his predecessors and then denied tax-exempt status to many private “desegregation academies” to which white Southerners tried to flee. Nixon also institutionalized affirmative action and set-asides for minorities in federal contracting.
Not surprisingly, white Southern leaders such as Strom Thurmond grew bitterly frustrated with Nixon. This explains what Gallup polls detected in 1971-72: A large number of white Southern voters preferred Wallace to Nixon. Only when the Alabaman was shot in May 1972 did Nixon inherit Wallace’s voters — not because of Nixon’s policies on race but despite them.