THE BLOG
05/30/2014 01:25 pm ET | Updated Jul 30, 2014

The Republicans' Southern Strategy Still Works. Here's How Liberals Can Counter It

You've likely all heard of the Republicans' "Southern strategy." As a reminder, here's how its architect, then-Nixon adviser Kevin Phillips, described it in 1970:

From now on, the Republicans are never going to get more than 10 to 20 percent of the Negro vote and they don't need any more than that... but Republicans would be shortsighted if they weakened enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. 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. Without that prodding from the blacks, the whites will backslide into their old comfortable arrangement with the local Democrats.

Writ large, the Southern strategy sought to drum up white resentment toward the "other" in American society, i.e., minorities, and present the Republican Party as the institution that was on the side of the resentful. We know the results: Ronald Reagan's "welfare queen" myth, the launching of his 1980 presidential campaign with a speech on "states' rights" just outside the Mississippi town where three civil rights volunteers had been martyred, an act that a Republican National Committee member from that state had urged Reagan to take in order to win over "George Wallace inclined voters." And then, eight years later, George H.W. Bush and Lee Atwater gave us Willie Horton, a campaign tactic even Atwater recognized later on required a public apology. A wonderful way for the party that loves to wrap itself in the flag to build a strong sense of national community, right?

In the 21st century, there have been some Republicans who have called for the party to abandon its resentment-based strategy and reach out in a meaningful way to non-whites in order to have a chance to win, as the voting population becomes less white. Others, however, cling to the bitter ways of the past, but hope to adapt them to a new, more diverse America. Two recently published studies by Maureen Craig and Jennifer Richardson of Northwestern University provide reason for these bitter-enders to keep hope alive.

One found that whites who are presented with data showing that the American population is growing less and less white expressed greater resentment toward non-whites than those who were not given the data. The other study discovered that whites -- and this includes liberals, moderates and conservatives across the board -- all shifted rightward in their policy positions and their party identification after being given similar information on demographic trends. Maureen Craig explained:

Overall, making this racial shift salient could bring more moderate White Americans into the Republican Party, as well as increase turnout among White Americans who already consider themselves Republicans.

What can liberals do about it? The answer is simple; If Republicans benefit from dividing us by race and increasing white resentment, then we have to do whatever we can to build stronger and better relations across racial lines, in particular between whites and non-whites. How do we do this? There are two main categories of actions we take.

First, and most importantly, we emphasize the common economic interests of the overwhelming majority of people of every race. We emphasize that Republicans serve the interests of the 1 percent, the economic elite, and that dividing us by race is how they distract us from seeing that. Rush Limbaugh and his ilk have long operated from the principle that racial resentment is the true opiate of the (white) masses, the delusion that keeps them in line, worried about dark-skinned "takers" while the elites pass laws designed to help them line their own pockets.

Second, we have to do what we can to help alleviate this white fear of being a minority, the fear that breeds the resentment and the conservatism. This is the part that might seem, at first, to be unnecessary or maybe even distasteful. After all, why shouldn't it be up to fearful whites to change their attitudes? First, it is up to them. Reducing fear and resentment requires action by all sides, not just one.

Second, let's remember that their fear is being ginned up by forces with a lot of money behind them, for a very specific reason. We can get on our moral high horse and cross our arms, or we can fight back by countering that fear with love, with American unity. That's how we win the battle, a battle whose prize is the ability to move our country's laws in a progressive direction, one that will bring about greater justice, prosperity and equality for all, of every race.

Let me be clear about a couple of things. In no way am I suggesting progressives moderate or alter their policy positions, in particular on issues like the fight for racial justice and equality or comprehensive immigration reform. We believe what we believe, because those beliefs flow from our morality as well as our conviction that they are right for our country. Furthermore, I am not suggesting that liberals are out there advocating some kind of "brown supremacy," and that that's what is scaring whites.

All I am suggesting is that, where the opportunity presents itself to talk about fellowship across racial and ethnic lines, we take it. Liberals are already doing this, of course, and we need to keep on doing it. Barack Obama has provided the model, as I discussed a couple of years ago:

Obama addressed these issues most directly in his Philadelphia race speech. On white privilege, he stated: "most working- and middle-class white Americans don't feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race." That doesn't mean he believes that they haven't been privileged, but that's beside the point for the purpose of winning their support for his policies. The President also said "to wish away the resentments of white Americans, to label them as misguided or even racist, without recognizing they are grounded in legitimate concerns -- this too widens the racial divide and blocks the path to understanding." By this point he has, hopefully, established some credibility with the resentful whites he is trying to reach. He has established that he has empathy for their position.

Having done so, Obama can then deliver some truths: "Talk show hosts and conservative commentators built entire careers unmasking bogus claims of racism while dismissing legitimate discussions of racial injustice and inequality as mere political correctness or reverse racism." He added: "these white resentments distracted attention from the real culprits of the middle-class squeeze." This, I would argue, is a far more effective way to win white support both for universal measures to improve the lives of working-class Americans and for specific measures to counteract the all too real effects of discrimination non-whites still face.

Berating the resentful among the white working class for their bigotry would, without question, lead any of them who were listening to stop, and to dismiss the speaker as someone who just doesn't get them. Speaking the way Obama did is far less satisfying -- as nuance always is initially -- but his election suggests that it worked in 2008. We'll find out more in November.

As progressives, we must not dismiss the perspectives of white working class voters -- even those who express racial resentments -- any more than we do the perspective of non-white voters, because we need to win their votes. We have to convince these white voters that their interests lie not in allying themselves with the economic elites against minorities, but in coming together and creating a broad, multiethnic coalition of Americans united. This is the truth, and it is what Obama seeks to do. Such a coalition can be the driving force for real change, for policies that benefit members of all ethnic groups while ensuring equal opportunities for all Americans.

Ginning up white racial fear to win votes for the Republican Party is not only cynical, it can become downright dangerous to our domestic peace. We must present an alternative, progressive vision of America. Our vision is one where fellowship across racial lines triumphs over division, where the government serves the common good rather than the interests of the elite, and where everyone is an equal member of the national community, no one -- no one -- is more of a "real" American than anyone else.