Beautiful Country, Burn Again
The title of this post is actually the title of an amazing book I stumbled upon at Z. Smith Reynolds Library, which is on the campus of Wake Forest University. If you read anything about American politics read this book, whose full title is Beautiful Country Burn Again: Democracy, Rebellion, and Revolution, by Ben Fountain.
One chapter is especially interesting, entitled “American Crossroads: Reagan, Trump, and the Devil Down South.” It is about what has come to be called the “Southern Strategy,” whereby it is conventionally said that the Republicans overthrew the New Deal Democrats by addressing the anxieties of white southern males. As Fountain makes clear, however, the strategy was used to appeal the racists in the south and not just in the south, so they could, with the help eventually of the “New Democrats,” redistribute the vast wealth of the United States upwards.
Let me begin with a quote from Lee Atwater, an operative in the Reagan White House, explaining the essence of the “Southern Strategy:”
“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. You’re getting abstract now you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are really economic things and a byproduct of them is blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is a part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the problem one way or the other. You follow me – because obviously sitting around saying ‘We want to cut this,’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than ‘Nigger, nigger.’” [p. 131]
So the essence of the Southern Strategy, which “Goldwater discovered; Nixon refined; and Reagan perfected . . . into the darkest of the modern political arts.” [p. 133] Reagan perfected this strategy by going to Neshoba County, Mississippi for his first speech as the Republican Party’s nominee for president. What makes this remarkable is that although Neshoba County is a remote, rural county in a poor southern state with only seven electoral votes, it is the place where three civil rights workers, Michael Schwermer, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman, were murdered and their bodies buried so well that it took the FBI more than six weeks to find them. These three young men were arrested and then disappeared. During their disappearance, Mississippi Senator James Eastland alleged that their disappearance was announced in advance of their disappearance, while other white supremacists’ organizations reported seeing them alive even as far away as Cuba!
But as Fountain reports, after the bodies of the three were found, one of who had still been alive when buried, an investigation found that this was no unplanned murder. Rather, “a distinct picture emerged of a brutal, highly organized power structure procuring [these] murders” that involved “elected officials . . . as well as local Citizen’s Counsels” and the “Sovereign Commission” and “law enforcement”, that is, “The ‘community.’” [p.135] These murders were part of the South’s attempt to maintain white supremacy. And they were condoned by state authorities.
And this is where Ronald Reagan made his first speech after securing the Republican nomination for president. And in that address, Reagan, who of course made no mention of the three murdered civil rights workers, spoke in code to signal southern racists that he understood them and that he was on their side:
“I believe in states’ rights. I believe in people doing as much as they can for themselves at the community level and at the private level. And I believe we have distorted the balance of government today by giving powers that were never intended in the Constitution to be given to that federal establishment. And if I do get the job I am looking for, I’m going to devote myself to trying to reorder those priorities and to restore to the states and local communities those functions which properly belong there.” [p. 133]
No need for Reagan to say “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” None indeed for southern racists understood him very well indeed. As Fountain points out, “These days we know it as dog-whistle politics, that coded language Lee Atwater was talking about.” With no mention of the three murdered civil rights workers, Reagan’s “screaming silence was a dog-whistle too, and to think that Reagan didn’t know what he was doing is to consign him to the ranks of the epically stupid.” As Fountain concludes: “The Neshoba County speech stands as one of the masterpieces of the Southern Strategy, a dog whistle that blew out the eardrums of every reactionary within three thousand miles.” [p. 135-36]-->