How southern white women drove the GOP to Donald Trump
“The Long Southern Strategy,” a new book by political scientists Angie Maxwell and Todd Shields, first caught my eye because there's a long history of denialism surrounding the "Southern strategy." People sometimes claim that it’s a liberal myth or that it's ancient history, or that wasn't the real reason for the Southern realignment in American politics. That denialism has only intensified and grown more significant since the election of Donald Trump.
But Maxwell and Shields' book turns out to be more than just well-timed, as its subtitle suggests: “How Chasing White Voters in the South Changed American Politics.” Rather than simply showing that the Southern strategy was a long-term phenomenon, the book shows that it was a continuously reshaped and evolving strategy, that it was multifaceted — involving gender and religion as crucially as race — and that in remaking the Republican Party and the South, it remade American politics as well. "The Long Southern Strategy" explains this reshaping process remaking better than anything else I’ve read, and does so via a compelling multi-disciplinary combination of history, cultural criticism and social science.
In “The Reactionary Mind” (Salon review here), political theorist Corey Robin argued that conservative politics "speak to and for people who have lost something. It may be a landed estate or the privileges of white skin, the unquestioned authority of a husband or the untrammeled rights of a factory owner." Conservatives may have balked at Robin’s argument, but “The Long Southern Strategy” convincingly describes the specific combination of such losses on which Republicans have played, and the specific form of conservatism that resulted.
The building blocks aren't old-fashioned racism, sexism and religious fundamentalism — all have been reshaped into new forms, making new arguments for halting progress and turning back the clock, which is also a part of the book’s story. For example, as co-author Angie Maxwell told me, “Modern sexism describes feelings of resentment and distrust towards feminists and working women. Rather than believing that a woman cannot do a particular job, folks who express Modern sexism resents a woman for wanting to do that job.”
"The Long Southern Strategy" also explains why Donald Trump is not such an anomaly after all, but rather the culmination of where the GOP has been headed for the past 50-plus years. “I gave a series of lectures the year before the election, called ‘The Inevitability of Donald Trump,'" Maxwell told me — but even she thought Trump would make it no further than the Republican nomination. She was concerned, however, about how close the election was going to be, because she had applied "modern sexism measures" to national polling in 2012, and found alarmingly high numbers. “I was worried we were not accounting for that effect," she said. Perhaps not.
So I thought Maxwell would be a perfect interview subject as the 2020 campaign begins in earnest. It’s an invaluable guide for making sense of what’s about to unfold, as well as how we got here. This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
First I want to ask about the need to understand the Southern strategy as something long-term and continuing or evolving, not just a one-time event.
In short, with the Southern strategy, the story we tell is that after the Civil Rights Act, first Barry Goldwater and then Richard Nixon really played to white racial angst, and the South flipped to red. But when you start looking at not just the electoral map, but voting trends, the South goes pretty heavily back to Jimmy Carter in 1976. And most Southern politicians don't change their party IDs during that period of time. You see from archival work and other scholarship how worried the GOP was post-Watergate that the inroads they made in the South they were going to lose. And sure enough, they do.
Now, if they were so adamant on a backlash to civil rights, then why pick Carter? But there this notion that Carter's one of them — he shares their Southern identity, they understand him, he’s a born-again Christian. So the South kind of goes back [to the Democrats]. Then the Reagan folks in 1980 dropped the Equal Rights Amendment from their platform. This to me is the bridge. In 1980, the Republicans are trying again to win those Southern voters back, because they’ve really based their electoral map on that. They took that fork in the road in the late '60s, and it's kind of hard, once you set your strategy, to say, "Oh, let's just pick a new one." So they dropped the ERA.
This was a radical thing to do because the Equal Rights Amendment — and second-wave feminism in general — was a completely bipartisan effort. There were legions of Republican women feminists. In fact, they were some of the leaders in the movement. At the 1977 National Women's Convention, the only national women's convention we've ever had, every living first lady of both parties was there.. All the major congresswomen from both parties were there. What happened then was Phyllis Schlafly's effort — she had written the book [A Choice, Not An Echo] that kind of inspired Goldwater to run years before — she started an anti-feminism counter rally, also in Houston, and had massive attendance at that, and their slogan was "family values."
The GOP took notice. Schlafly was hoping it would get her a cabinet position, which it didn't. But then the Reagan administration polls 40,000 women, an effort headed up by Richard Wirthlin, with Elizabeth Dole, and they classified American women into 64 types. They called them Nancys, Bettys — they give them names —and they realized that there were a whole lot more antifeminists out there than they realized, people who really wanted these traditional gender roles. I call them "antifeminist" because that is what they were calling themselves, a lot of times. Particularly in the South, among white women. And so that move [dropping the ERA] helped Reagan to secure a lot of those Southern white women. And that's when you actually see people start changing their voter ID.
So what happens after that?
When Bill Clinton runs, we see the South fall back into the Democratic category. Again, he's a Southerner who’s one of them. They were very disappointed in Carter, there was his outrage over "This is not what we thought he was," so it's surprising Bill Clinton gets a shot. But he wins those Southern states, and then of course his first action is about gays in the military, which did not play well in the South. Then you get the strategy of really playing to evangelicals Christians in a politicized way within the party, not running an outside person, like Pat Robertson, but running as part of the Republican Party. In the 2000s is when they put gay marriage on the ballot, driving people to the polls. Arkansas is the last southern state to flip at the state level, and that hits in 2012.
So it's this long process, and it’s kind of two steps forward, one step back. Even that’s a simplification, because the effort to win over white voters on racial angst morphs from all-out aggressive language to coded language to a zero-sum kind of language about how white privilege and black advantages equal white losses to Reagan's colorblindness efforts and "We need to move past race." Those extend and overlap through the whole process.
But at every turn, there's a fork in the road, where the parties almost match on whatever issue it is, and the GOP — always against some people within their party, by the way — goes right. And they do that on those policy positions to secure enough Southern white voters to flip that region, and give them that base. But it takes a long time, and it will take a long time to turn it back to the Democrats, who are making such an effort in places like Texas and Florida and Georgia.
One thing that strikes me is that the evolving nature you just described was dependent on conflicted identities, where the threats had to be highlighted in order to be potent politically. In other words, threats had to be drummed up.
In order to win those Southern white voters, it wasn't just a policy position, there had to be a sense of urgency. Getting people to change their party ID, when a region has been so solidly one-party Democrat for so long, is not an easy thing to do. They didn't have infrastructure in a lot of places for the Republican Party. So they had to create this sense of urgency, and you do that by tapping into things that people feel are fragile and are being threatened. Of course the Civil Rights Act gives you a perfect opportunity and this is how it starts: "Your children are going to be bused across town, your whole world's going to change."
But once some of that has settled down — and a lot of places in the South figured out how to segregate through private academies, and kind of stabilized that hierarchy that had been threatened — then there have to be other ways of digging into that. One of the things that the GOP does is to start hitting on fiscal conservatism: "We’ve got to be careful of the amount of money the government spends."
There's definitely people that care about that legitimately. But it comes at a time when shutting down those programs financially equals conserving white advantages. It’s feeling like those [advantages] were slipping through your fingers, if you're white, or the world will look different — you're going to be on the outs. It’s something that white Southerners' families have memories of that that have been passed down. I mean, that is what Reconstruction was.
A deeper point that I try to get across is this notion that white Southerners in particular — and this becomes adopted by the Republican Party, nationally — were looking at this history from the other side of the room, so to speak. Everything that progressives would champion as a success or progress — I mean, if you already had the ideal society you wanted, then "progress" is just chipping away at that.
So many of us, looking at the world, are constantly saying, "We can get better about this," or "We need policies to make this more accessible." We tend to think, "Isn’t that an American thing?" But it's really not an American thing, and was definitely not a Southern thing. Because for many, many decades of its history it was about restoring what was lost after the Civil War and Reconstruction.
You mentioned the ERA, so I want to turn to gender. The book talks about the Southern ideal of womanhood and how incoherent and impossible that is to maintain. That struck me as a fragile, threatened identity as well.
Southern white womanhood, that kind of archetype, antebellum historians have written about it a lot, Civil War historians, even some in the early 20th century, have talked about how that dynamic is what underscored white supremacy: Here are these Southern white elite males who have to justify their brutal treatment of African-Americans, either as slaves or as free men, with riots and lynchings and violence in the early 20th century, by saying, "We have to do this to protect these fragile Southern white women." So the two constructs built each other; they’re completely interwoven.
Southern white women embraced that role because it was the only option they were given for a long time. I'm sure it was suffocating to some, but others very much don't want that changed.
When the Equal Rights Amendment was coming in, Phyllis Schlafly in particular portrays feminism as a not a choice, but as "You will have to go do this, you will have to go to work, you will have to put your kids in government day care." These women do not want that world to change. Phyllis Schlafly’s organization STOP ERA stood for "Stop Taking Our Privileges," and they felt like this pedestal mentality overwhelmingly benefited white women in the South overwhelmingly. It’s how they asserted what little power they had. It was based on this status as morally superior but fragile. They shouldn’t be involved in public life, had to be protected and taken care of, all that.
The political implications of that are serious, particularly if you're really trying to flip that region to your party. That's been very much overlooked — and then when you see that 75% of white women [in Georgia] voted against Stacey Abrams, and that 78% of white women who call themselves Southern voted for Trump, yet we hear the story of the national gender gap where women favor Democrats. I have a chapter in the book called “The Myth of the Gender Gap,” because if that's not disaggregated by region and race, then we don't understand it. Because with Southern white women, if you pull them out of a national sample, your gender gap is way bigger.
So just among white women — more white women voted for Hillary Clinton outside the South, but inside the South that is reversed. So that gender gap is not universal at all, even among just white women. We know it isn't universal among white women and women of color — hopefully we’re getting that message — but just among white women, there might as well be two different groups entirely. They do not track together on policy issues or on anything else, and if they’re Southern, that culture still holds really tight and feels very threatened by a woman being president.
You could see that surge up during the Kavanaugh hearings, a need to protect men. Well, you do need to protect men if you're completely dependent on them financially and economically. And of course the Southern Baptists, where religion kicks back in, is at the same time as this feminism. Second-wave feminism is surging, and you see feminism within the Baptist denomination, women in seminaries, women starting to talk about the advanced role women can play in the church. And then you see a complete backlash to that.
Fundamentalist religion is the third aspect of the story you tell. What happened within the Southern Baptist Convention was at the heart of that story. So how does that connect, and how did it develop?
After the civil rights movement, in the middle of the ERA fight, women's liberation, there is starting to be what many more fundamentalist Baptists feel like is a shift towards moderation within the SBC. They feel like it's a slippery slope, right but the fundamentalists are a small wing at that point, within the larger SBC. Moderates are definitely in the majority and in control.
So two fundamentalists — the story is they meet in New Orleans at Café du Monde, Paul Pressler and Paige Patterson. Both by the way are in big trouble right now. They start talking about what to do, and they launch a political strategy. Because in the SBC convention, you don't really run for these things, it’s kind of seen that you're "called" for something. So they launch a plan for how, in a campaign-less organization, to run a campaign. Well, you have one in the absence of anyone else having one. In 1979, they win the presidency and their decision is, if they can get as many fundamentalists as possible elected to what's called the "committee on committees," that committee appoints people to all the other committees. What happens is that you can slowly, over the course of a decade, take over that organization.
That's exactly what they do. Moderates were really purged from that organization. Women were kicked out of the seminaries, at the big Baptist seminaries, not outliers, but the major ones. A lot of people left the church, and really were shocked by it. There's a book called "Exiled" which tells all the stories, these first-hand accounts of people who feel like they just been horribly mistreated in the church, and can't quite believe it happened so quickly.
What was the political importance of the SBC takeover?
Well, the fundamentalists who took it over were very different from the old fundamentalists, the biblical literalists of the 1920s. These fundamentalist evangelicals really believed in participation in the political system, as opposed to "Well, those worldly concerns are just a distraction from our pursuit of our heavenly goals."
So they really go all in to the American system and it's not just "Let's maintain the free exercise of our religion." It is, "Let's establish Christianity." They fire their entire lobbying organization in D.C. and replace it. It really is a push for no separation of church and state, and the GOP fits into that, pushing the "War on Christians" and the "War on Christmas." It creates that sense of urgency and when you have a massive hierarchical organization, like these churches are, they end up passing out voter guides and just go all in as a very extreme organization.
What struck me was how this was a complete transformation of the Baptist faith. It was very individualistic, non-hierarchical — the individual's relationship with God — and it was turned into the pastor telling believers what to believe, with the national organization over them. It just seemed to completely violate not just the Christian spirit, but the specific doctrinal nature of Baptism.
Absolutely. Here's the craziest thing about it. Because when I grew up Catholic, which is very hierarchical, the Baptist church was the opposite, exactly. It was about the individual relationship with God. Each church stands separately. This is one of the reasons so many moderates are so upset. How do you do that when you’re an organization? Well you do it through social shaming. You do it because the church became the social hub of some of these towns in the South. So if you don't believe what the preacher is telling you, if you’re one of these moderates in a time when the denomination is shifting to the extreme, you risk alienation — not just at the church, but in your social community.
So people went along with things because to not do so would end a big chunk of their life. Others didn't, others couldn't do it. And here's what so strange: Turning fundamentalist and then becoming so deeply politicized is what ends up breaking down the denominational barriers between, like, Baptists and Catholics. I mean, the anti-abortion and anti-ERA movements start to create a denominational unity that's political. Even with Mormons, who were a huge piece of the fight against the Equal Rights Amendment.
Since you mentioned the Mormons, I’d like to ask about support for Mitt Romney in the 2012 election, and the perception of Romney as a Christian vs. Barack Obama as possibly a Muslim.
When folks were saying, "Are these Southern Baptists going to vote for Romney?", I’m like, "Oh, they will." They will because they are on the same side, politically. They will vote for whoever they have to vote for who will support the agenda they want, period. You saw those numbers about whether they believe Donald Trump is a Christian —they don't care. They don't believe he’s a Christian, but they’re still voting for him in really high numbers. More believe it in the South, but in terms of Romney, this is part of that need to make it what they want to make it. "We will look at the world the way we want to believe the world, and if he agrees with us politically, then he must be one of us."
It seems to come in two forms. Southern fundamentalists are more likely to think Trump is a Christian. But they are also more likely to vote for him even if they don’t.
Correct. They’re more likely to buy into the us vs. them, and go like, "Well, he’s one of us, so he must be a Christian.’ And each one of those elements adds: If you’re a fundamentalist but not Southern that's a little bit, but then if you're Southern but not fundamentalist you get a little bit. But if you're Southern and fundamentalist you’re the most likely to agree with it. It’s that combo where the highest numbers believe that Obama is a Muslim. It's just us vs. them on everything.
How else do you get Southern whites, many of them not in good economic circumstances, supporting a New York billionaire with little to any church attendance history? Because he is not what they’re not, he must be one of them. Because he’s not Hillary Clinton, so we're going to make him one of us. We’re going to make that happen. We’re going to tell ourselves that story and believe in it. Because he makes us feel like he supports us and he's one of us. So were just going to transfer all of that onto him. Because identity is not rational, except if you understand identity and the way it works. It makes how they vote makes sense.
You have a chapter called “The Myth of Social Conservatism” and part of what you explain there is how what conservatives are voting on goes far beyond the "family values" they’re known for. How does the reality contrast with the myth?
When we started to see this streak of religious voters come about in the '90s and 2000s, we would say there were conservatives and there were "social conservatives." That's how we talked about it. The social conservatives were very religious people, they cared about abortion issues and they cared about gay marriage, mostly, and maybe prayer in schools. And that was the reason that evangelical fundamentalists were voting Republican. Republicans were doing what they wanted on these three issues, and that was kind of the end of it.
What you start to see is that once these evangelicals are brought into the fold is they really turn into all-out conservatives. Not just on a couple of issues, they tracked differently on all kinds of what most of us will call secular issues. So I know those are constructions, too — what’s secular and what’s religious — but including on climate change and foreign policy issues. A lot of that get explained in some kind of religious way to these voters — things about Israel have to do with "If certain things happen, it will usher in the Rapture and the Second Coming."
So it's hard for a lot of people, looking through the long scope of history to realize how many Catholic nuns were marching in the civil rights movement, and how many ministers were working for civil rights outside the South from different denominations, And then all of a sudden to see such a strong Christian wing on all these conservative issues that just track perfectly with the GOP, and an absence from these other issues, like a living wage. We see that disappear and we see these social conservatives who really become all-out conservatives.
There was an empathy for some of these evangelicals and fundamentalists that entered the political arena. People said, "Well, we understand their religious belief makes them so pro-life." But where is the pro-life-ness in all these other things? Even in the current moment, with children on the border? That's because it isn't just a religious morality at stake. It is a politicized cosmology about how the world works, and your kind of Christian place in it that is really askew from where it was 40 years ago. And that is because of this merger, this marriage between the GOP and that religious denomination.
You were not surprised by Donald Trump — at least not that he would be the nominee, and that the election would be close. The way they changed the South was mirrored in the way they changed the nature of conservatism. All Trump had to do was tick the boxes of what it had become. This struck me as a perfect explanation of Trump, so I’d like you spell it out a bit.
What you realize when you see how the Long Southern Strategy works to split that region, is that if someone expresses high levels of racial resentment, which is one way we measure racial animus, like, "I'm ready to look past race and we don't need any more affirmative action," that kind of synergy, and modern sexism, which is a distrust of feminism and a distrust of ambitious women, and then a kind of Christian nationalism — if you express one of those in high numbers, you account for 95% of Trump's support among white people, which is the overwhelming bulk of his support.
So when you start looking at the candidates, you say, who checks those boxes, right? Trump plays them to the extreme, which you can do when he’s running against a woman and is coming after an African-American president. There's this backlash kind of narrative going on, but in general, who ticks those boxes? I remember talking to a reporter a couple weeks before what they call the SEC primary [in the Southern states], and I said it was going to be Trump. This person said, "No! It's gonna be Cruz." I was like, "No. His last name is Cruz." They have alienated enough people against Latinos and against anything that's not pure white that there are people who are not going to do that.
Now, could he have been beaten in the primary? If one person had run against him that gathered all their support, it's possible. But not when it’s fractured. Then the question was, "Would all these people coalesce around him?" And that's easy when the person he’s running against is a female, because those modern sexism numbers are high and the country is closely divided. So it's not that everyone feels that way. It’s just that enough feel that way and we’re closely enough divided that it could be a difference-maker, along with a lot of other things in this election cycle.
So what's the message people should take away from your book going forward?
I think we have some myths that have made us assess the landscape incorrectly. That myth of the gender gap is huge. There are different coalitions that if you’re a progressive need to be built, but if you think you're going to win white women voters over, it's a mistake. Our belief that evangelicals would not vote for someone like Trump who has been divorced twice. False! Our myth that we’re in this post-racial America. That's pretty obviously false, right now, but there was some belief in that, and that still motivated people in really deep places.
And just the fact that Trump is not an anomaly. He is the culmination of the backlash against the fight for rights and liberties for women, for Latinos and African Americans, for religious freedom and expression and diversity of the '60s and '70s. He's the culmination of that, or he’s the product of a really long counterrevolution.
What about those different coalitions?
The overwhelming majority of Southern white women are not going to vote Democratic. Anti-feminist culture is deep and strong in the Southern white community. Therefore, a progressive coalition should focus on non-Southerners who live in the South (and don't share this culture), feminist men and women, African American men and women, etc.
What's the most important question I didn't ask? And what's the answer?
You asked more about gender than anyone has, even the book's readers along the way, and I appreciate that. But what's the biggest contribution? I think for me — there is hardly any scholarship at all about Southern white women and their political behavior. There's hardly anything, because overwhelmingly the political scientists who study the South are men. It's not a criticism, it’s just when you live it, when you grow up in it, there are subtle things about identity and Southern white womanhood and how it works, you see things that to others might go unnoticed.
That's where I started to pick up such a radical difference between Southern white women and non-Southern white women, in terms of how they talked about politics and political life. And what happened with the ERA is really the missing bridge in this story. A lot of people write about the "short" Southern strategy and a lot of people write about the Christian Coalition and the GOP. But you miss the link if you don't understand Southern white women, and yet there haven't been a lot of Southern white women in a position to talk about it.