The Southern Strategy is dead. Long live the Southern Strategy.

The political scheme that Richard Nixon employed to cleave white voters from the Democratic Party in 1968 has finally run its course. It worked well for too long – far longer than expected. But the results from Georgia and Arizona are its death knell.

Joe Biden’s popular vote margin of victory (6 million votes, and still counting) suggests Republicans will be increasingly disadvantaged in presidential contests. The tribalism that confines the Republican Party in the main to a racially aggrieved cohort of the electorate is slow-motion political suicide. The future belongs to those who embrace a diverse America, not to those who reject it. To win the future, political campaigns will need to move away from tribalism. When that happens, America will prosper.

The death knell has been a long time coming. In 1964, Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, outlawing discrimination based on race. Signing the measure was an act of moral political courage: Johnson, a Southerner well acquainted with the ferocity of racism, understood that by embracing the rights of African Americans, his political party would suffer long-lasting consequences. Johnson is widely believed to have predicted to aides that the new law could cost his party votes in the South for a generation.

If that prophecy was right, it was also too narrow. Democrats didn’t lose the South for a generation; two generations is closer to the mark. Democrats have failed to come anywhere close to winning a majority of white voters in a presidential contest in the five decades since 1964. Jimmy Carter, a Southerner himself, won only 48 percent of the white vote in 1976. Even in the history-making race of 2008, Barack Obama won just 43 percent of the white vote. Such is the power of tribalism in the United States.

Nonetheless, I had expected Biden to do better than 41 percent among white voters. I had hoped Donald Trump’s relentless efforts to fan greater racial division would backfire, but instead he garnered more white votes in 2020 than any candidate in history. The old ghosts of racial resentments are not easily exorcised in America.

But they are losing their power. America is not going to get whiter.

In 2004, about 77 percent of the electorate was white; in 2020, by exit poll estimates, 67 percent of the electorate was white. In 2024, I suspect the national presidential electorate will be around 65 or 64 percent white. You can see the challenge for Republicans: With each election, they must win a larger swath of a shrinking share of the electorate. They may conclude that only by energizing every last disaffected white voter can the party retain its seats in Congress and state legislatures. This strategy will make the Republican Party meaner, smaller and more nativist. It guarantees only diminishing returns.

Yet still the political pundits continue to ask: Can Democrats do better among working-class white voters? What they should be pointing out is that Republicans will never win another national election unless they do better among voters of color. It is no longer a sustainable strategy to lose voters of color by a 45-point margin. But judging by the reactions of those eyeing a bid for the 2024 Republican nomination, they have learned the wrong lesson from 2020. They will conclude, “We came so close.” Some will spend time trying to figure out how to outdo Trump at his own tribal game.

So, while the Southern Strategy is failing as a viable pathway to winning the White House, it will be revivified –and soon. It may have a different name or more modern dress. But at its core will be the same old white tribalism. And as that tribalism fails Republicans in the future, they will take more desperate measures, such as trying to steal elections instead of win them.

The Southern Strategy is dead. Long live the Southern Strategy.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.