1964 was a major turning point for the Democratic Party. Before that year, the Democrats harbored white supremacists. In 1964, however, they transformed under President Lyndon B. Johnson. Due to pressure applied by civil rights activists, including Martin Luther King Jr., President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. Whether or not Johnson did so out of his personal beliefs or politics is up for debate, but the passing of the Act clearly demonstrates that activists like Dr. King were able to successfully force the party into the right direction. However, these changes were not without their political costs, as South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond, an infamous segregationist, switched to the Republican Party. Following his example, countless southern Democrats became Republicans. When the GOP pursued its infamous “Southern Strategy,” using racist rhetoric to appeal to traditional Southern Democrats, a dramatic party realignment was completed. Unfortunately, half a century later, the GOP continues to embrace similarly hateful rhetoric and policies, and few Republicans seem willing to condemn them.
Many of today’s moderate Republicans agree that the Southern Strategy was wrong. Yet, I haven’t seen many republicans try to stop its modern incarnations within their own party. The existence of President Trump’s own version the Southern Strategy is clear. He hired former Breitbart News editor Steve Bannon, said some people who marched with Nazis were “very fine people”, and called African nations “shitholes”. That bigotry is obvious and shouldn’t be understated. However, I believe it’s also important to point out how even many moderate, never-Trump Republicans also, whether intentionally or not, still enable a modern version of the Southern Strategy.
Even though I am liberal, I regularly read articles by, and watch clips of conservative commentators in order to avoid being in a thought bubble filled only with arguments I agree with. One of my favorite Conservatives to watch is Meghan McCain. I am not accusing Ms. McCain of bigotry, but in an episode of The View on February 15th, she demonstrated her tacit support for the modern Southern Strategy, in her defense of Vice President Mike Pence, about whom she claimed to have “utmost respect”. Yet Mike Pence, very deliberately employs the Southern Strategy used to win over voters who think like Strom Thurmond.
Pence first gained national attention when he, as governor of Indiana, signed a “religious freedom” bill that would have allowed businesses to refuse to serve gay customers. The bill, which legalized the refusal of service to customers based on an inherent quality with which people are born, sounds awfully familiar to anyone who is familiar with the tactics of segregationist politicians. Even though Pence’s hand was forced to undo the law by businesses draining the state’s resources, he clearly still supports the policy. He hasn’t spoken out against an Indiana baker’s Supreme Court case that could permit policies like this nationwide. In fact, he’s pushed harder than almost anyone else in the administration for Neil Gorsuch, who will most likely vote in favor of denying gay people service. Pence also said that same-sex marriage would lead to “the collapse of civilization,” expressing his belief that society would end because of a civil rights advancement. Darkest of all, despite his staff’s revisionist history, Mike Pence has expressed his support for federally funded conversion therapy. On his 2000 campaign website, clearly positioned next to a statement against gay marriage and against protecting “homosexuals” from discrimination and hate crimes, he expressed his desire to take away HIV-AIDS treatment funds to pay for “assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior.” Pence’s staff has since put out weak statements denying that he explicitly supports conversion therapy, stating that this statement was in reference to funding sexual education centers, but Pence himself has never supported supporting sex ed centers, and in fact he is a major opponent of the nation’s largest sex ed centers, Planned Parenthood. For many, Mike Pence’s homophobia defines his political beliefs, and given his inability to express any opposition towards the psychological torture of children, it is clear that Pence is willing to rely heavily on the support of bigots and homophobes. Pence embraces the Southern Strategy, and uses his hatred of LGBT individuals to abide by it.
Silence on Pence himself is deafening, and support of him is even worse. I respect Ms. McCain, and do not intend to single her out, but rather clarify that the entirety of the GOP, even the supposed moderates, need to take a long look at the fringe elements of their party. Such moderates claim to support civil rights for all, but they are willing to let people, like Pence, who are diametrically opposed to civil rights, completely off the hook. Believing in civil rights requires not only stated support for them, which moderate Republicans are more than willing to give, but a willingness to stand up for them. Someone, like Pence, who appeals to the modern day Stom Thurmonds through homophobia, racism, and xenophobia, needs to be pushed out of the Republican party. Republicans need to be willing to sacrifice political seats for the sake of civil rights, or they will continue to be complicit in the embrace of bigotry for political gain. Until then, they are the party of the Southern Strategy.
The views expressed above are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Penn Democrats.