A blast from SC’s past (and present, alas)

There was a meme bouncing around on Twitter this morning having to do with the expression “dog whistle politics.” It’s a phrase you’ve probably heard before, which is easy to understand intuitively, but I was curious about its provenance, so I looked it up. And I found a little gem that, if I had read it before, I had forgotten.

This is from the Wikipedia entry on the term. WARNING: OFFENSIVE LANGUAGE:

One group of alleged code words in the United States is claimed to appeal to racism of the intended audience. The phrase “states’ rights“, although literally referring to powers of individual state governments in the United States, was described by David Greenberg in Slate as “code words” for institutionalized segregation and racism.[8] In 1981, former Republican Party strategist Lee Atwater when giving an anonymous interview discussing the GOP’s Southern Strategy, said:

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 forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is 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 racial 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.”[9][10]

Assuming that actually was South Carolina’s own Lee Atwater speaking (and it sounds like him), that’s the most direct line I’ve ever seen drawn — by an insider, that is — from the old segregationist politics, through the Southern Strategy and the redefinition of the Solid South, to today’s anti-government, anti-tax ideology.

The implication has been, ever since we entered this phase, that government is all about taking money from people like us and giving it to those people. Which of course is an idiotic understanding of what government is and whom it benefits, but it’s a line of thinking we often hear, with varying degrees of explicitness.

The thing is, most of the anti-government crowd would be furious at being called racist, and would indignantly point to Tim Scott and the sometimes nonwhite Nikki Haley as “proof” that they haven’t a racist bone in their bodies. And indeed, some of them (such as Mark Sanford, and his longtime friend and ally Tom Davis) are just natural-born libertarians. But far, far from all.

The thing about Atwater was that unlike the true believers, he was aware of what he was doing. That’s what made him so good at it.

Of course, as he points out, this is a process of distillation that takes us from the physical-world idea of race and transforms it to a pure abstraction that doesn’t literally bear on skin color. So it actually does become something other than racism, a set of attitudes more intellectualized than merely a visceral response to melanin. So those who become indignant at cries of “racism” do have a leg to stand on, and get angrier and angrier at having such an epithet flung at them. And so the back-and-forth accusations about what such attitudes really imply leads to even greater alienation, and the polarization of our politics gets worse and worse.

But you knew that, right?

54 thoughts on “A blast from SC’s past (and present, alas)

  1. Corey H

    Explored this in that piece in The Nation that I interviewed you for. I thought Crangle’s comment was illuminating in light of the Tim Scott/Nikki Haley election:

    from the piece:

    “Nikki Haley could have been perceived as a black person in South Carolina because of her skin color and her eyes and so on, but she’s gone out of her way to say indirectly, ‘I’m not black, I’m white. I dress white, I talk white, I have white friends, I have white ideology,’” says John Crangle, a retired lawyer and political science professor who has run the state chapter of Common Cause for twenty-five years. “The subtext of everything she says is that we need to do less for black people in South Carolina, and that appeals to your traditional white Southerners—the same people who voted for Nixon and the same people who are the base of the Republican Party now. But it also appeals to all these retirees that come in because they don’t want to pay taxes.” In the Palmetto State, it seems, an antigovernment stance that by default is anti-black still plays well at the polls—especially when peddled by a minority politician. (In November, in the same election that sent Haley to the governor’s mansion, ultraconservative Tea Partier Tim Scott became the first black Republican elected to Congress from South Carolina since Reconstruction.)



  2. bud

    Nice article Brad. It was well written and pulled no punches. However, you glossed over the most important part. Let’s not mince words here. This is a REPUBLICAN strategy. So just say it. The REPUBLICANS are race baiters and bigots. That’s what they do. Why not say so?

  3. Bryan Caskey

    So Brad, do you agree with NPR’s Cokie Roberts that that Romney’s trip to Poland was because he was attempting to appeal to “white voters” back home?

    Bud, I know your answer to this, you can put your hand down.

  4. bud

    Actually Bryan the thought never crossed my mind. But you have to acknowledge that Mitt Romney can’t win unless he appeals to certain white groups that fear folks who are “different”. That’s basically the GOP base right now. And that’s a shame.

  5. Brad

    No, Bryan, that was his bid to appeal to certain wards in Chicago. 🙂

    A better case can be made that that was the point with all that Anglo-Saxon stuff late last week. I referred to that in a tongue-in-cheek way in a previous post, calling Mitt “The Mighty Mighty White Man.” You know, the one who’s going to deliver us from what Louis Winthorpe III would call “this terrible, awful Negro.”

    One could satirize it, were it not so very like satire already.

  6. Brad

    More seriously, Bryan…

    A visit to Poland — just the fact of it; not anything he said there — was a way of invoking glory days for the GOP faithful, the days of Lech Walesa, Ronald Reagan, John Paul II and Margaret Thatcher, wearing down the Evil Empire.

    Besides, if it were a racial thing, then, to be on message, that Romney aide would have had to say, “Kiss my WHITE a__.” Again, 🙂

  7. Brad

    Excuse the language, but I really think this quote is going down in the annals of political speech as a keeper: “Kiss my ass. This is a Holy site for the Polish people. Show some respect.”

    That’s Mr. Rick Gorka, ladies and gentlemen…

  8. Brad

    To my surprise, Rick Gorka has no Wikipedia page. (I was looking him up to see just how young he is. He looks and sounds extremely so.)

    After this, he will probably soon have one.

  9. Bryan Caskey

    The first thing I thought about with the trip to Poland was Obama pulling back on the missile defense for Poland.

    Gorka should have invoked the Bryce Harper response to a press question he thinks is without merit.

  10. Jane

    When I first moved to Beaufort and met Tom Davis many many years ago he was a Democrat – a long way from a natural born libertarian!

  11. Kathryn Fenner

    Aiken’s own Lee Atwater. People from Aiken are inherently multicultural, with the winter colony, first, and then the DuPonters. You become very aware, very quickly.

  12. Juan Caruso

    “The REPUBLICANS are race baiters and bigots. That’s what they do. Why not say so?” Bud

    Because it is not only untrue today, the historical record has impeached more Southern Democrats for racism than it has Republicans.

    As an independent, it was obvious to me long ago that the phrase “states rights”, although a refined political concept originally, had attracted an unfortunate connotation from overuse by unsophisticated elements.

    The original denotation is captured quite well, however by “state sovereignty”, as in the U.S. is a “union of fifty sovereign states”.

    State sovereignty is very important because it frustrates schemers from piercing U.S. sovereignty in one easy stroke toward George H.W. Bush’s ‘New World Order’. Sovereignty in the U.S. has nothing to do with racism.

    It has to do with competition, taxation, personal liberties, and welfare. Paul Krugman today hinted that EU had too little taxation. Aren’t you glad I moved?

  13. Karen McLeod

    It may be that Mr. Atwater did more to damage our nation’s political processes than anyone before or since.

  14. Steve Gordy

    In the words of Chief Justice Chase, “state sovereignty died at Appomattox.” If you don’t believe him, go back to the Preamble to the Constitution, which reads, “We the People . . . in order to form a more perfect union, . . .” In other words, the Constitution itself sets limits to what constitutes state sovereignty.

  15. Mark Stewart


    Hate to break it to ya, but the new Republicans who are being accused of racism are the heirs of the old Southern Democrats who traded heavily on that sort of Badminton play (where staying ahead is more important than achieving).

  16. Karen McLeod

    You are so right, Mark. The old, southern wing of the democratic party was very conservative, and very, very racist. When the democratic party began making civil rights one of the planks of its platform, most southern democrats rushed over to the republican party, thereby strengthening its conservative bent, while at the same time bestowing a whiff of racism on that party. That movement toward the conservative (perhaps reactionary) side continues to this day, as the odor of racism becomes ever stronger.

  17. Michael Rodgers

    Where we need state sovereignty and ought to — but don’t — have it is in districting for our state government. The Constitution says (Article 4, Section 4) that “The United States shall guarantee to every state in this union a republican form of government…”

    Our state constitution sets up a republican form of government that sincerely flatters our federal government, by having an geography-based upper house and a population-based lower house. Alas, the US Supreme Court says it’s OK for the federal government, but not OK for the states.

  18. Steve Gordy

    I’ve long thought that requiring both houses of state legislatures to be apportioned on the basis of population was one of the poorer decisions of the Warren Court.

  19. Brad

    It’s certainly ridiculous for state senators to have those irregular districts, like House members. They should represent counties.

  20. Brad

    Should TOO.

    There. I guess we settled that.

    As Karen just alluded, single-member districts have, in the aggregate, been a bad thing for SC. But I suppose they can’t (and perhaps even shouldn’t) be avoided in the case of the House.

  21. Tim

    What is more important?
    A)1 person 1 vote or
    B)1 abstract geographic area historically defined by arbitrary methods that may not have enough people to fill a High School Football Stadium 1 vote.

  22. bud

    I’m for an even more radical change. Let’s just do away with House alltogether. We could get by fine with one 46 member legislative body. We could turn the house chamber into a Chuckie Cheese franchise. That way no one would know the difference.

  23. Brad

    I’ll tell you what’s more important… having elected representatives who represent entire communities, and all the different kinds of people who live in those communities. Such representatives do a far better job of considering policies that are in the best interests of the state.

    What we have instead is legislators who carefully choose their own electors, based on race and ideology, so that no member has to consider the wishes or the needs of any element of the state’s population whom he or she has not chosen to represent. And it’s horrible.

    A system meant to elect a few black representatives has done just that — elected a few representatives who are as marginalized as anyone can be and still hold office.

    The thing is, as GOP party-builders discovered to their delight, you can’t create a few super-black districts without creating LOTS of super-white districts. And the blacker you make those few districts, the more super-white ones you get. In the Balkans, it’s called “ethnic cleansing,” and it has balkanized our Legislature, and put people who truly don’t give a rip about the interests of black voters in firm control.

    So we have a huge Republican majority, and it tends to be of a more extreme variety than the sorts of Republicans you saw before they got the hang of redistricting. A Republican like John Courson, who knows he represents lots of Democrats and treats them with respect, is an anomaly now. There just aren’t many districts like his.

    So you have this majority of super-hyped-up, uberideological Republicans, a pitiful handful of black Democrats, and an equally pitiful handful of white Democrats.

    The white Democrats — and a very few Republicans like Courson, and a few black Democrats like Anton Gunn — tend to represent the kind of racially balanced districts that we ought to have. But those are too few.

    It’s just abominable to have people making laws who feel allegiance only to one group of people, defined by skin color (some care only about whites, others care only about blacks). It gives you — well, the kind of Legislature that we have, which seldom seriously considers any kind of legislation that would help the whole state move forward.

  24. Juan Caruso

    “Juan, Hate to break it to ya, but the new Republicans who are being accused of racism are the heirs of the old Southern Democrats…” – Mark Stewart

    That is a very bold claim, MS. Doubt that you can support it with more than one recognizable republican name conservatives will agree are not really Dems (i.e. RINOs like Jake Knotts don’t count)!

  25. Juan Caruso

    “In the words of Chief Justice Chase, “state sovereignty died at Appomattox.” If you don’t believe him, go back to the Preamble to the Constitution, which reads, “We the People . . . in order to form a more perfect union, . . .” – Steve Gordy

    The Constitution itself sets limits to what constitutes federal powers. If state sovereignty died, SG, when are powerful governors going to cede their authority to the feds? Don’t hold your breath, you are not going to live to see it.

  26. Brad

    Why is that a bold claim? It’s basic historical fact. Starting in the 60s, when that RINO (as I guess you’d call him) Strom Thurmond stormed over to the GOP, through the defections that helped the GOP take over the SC House in 1994, we saw a flood of people who otherwise would have been Democrats moving to the other party.

    It would be easier to pick out people who might have been Republicans if not for this flood. They tend to stand out, like the kinds of people who were Republicans in the South back when it was unusual for whites to be that. (I had dealings with a few folks like that, early in my career.)

    John Courson is one. Mark Sanford might be another, given his ideological quirkiness. Greg Ryberg and maybe Tom Davis, for the same reason.

    Although maybe NOT Sanford, since he started his political career working in the campaign of Democrat Phil Lader.

  27. Steven Davis II

    I’d just be happy if they assigned representatives along county lines. Lee County gets 2, Richland County gets 8, Lexington County gets 7, etc… otherwise we get districts that look like Jim Clyburn’s which appears to weave houses along a city block.

  28. bud

    So why it that we allow the legislators to draw the district lines? Seems like a random drawing done by some neutral entity, perhaps even a computer geek, would give a much better result. Probably impossible to change though. We’d need a constitutional amendment.

  29. Michael Rodgers

    SD2, I’m with you, about the county lines.
    Regarding Clyburn’s district I would just say that districts don’t get drawn by themselves, by which I mean that you could just as easily ridicule how Joe Wilson’s district “appears to weave houses along a city block.”

  30. Brad

    Yes, the problem is completely the same. It’s a matter of drawing districts in an effort to guarantee the election of CERTAIN TYPES of people, whether defined by skin color or ideology. And I just think that’s unacceptable. It’s very bad for the state, and in the case you cite, for the country.

  31. Doug Ross

    “And I just think that’s unacceptable.”

    So why doesn’t any legislator (say Vincent Sheheen) do something about it?

    Logic, common sense, and fairness are all in short supply in the State House. Self-interest is in abundance.

  32. Mark Stewart

    In an effort to step out of the playground, I would say the answer is as easy as calculus. That is, apportionment is solvable.

    Computer science makes it easy to define a Senate district as having 90% of a district population within X distance of a centerpoint. Then permit the politicians to noodle the edges. Everyone would win; most importantly the people. I don’t have anything against incumbency; but I abhor politicians who are forced to avoid taking on our long-term problems to satisfy a false stratification of their own making.

  33. Juan Caruso

    Sorry Brad, Strom may have been a convert, but like Ronald Reagan he was no RINO. I seriously doubt that the RINO description even needed to be applied prior to the end of the Viet Nam “conflict”, when the political landscape started to really change and RINOs like John McCain made their bones with the Democrat power elite (insert the ‘L’-word Bud cannot refute, but refuses to even consider).

  34. Steve Gordy

    Juan, states are allowed a measure of sovereignty within the boundaries set down in the Constitution. I suspect the Founding Fathers were influenced in their writing of the Constitution by the British formula whereby the monarch is sovereign when acting through and in conjunction with Parliament.

  35. Mark Stewart

    What is a RINO anyway? Seems to me like they are probably the 1930-1960 style Republicans, more interested in economics than in social crusades. We have pretty much established that the most “conservative” Republicans today are actually more reactionary old-school Southern Democrats and religious zealots (even of the libertarian bent) – so who is kidding who here?

    The party names seem to have become stratified, but the glop underneath from one decade to the next is almost unrecognizable – certainly more so in the Republicans, but also in the Democrats, too.

    Seems to me, that by rushing for the fringe peaks, the Republicans have abandoned the fertile plains and even the foothills of our society. Higher ground may be a militaristic advantage, but the hay is grown and gathered below the hilly bastions.

    What we have is a labeling problem. We need to start ascribing superscript descriptions to the various sorts of characters inhabiting the political sphere – just to keep ’em honest.

  36. Mark Stewart

    No, Doug. The point you make is the central problem.

    Who defined liberals as spenders and conservatives as restrained? It is a bogus distinction.

    Conservative means status quo maintaining. Liberal means progressive (open to experience-based change).

    Liberals could in many ways be restrained spenders while conservatives can be happy to keep the funds flowing. Think “keep Your government hands off my Medicare!”

    The labels are just senseless name-calling. As with name-calling, these labels are inherently vapid and distorted. I believe Republicans can be progressive. Clearly some are big spenders. Just don’t think those are only the ones who reject the conservative label.

  37. Kathryn Fenner

    Too many people treat politics like football rivalry. I am a USC alumna and faculty spouse, but I readily admit that Clemson is an excellent school. I wish I could find moe Republicans to respect in the same way, but crazy seems to infected so many!

  38. Doug Ross

    The government is about laws and spending. Liberals want more of both. You cannot support progressive policies without being in favor of paying for them. Liberals believe in the transfer of wealth to support social causes.

    Do you know of a liberal who is in favor of restrained spending? You know, a DINO?

  39. Brad

    Yes. Bill Clinton, and everybody who voted for his policies that turned deficits toward surplus. How many of those are left, I don’t know.

    Kathryn, I don’t know about those “moe” Republicans you want to see. I prefer curly and larry Republicans myself…

  40. Mark Stewart

    Yeah, Doug, I do. Me.

    Nationally, it’s about reallocating budget priorities; here in SC it is, unfortunately, more about the need to actually fund infrastructure and education. There just isn’t any other way forward, we have to invest in our childrens’ and grandchildrens’ futures – whomever those future generations may be.

  41. Doug Ross


    I didn’t realize the President spends the money. How does your chart correlate to who was in the majority in Congress?

    And anyway, being a Republican doesn’t mean you are a fiscal conservative. We’ve never had a fiscal conservative majority in Congress.


    Which Clinton policies created the surplus? I’d really like to see the analysis that supports that statement. The fact that there were surpluses were more likely due to the revenue increase from the internet bubble.

  42. Steven Davis II

    @Kathryn – Then neither is CNN, MSNBC, NBC, CBS, ABC, or PBS.

    The only people who state that FOX is not credible are the people who view news reported by the above broadcasting companies as gospel.


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