When Lee Atwater Spilled the Beans on the Dark Secret at the Heart of 40 Years of Republican Policy

You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘N****r, n****r, n****r.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘n****r’—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, ‘forced busing, states’ rights,’ and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now you’re talking about ‘cutting taxes’—and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things, and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.

— Lee Atwater, 1981
Former President George H. W. Bush air-playing a guitar with campaign manager Lee Atwater at a 1989 inauguration party.

Lee Atwater (1951-1991) was one of the most notorious Republican strategists of the 1980s. He began his career rising in the ranks of the South Carolina Republican Party in the 1970s, participating in several prominent campaigns including that of segregationist Senator Strom Thurmond. At 29, he helped Ronald Reagan win the 1980 Republican Presidential nomination as the campaign’s political coordinator and eventually went on to become campaign manager for George H. W. Bush’s successful 1988 Presidential bid, after which he was picked as the youngest ever chairman of the Republican National Committee. He is best remembered today for his “racially inflammatory tactics like the notorious Willie Horton TV spot, which featured the mug shot of Horton, an African-American prisoner who raped a white woman.”

Way back in 1981, Atwater gave an anonymous interview with political scientist Alexander P. Lamis in which he discussed the evolution of Southern politics in the preceding decades and their role in the 1980 Reagan campaign. The bombshell off-the-record portions of the interview starting showing up in mainstream news much later—first in 2005 in The New York Times and then again in 2012 when the full recorded interview was leaked and published by The Nation. You can listen to the 42-minute recording here if you like. It’s a bit messy, but I’ve made a rough abridged transcription that captures the most important insights. And there are some critical insights. You’ll want to read to the end:

[Y]ou have to analyze the nature of Southern politics since the 1940s… Race [back then] was not really an issue. Race didn’t become an issue in the South, again, until 1954.

Race could [have] become an issue. But for that someone had to be soft on the issue, but no one was. So everyone was operating within the framework of a segregated society. So [until the mid-50s] race never became an issue.

[But then o]bviously, from 1954 to 1966, in that period, race was the issue. Earl Black wrote a book called Southern Governors and Civil Rights… that analyzes that period pretty good. Basically, what he came up with was “the segregation candidate”—the candidate who best handled the segregation issue between ’54 and ’66 basically was the winner. Importantly, the race question was the top… issue in all Southern races. This continued up to ’70.

Now once you had the Voting Rights Act in ’64 and ’65, by ’66 blacks were participating enough in the system, where by ’70 was the first year in which race was still the dominant issue, but the candidates of the moderates were consistently winning primaries—because by ’70 you had a large group of black voters. ’70 is… when you got Jimmy Carter, you got Dale Bumpers, you had Reuben Askew, you had Bill Brock, you had John West, you know. Across the board that was a new breed of Southern politician…

[T]hat was the first year statistically that the blacks were participating enough to where a moderate would get to the head of the party…

The point I’m making is: race was the dominant issue in Southern politics all through the 50s and 60s. In the 70s, it began diminishing… [First because you had the emergence of t]he competitive two parties. In the 60s you had the Goldwater phenomenon and you had Nixon and so forth, but basically the 70s is when you had a crystallized two-party thing beginning… [Second because by 1980] the two dominant issues of Southern politics, which had been race and party [i.e., because segregationist Democrats had held sway in the South]… [now] became the economy and national defense.

Now that’s interesting in that those are the issues basically that Goldwater [championed]. In other words the South in 1964 was considered reactionary, Neanderthalic, and so forth, because we weren’t mainstream on not only on the race thing but on the economic issues and national defense and all. We were considered ultra-conservative and everything.

What happens is a guy like Reagan… campaigns in 1980 on a 1964 Goldwater platform, minus the boo-boos and obviously the [opposition to the] Voting Rights Act… and all that bullshit—but when you look at the economics and national defense, what had happened is that the South went from being behind the times to being the mainstream.

In other words, what you had was two things happening that totally washed away the Southern strategy, the Harry Dent-type southern strategy [i.e. the strategy Republicans used in the 1950s and 60s to take the South from the Dixiecrats by appealing overtly to white racism]. That whole strategy was based… on coded racism. The whole thing… Anything you look at [from those days] could be traced back to the race issue and the old Southern strategy…

But Reagan did not have to do a Southern strategy for two reasons. Number one, race was not a dominant issue. And number two, the mainstream issues in this campaign had been “Southern issues” since way back in the 60s. So Reagan goes out and campaigns on the economics and on national defense, [and] the whole campaign was devoid of any kind of [overt] racism…

I’ll say this, my generation… we’re the first generation of Southerners that won’t be prejudiced… But what I’m saying is that has been sublimated by a bunch of other issues. But more importantly, people in the South are just like any people in the history of the world. Once something becomes a reality, people adapt to it. We fall, we kick, we struggle with all of these problems, first in ’54… but by the ‘70s it was a reality. And you just adapt to reality and move on. So I’m not saying that it was done that way because we thought it was great and we finally understood anything. It [just] became a part of our lives…

State-wide elections in the South are controlled by, I’m going to use the term George Wallace voters… So, the blue collar voter in 1964 goes for Goldwater, he carries big percentage… 1968 the blue collar voter goes for George Wallace and carries the same voters on. 1972 he goes for Nixon. 1976 he goes for Carter, and we’re leading up to my own strategy in the Deep South in 1980. The whole focus group in the South is that blue collar voter. Now that’s important when we talk about the race relations thing, because he’s also the guy that’s most threatened by the Blacks and he’s also prone to be “a racist”.

Until 1980, and a little bit until ‘76, the race issue was how you approach that man. Plus, the most conservative guy on fiscal matters always tends to have their vote, and the toughest son of a bitch in national defense and foreign policy are always going to have their vote.

So what happened is Jimmy Carter in 76 was able [to win back those Southern blue collar voters for the Democrats]… These people’s regional pride is always biggest in the lower intellects and lower income groups. So on the basis of regional pride… being a born-again Christian, which smacks of conservatism, he gets that group en masse in ‘76…

Once he got that, and this is an important point, it was his to lose. It wasn’t ours to win, it was Carter’s to lose. All Carter had to do was run in place. Well, he didn’t do that… He took that for granted. He went out, he didn’t stay on the issue…

But what he did is default his own home turf. And not only anything to do with racism, or the race question, but on economics and national defense. It was his to lose. So the fact of the matter is, the South is Reagan’s to lose now. And if Reagan goes and denounces his own economic policy or doesn’t balance the budget or, you know, he could lose the South. But if not, he’s going to win the South…

In 1968, the whole Southern strategy that [Republican political strategist Harry Dent] had put together, the Voting Rights Act would have been a central part of keeping the South. And now they don’t have to do that. All you gotta do to keep the South is for Reagan to run in place on the issues he’s campaigned on since 1964. And that’s fiscal conservatism, balancing the budget, cutting taxes, you know that old cluster of being tough with national defense. And it’s going to be very hard for Reagan to lose.

LAMIS: Whether he, I’m not saying that he does this consciously, but the fact is that he does get the Wallace voter and to the racist side of the Wallace voter by doing away with legal services… by cutting down on food stamps.

ATWATER: Here’s how I would approach that issue as a statistician or a political scientist—or as a psychologist, which I’m not—is how abstract you handle the race thing. Now once you start out, and now you don’t quote me on this, you start out in 1954 by saying, ‘n****r, n****r, n****r.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘n****r’—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, ‘forced busing, states’ rights,’ and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now you’re talking about ‘cutting taxes’—and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things, and a byproduct of them is 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’re doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. Do you follow me? Because obviously sitting around saying, ‘we want to cut taxes, we want to cut this,’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of lot more abstract than, ‘n****r, n****r.’ So anyway you look at it, race is coming on the back burner.

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