Posted on July 24, 2022

Hunting Where the Ducks Are Not

Samuel T. Francis, American Renaissance, Summer 2003

In a famous speech in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1961, Senator Barry Goldwater advised his fellow Republicans that “We’re not going to get the Negro vote as a bloc in 1964 and 1968, so we ought to go hunting where the ducks are.” The “ducks,” of course, were white voting blocs, especially Southern whites who could be expected to defect from their nearly 200-year-allegiance to the Democratic Party if the party’s northern leadership insisted on supporting forced racial integration in the South. In an editorial in 1998, the New York Times denounced Sen. Goldwater’s advice as “the origins of the G.O.P.’s cynical ‘Southern strategy’,” and the paper, which regularly endorses the Democratic ticket, advised the Republicans that they needed to rid themselves of “the legacy of national division and racial oppression.”

The Times may well have been correct that Sen. Goldwater’s speech was the original expression of the core of what later became known as the “Southern strategy,” though why that strategy is or ever was “cynical” is not clear. Given that both Sen. Goldwater and most white Southerners opposed federally imposed racial integration on constitutional grounds, there is no valid reason why he and his party should not have appealed to white Southerners as a political base, any more than liberal Democrats who supported forced integration were “cynical” when they appealed to black voters who also supported it. In any case, advice offered to a political party by a newspaper that regularly opposes the candidates and policies of the party is at least open to suspicion.

Moreover, while Sen. Goldwater’s remark may express the core of the Southern strategy, the strategy was not completely elaborated until 1968, with the publication of Kevin Phillips’ The Emerging Republican Majority and the adherence of the presidential campaign of Richard M. Nixon, for whom Phillips worked as a campaign adviser, to its plan. The Nixon campaign was, of course, successful, and it established a pattern that other successful Republican presidential candidates were to follow until 1992. The pattern consisted of appealing to whites, in the South as well as among ethnic, largely Roman Catholic, and working class voters in the urban and suburban Northeast, by invoking patriotic, moralistic, and religious values and social concerns about rising crime rates, eroding public morality, and the apparent inability or unwillingness of the Democratic leadership to control or stop such trends.

The Republican appeal to white voters also included what was at least subliminally an explicit racial appeal, a subtle message that, while not overtly stigmatizing blacks or inciting racial antagonism, played on existing white anxieties about blacks. The unstated content of such messages was that the candidate understood the racial problems with blacks and would address them by supporting the concerns of whites. Every successful Republican presidential candidate between 1968 and 1988 voiced such an appeal and sent such a message at least once during the campaign. Thus, Nixon himself denounced “forced busing” and defended “law and order” in the same way in which Alabama Governor George C. Wallace did as a third-party candidate during the same election, and Nixon was able to win over considerable numbers of Wallace supporters with these issues.

In 1972, such appeals were not necessary, given the weakness of the Democratic ticket and its vulnerability to Republican invocation of patriotism and “traditional values.” In 1976, President Gerald Ford made no such subliminal racial appeal (and lost the election), but in 1980 Ronald Reagan explicitly invoked the black “welfare queen” and in 1988 George H.W. Bush’s campaign benefitted from the famous “Willie Horton ad” about a black rapist released from prison by Massachusetts governor and Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis.

Interestingly, in 1992, it was not aRepublican who delivered the message — Bush, in fact, flubbed an opportunity to do so after the 1992 race riots in Los Angeles when he hesitated to send in troops and supported a federal trial for white policemen acquitted in a local court of assaulting black petty criminal Rodney King — but Bill Clinton. Mr. Clinton delivered the message to the Rev. Jesse Jackson by denouncing black singer “Sister Souljah” for her public endorsement of genocide against whites. By doing so publicly (on national television), Clinton sought to communicate to white voters that he would not be a mere tool of the black voting bloc he had assiduously courted throughout the campaign. Since it was the only occasion during the 1992 campaign in which either candidate sought to distance himself from black racial radicalism, it seems to have worked.

In 1996, Senator Robert Dole, like Gerald Ford 20 years earlier and George H.W. Bush in 1992, again failed to send an adequate (albeit subliminal) racial message — and lost. In 2000, George W. Bush was able to send something like the required message during the Republican primaries by equivocations on the Confederate Flag, speaking at Bob Jones University (controversial in part because, at the time, it forbade interracial dating by its students) and refusing to apologize for it, and by vetoing a “hate crimes” bill passed by the Texas legislature. Yet, at the same time, during the general election, Bush also courted black and other minority blocs intensively.

A large part of the reason for the success of the Republican Party since 1968 therefore has had to do with race — especially with its willingness to appeal to the latent racial identity and perceived interests of white voters. The appeal has not been and cannot be crude and overt — explicit appeals to race are likely to frighten and repel voters as “extreme,” “irresponsible,” or “intended to divide rather than unite,” and certainly would become the chief weapon deployed against them by their Democratic rivals — but has usually been subtle and opaque. The white voters who are the targets of the message understand it, while the message cannot be conclusively faulted for expressing “racism” or “bigotry” — forced busing is objectionable on social and constitutional grounds as well as racial: Willie Horton was not only black, but a known rapist; exploitation of the welfare system for personal gain is wrong, whether done by blacks or whites. The issues behind the appeals, as well as the appeals themselves, were “bivalent” — they possessed a double meaning, one of which was latently racial and the other of which was non-racial but consistent with mainstream conservative commonplaces. In no case could the message sent be connected only to race, but race in all cases was present and was essential to the success, the “punch,” of the message.

If this interpretation of the Republican strategy since 1968 is correct, that Republicans consciously included a subtle, bivalent appeal to white racial identity and interests as a key tactic of their campaign, then it largely substantiates what would be a premise of the tactic — that a large portion of the white electorate retains some degree of racial identity and racial consciousness (perhaps subconsciousness would be a better term), at least to the degree that its votes can be swayed by appeals, and that race and ethnicity — not only for blacks, Hispanics, and other minorities but for whites as well — remain powerful driving forces in American politics.

If that is true, then it, in turn, implies that much of the political strategy adopted by the Republican Party since 1988 has been wrong, in the sense that it has deliberately ignored and denied the powerful, persistent force of white racial identity and pursued the tenuous phantoms of “color-blindness,” “multiracialism,” and “multiculturalism” — that, in defiance of Barry Goldwater’s advice, they have been hunting where no ducks are to be found. The result for the Republicans has been not only their grotesque failure to win any substantial part of the non-white vote, but also the erosion of the natural white base of their party. One of the principal reasons for what may turn out to be the fatal error of the party is ignoring and denying the importance of race, specially among whites, is their flawed understanding of the political meaning of immigration.