When Reagan said "states' rights," he was talking about race.
On the flip side, academic historians have put race at the center of their explanations of the right's rise. These histories tend to stress the migration of the white South from the Democratic Party to the GOP. Such history sometimes shortchanges the role of the Cold War, the Great Society, and the loosening of social mores—as well as factors like the evolution of Dixie's economy. The focus is on Republican opposition first to the civil rights movement and then to later, more controversial efforts to achieve racial equality like busing and affirmative action. At its most tendentious, the argument comes close to stating that Reagan came to power because America, or at least the South, is racist at heart.
Both accounts, obviously, are overdrawn. But there are a few more nuanced histories out there, including Chain Reaction by Tom and Mary Edsall (which Krugman cites in his latest column) and In Search of Another Country by Emory University historian Joe Crespino (who has weighed in on the Reagan-in-1980 controversy here). These credit the way that race has worked as an unspoken subtext in unlikely places. The key to the argument is that Reagan's successhinged on forging messages to Americans—not just Southern whites, incidentally, but also Catholic blue-collar workers and neoconservative intellectuals—that eschewed explicit racism while still tapping into sublimated resentments of blacks or anger at racially fraught policies like busing, welfare, and crime.
In its simplest form, this multitiered message relied on code words. No one who used the phrase "states' rights" in living memory of the massive resistance movement against forced desegregation could be unaware of the message of solidarity it sent to Southern whites about civil rights. (The phrase, of course, had been bound up with racism at least since John Calhoun championed it in his defense of slavery in the 1830s.) But because the term also connoted a general opposition to the growth of the federal government's role in economic life, nonracist whites could comfort themselves that politicians like Nixon and Reagan were using it innocently—and thus shrug off any guilt they might feel for being complicit in racist campaigning. It was a dog whistle to segregationists. In the same vein, Reagan's use of phrases linked to insidious racial stereotypes—his talk of Cadillac-driving welfare queens, or "young bucks" buying T-bone steaks with food stamps—pandered to bigots while making sure not to alienate voters whom starker language would have scared away.
More important, even where code words weren't at work, Reagan's very ideology contained a strong dose of racial conservatism. On one issue after another, Reagan's image and appeal was shot through with a hostility to assisting minorities with positive measures—affirmative action, legal protections for criminal defendants, welfare programs (which mainly helped whites but were perceived as mainly helping blacks). As a standard-bearer of the conservative movement, the Edsalls have written, Reagan in 1980 "revived the sharply polarized racial images of the two parties … with racial conservatism contributing decisively to the GOP advantage."
As Crespino notes, the triumph of the civil rights movement and its assumptions about racial equality forced conservative Southerners to find other issues with which to galvanize voters. On these fronts, too, racial politics nonetheless shaped the debate. Southern candidates created private religious schools, for example, that could escape court-ordered integration, thus recasting the fight as one of religious freedom. In my own research, I've found that today's right-wing attacks on the "liberal media" have roots in George Wallace's relentless war in the early 1960s against the national news agencies whose reporters, he and other Southern whites believed, distorted the terms of their struggle to maintain Jim Crow.
The upshot was that by 1980, race and ideology had become so commingled that one's stand on racial issues served as a proxy for one's partisan preference. Previously, economic issues had been the chief dividing line between the parties. By 1980, though, according to the Edsalls, the changes that followed the civil rights movement had crystallized, and racial politics figured just as strongly. Almost 69 percent of the public, for example, thought the Democrats were likely to aid minorities, compared with just about 11 percent who thought the same of the Republicans. Conversely, roughly 66 percent thought the GOP "unlikely" to aid minorities, while about 12 percent said the same of the Democrats. Even talking about domestic government spending carried a tacit racial message, since public opposition to spending was highest and most intense when it came to programs devoted to the needy and to blacks. By contrast, support for government spending on Social Security, education, health care, and the environment remained robust even during the heyday of Reaganism.
Building on the efforts of Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon before him, as well as of a generation of Southern Republican leaders, Reagan succeeded in altering the terms of political debate when it came to race. Stripping away the crude bigotry that had cost the white South the rest of nation's sympathy in the 1950s and 1960s, he and other conservative political leaders fashioned an ideology in which racial politics were implicit, and yet still powerful. Ever since, their followers have been able to indignantly claim that any allegations of racism are smears and slurs—and discredit the entire discussion by making it about personal prejudice rather than public policy.
David Greenberg, a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers and author of three books of political history, has written the "History Lesson" column since 1998.
Photograph of Ronald Reagan by Michael Evans/The White House/CNP.