Edward H. Miller, “Nut Country: Right-Wing Dallas and the Birth of the Southern Strategy” (2016) – The flipping of the South from solidly Democrat territory to (somewhat less-) solidly Republican in the span of a decade or so is one of the few historical narratives you can expect, say, an average college undergrad or a comedian to know about. And they’ll have an explanation for it, too- either the democrats got less racist and/or the republicans got more, or shuffling their feet and muttering something about taxes, or whatever baroque fantasy more forthright conservatives would summon to explain matters in a way that elides the racial element.
But explanations like that, even if they’re broadly correct, don’t really explain how the change happened. Historical studies of specific times and places within the larger trend help fill that gap, and that’s what my BC colleague Ed (who very graciously sent me a free replacement of his book when my first one got straight up stolen from its packaging) sets out to do with “Nut Country.” The title is a quote from JFK, who referred to Dallas that way after receiving harsh treatment from the local right-wing establishment (only to get shot in the same city by — probably — a leftist).
Dallas brings together many of the elements that made the Southern Strategy that the Republican Party rode to several victories in the late twentieth century possible. It was a booming oil town that could diversify into other areas largely due to federal investment in the southwest, but run by rich men convinced of their self-sufficiency. You had the same dynamic of old-style Protestant religiosity and white supremacist racial attitudes meeting mass culture and suburbanization you see elsewhere. Miller also highlights a creative tension between “ultraconservatives” — John Birch Society types who saw Eisenhower as part of the communist conspiracy — and more moderate, businesslike conservatives. This is something that could have been developed more. It’s not clear where the dividing line is beyond rhetorical tone (especially as regards race) and figures oscillate between the two. This dynamic could use to be theorized more thoroughly.
But more than anything, Miller makes a strong case for Dallas as the patient zero of the southern strategy. It’s main vector was Bruce Alger, a congressman who switched from comparatively-suave country club Republican to frothing race-baiter who voted against federal milk money for schoolkids and back again as suited him. If you wonder how exactly the transition was made, “Nut Country” does a good job of showing it as a matter of trial and error. Alger tries being “moderate” on civil rights and is race-baited to defeat (by a democrat). He wins when he embraces the Dallas far-right and its combination of resistance to civil rights, Cold War paranoia, and opposition to social provision. But he, like many converts, takes it too far and comes off as, frankly, weird- too conspiratorial, too accusatory, too likely to kick off nuclear war, not unlike his pal Barry Goldwater. It was time for another pivot.
What Alger landed on — what the whole Republican Party landed on, Miller argues, from the example of Alger and other early Sun Belt Republicans — was a tone that could sell far-right politics to a mass audience. This tone was sunny (mostly), businesslike, and meritocratic. It adapted some of the language of civil rights — especially as regards equal access and due process — to protect racialized systems of privilege in housing, education, and much else. In many respects, this was an adaptation to the fait accompli of black voting and public accommodation access. The wagons needed to be recircled. I also think it was also an adaptation to national mass media- open racism or conspiratorial rhetoric didn’t play well on tv (for the moment), but appeals to “law and order” and “neighborhood schools” and “property values” did and do. This strategy, as Miller shows, wasn’t the result of a master plan from above (though it would eventually be applied that way by the national GOP). In fine free-market fashion, it was the result of entrepreneurial leaders adapting to local conditions… with healthy portions of money and fear to grease the skids some. ****’