Recently a newly revealed tape of a 1971 conversation between California Gov. Ronald Reagan and President Richard Nixon made headlines.
It’s where Reagan, frustrated by the actions of African nations at the United Nations, used racial epithets to condemn them. He labeled the delegates “monkeys” and exclaimed “they’re still uncomfortable wearing shoes,” dismissing the leaders of the independent nations.
Conservatives resent when episodes such as the one on this tape make front-page news, because white Democrats from the same era also said bigoted things without it producing headlines today. This story—along with the attention focused on President Donald Trump’s racist tweets about minority members of Congress—makes it easy for commentators to point to the history of the conservative movement in the late 20th century and proclaim that it was the use of racist and racially coded language that buoyed Republicans’ electoral success with white voters.
A careful reading of the historical record, however, reveals that neither party had a monopoly on using racially coded language, and that the tactic of appealing to white grievance doesn’t explain Republicans’ success. Nowhere is this clearer than in Reagan’s 1980 victory. Countless commentators and historians have argued that Reagan captured the presidency by using coded language to appeal to erstwhile supporters of George Wallace.
In reality, however, a fairer assessment of the 1980 campaign reveals that both parties used racist language and symbols of segregation. While Reagan likely did it more effectively than President Jimmy Carter, this tactic also doesn’t explain his success.
Reagan did attempt to appeal to Wallace voters in 1980, nowhere more than in his oft-cited Aug. 6, 1980, speech at the Neshoba County Fair in Mississippi. At the fairground, Reagan declared his support for “states’ rights” just a few miles from where three civil rights workers had been murdered in 1964. Most historians have portrayed this speech as a dog whistle to working-class white voters, attempting to capitalize upon their racial prejudices.
Regardless of the intent, there isn’t a lot of evidence that such racially coded language actually benefited Reagan, because while it might have appealed to some voters, it turned others off. Indeed, sensing the potential backlash for even appearing at the fair, Dick Wirthlin, Reagan’s pollster, attempted to talk the candidate out of it.
Wirthlin later recalled that he must have pressed Reagan a bit too hard because the candidate “got so mad at me, he threw his speech papers at me and scattered them all over the bedroom.” After calming down, Reagan explained to Wirthlin: “Dick, I’ve already given a commitment on it. I’m not going to disappoint these people.”
Following the event, Reagan’s staff quickly realized that Neshoba had been a costly blunder and leaked this view to the press. The Reagan campaign concluded “that the symbolism and history were just too burdensome, especially for a conservative trying to fight off false charges of racism.”
Listing the problems confronting the campaign in Mississippi in the wake of the speech, Mike Retzer, chairman of the state Republican Party, put the “states’ rights flap” at the top.
The political blowback also threatened to rip open old divisions between the state Republican Party and the Reagan/Bush campaign. Retzer went out of his way to note that it was not the state party that had wanted that language inserted into the speech, but rather then-Rep. Trent Lott (R-Miss.).
The Neshoba speech appears to have tightened the race in Mississippi, instead of extending Reagan’s lead. This may simply have reflected the tightening that occurred across the South in the polls that summer, but those on the ground didn’t think so. Barney L. Davis, a Mississippi Reagan supporter, wrote to the head of the Republican National Committee, Bill Brock, asserting that “three weeks ago, Reagan had a landslide victory in Mississippi. Today it is a toss-up.”
Davis blamed disorganization on the part of the Reagan campaign but also cited the state Democratic surrogates (the most prominent of which were segregationist senators James O. Eastland, who had retired two years earlier, and John Stennis) and their advocacy for Carter.
Reagan ultimately won Mississippi as well as 43 other states. But it wasn’t his embrace of states’ rights that pushed him over the line. Early election polling from Mississippi demonstrated that voters were most concerned about the economy. When ranking which issue was most important to them, 32 percent of Mississippi respondents put inflation on top, with 20 percent citing unemployment, 6 percent saying poor government and 5 percent citing leadership.
The geographic breakdown of Reagan’s narrow 11,808-vote victory in the state affirms this idea that Mississippians were voting on who they thought could better handle the economy. Reagan won by running up the vote totals in suburban areas among upwardly mobile white voters and taking about 6 percent of the Wallace vote away from Carter, who still won northeastern Mississippi (the most pro-Wallace region of the state) by a 56-point margin.
Nationally, Reagan won because voters were unhappy with the economy and because he reflected the desires of an electorate that had become more conservative. In contrast to Carter, Reagan offered an optimistic vision of America’s future and rejected the idea that America was in decline. Reagan also rejected Carter’s belief that the only way to address national problems was through sacrifice.
Furthermore, the failure of the Carter administration to revitalize the economy and to free the hostages in Iran led many Americans to look elsewhere for leadership. Even Robert Maddox, Carter’s special assistant for religious affairs, asserted that “Iran, the economy, the oil, those kinds of things, those externals are what triggered defeat.”
It is true that some conservatives, aiming to build the Republican Party in the South, used coded language during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s to appeal to blue-collar white voters, many of whom were alienated by the Democratic Party’s support for civil rights and Great Society programs that they viewed as taking from them to give to less-deserving minorities. But what is often lost in such retellings is that Democrats used similar tactics to appeal to the same pool of voters during this period.
During the 1970 Democratic primary for Georgia governor, Carter borrowed Wallace’s campaign slogan “our kind of man” to describe himself in campaign commercials. According to Carter biographer Peter G. Bourne, this “instantaneously linked Carter to Wallace” in the minds of voters. Carter’s campaign tactics during the primary were unseemly, to say the least. Some of Carter’s closest supporters acknowledged that “he ran a campaign covertly appealing to racists.”
Democrats even deployed segregationist politicians such as Eastland and Stennis to appeal to these voters in 1976 and 1980. Neither party could afford not to court them, because they made up a plurality of the vote in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, South Carolina and the Florida panhandle and were influential in other states across the country.
While these voters shifted toward the Republican Party over the past five decades, it is a mistake to assume they did so because of racism alone. Issues related to gender, religion and economics also played a crucial role in their transformation. As historians have documented, and as the 1980 case of Mississippi reveals, Republicans during this time used all three to appeal in burgeoning Sunbelt suburbs.
While Reagan’s promises of smaller government, lower taxes and deregulation appealed to middle-class and property-owning white voters, Reagan’s greatest appeal lay in his ability to rekindle Americans’ belief in themselves. Unlike Carter, Reagan “did not accept the widespread assumption that the United States must simply accept its fate as a power and society in decline.” On top of this, he promised victory over—rather than coexistence with—the Soviet Union.
To white middle America, Reagan was the candidate of possibilities. He was the candidate of hope.
Almost three decades after he captured the White House, history must record that Reagan did at times use racialized campaigning and racist language. But Reagan was hardly alone among white politicians in using such language or symbols on the campaign trail. The American conservative movement is complex, and its success cannot be explained by racial appeals to voters.
Racist appeals undoubtedly played a role, but to place them as central to Reagan’s success would be historically incorrect. Such a simplistic explanation conceals the plethora of reasons for conservatism’s appeal in the late 1970s and 1980s and prevents an accurate understanding of the role of race in presidential politics and the rise of the conservative movement.
Marcus Witcher is scholar in residence with the department of history and the Arkansas Center for Research in Economics at the University of Central Arkansas and author of the forthcoming Getting Right with Reagan: The Struggle for True Conservatism, 1980-2016.