Polarization as Political Strategy

We live in a surreal world of increasingly partisan politics. There is an ever widening gap between republicans and democrats, conservatives and liberals, right and left.

The perceived difference between the two sides is like the difference between a persons’ right and left hand; mirror image opposites of one another. As our county’s political discourse continues to heat up, the metaphorical mirror is getting steamy. The image is being blurred, and the person in the middle is slowly disappearing.

Moderates are an endangered species in the process of extinction. They are going the way of the dinosaur, the dodo bird, and people who pay to download music. This is true for moderate politicians in both parties, and also the citizens who elect them.

The United States has among the lowest voter turnout in the developed world. So politicians use carefully crafted rhetoric specifically intended to appeal to the base of their party in order to increase the likelihood of their supporters actually being motivated enough to get off their couches and into a voting booth.

The political party who does a better job stirring their base into a frenzied fervor is the party who wins the election. And nothing creates a frenzy better than fear. So political messaging has become increasing targeted to trigger the inner fears of people on either side of the political divide.

This has caused both sides to become more ideologically extreme. However, it would be historically inaccurate to say that both political parties are equally to blame for the contentious political climate currently enveloping the country.

Many historians have pointed to the shifting political landscape of the 1950’s and 60’s, as the emergence of our modern political configuration.

In 1948, the States’ Rights Democratic Party, commonly referred to as the Dixiecrats, split from the Democratic Party due to their disagreement with the Democratic party’s support of racial integration.


The Republican Party was, as many modern Republican politicians like to point out, the party of Lincoln, who freed the slaves by signing the Emancipation Proclamation. But when the Dixiecrats split from the Democratic Party, leaders of the Republican Party saw an opportunity to pursued disillusioned Democrats in the South to switch sides.

The Southern Strategy refers to the systematic way Republican Party candidates started appealing to white voters in Southern states who resented forced racial integration.

When Barry Goldwater ran for the presidency in 1964, he used political messaging which contained coded language supporting segregation and racism.


He responded to the call for the federal government to recognize the civil rights of African Americans by declaring the importance of states’ rights. This meant that Southern states should be able to continue denying equal rights to African Americans without interference from the federal government.

He responded to the call for desegregation by supporting something he called freedom of association. This meant that business owners should be able to continue choosing who they would and wouldn’t allow into their businesses. In other words, a continuation of segregation and discrimination based on race.

Thankfully, Barry Goldwater lost the election to Lyndon Jonson. And the Johnson administration oversaw the enactment of the Civil Rights act of 1964 followed by the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

This effectually nullified the Jim Crow laws of the South which had previously provided the legal framework for racial segregation and discrimination. The unintended consequence of this was an increase in racial resentment among Southern whites.

Richard Nixon used the racial resentment of white Southerners to win the presidency in 1968. During the race riots which followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Nixon promised to restore law and order to the country, and he frequently called his core constituency the silent majority. In other words, whites who were not taking part in any protests against racial inequality or against the war in Vietnam.


Donald Trump, the leading candidate in the Republican primaries, also calls his core constituency the silent majority. And he also seems to be using something very similar to the Southern Strategy by making racist comments which stir a surprisingly large amount of white people into a frenzy.

He has received the endorsement of the country’s largest white supremacist organization, Stormfront. He has also received the endorsement of the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, David Duke.

Many members of the Republican Party establishment have expressed extremely unfavorable opinions of Donald Trump. They say he isn’t truly a conservative, or even a real Republican.

Regardless of what they say, Trump has already won several Republican primaries, and it is very likely that he will become their nominee for president. To understand how this has happened, it is important to recognize that a political strategy of racial polarization is the cornerstone of his campaign.


In 2005, before Donald Trump decided to become a politician, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, Ken Mehlman, spoke at the annual convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He apologized to them for his party’s history of exploiting racial prejudice, and said, “Some Republicans gave up on winning the African-American vote, looking the other way or trying to benefit politically from racial polarization.”

Donald Trump could learn something from Ken Mehlman, who also said, “It’s not healthy for the country for our political parties to be so racially polarized.”




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