Strom Thurmond's loathsomeness on race obscures his larger role: he was there at all the major choke points of modern conservative history.
The party switch reflected the shifting allegiances of southern whites, but also revealed Thurmond’s expedient side. Facing the prospect of a Democratic primary challenge in 1966, Thurmond realized that years of infidelity to his party might finally cost him his Senate seat. And if he stayed Democratic and won, party leaders might punish him for supporting Goldwater by stripping him of his committee assignments. Despite his carefully cultivated image as the last southern man, all backbone and principle, Thurmond throughout his career sold out in spectacular moments of cravenness. His calculated decision to back Nixon over George Wallace in 1968 was another of those moments. Thurmond archly defended the move based on fidelity to his party. In truth, he figured Wallace for an also-ran from the beginning, and recognized that an alliance with Nixon meant real proximity to power. The existence and extent of an agreement or “understanding” between Thurmond and Nixon as the price of the former’s support is one of the enduring political narratives of the 1968 election.
Crespino is especially astute in discussing the way Thurmond’s overt racism fused with Nixon’s politics of white resentment to solidify the modern Republican coalition. Conservatives began dealing in dog whistles rather than water cannons. Crespino writes,
There were still millions of Americans who felt queasy over hearing the issue of law and order so baldly put in Strom Thurmond’s southern accent. The old Dixiecrat seemed to be ventriloquizing ancient southern fear mongering about lawless black men. Yet the turmoil in American politics and in cities across the country over the past several years cast Thurmond in a strange new light. Amid such frustrations, a significant number of white Americans wound up empathizing with fears and resentments that Thurmond had been channeling for more than two decades.
In the 1970s and ’80s Thurmond nimbly repositioned himself yet again, uttering fewer racist statements and even voting to create the federal Martin Luther King holiday. “The humorless segregationist firebrand was slowly giving way to the quirky, age-defying senator in jogging shorts,” Crespino writes. Yet in the book’s most fascinating pages, Crespino reveals this harmless image to be yet another cynical pose. Aware of the changing times, Thurmond took steps to insulate himself against a black electorate that was not inclined to forget his comments about “the nigger race.” He grandly hired a black staff member and pushed the nomination of a black judge for the U.S. district court in South Carolina. He ostentatiously accompanied his daughter to her first day at an integrated public school — only to move her to a private school in Virginia once he was safely reelected in 1978. Crespino cites staff memos from Thurmond’s political advisers showing these moves to be nothing more than strategic efforts to suppress turnout among black voters. He was a Dixiecrat to the end.
Strom Thurmond’s America is a timely reminder of how easily bigotry can exploit and pervert electoral politics. Today’s intolerance — anti-Muslim invective, birther conspiracies, xenophobia — is not the same as Thurmond’s: overt racism is not nearly as prevalent. Some of the credit for this progress belongs to the many Republicans who have honorably worked to overcome their party’s legacy. Yet it is hard to deny that the voices of intolerance have gotten louder during the tenure of our first black president. Prominent Republicans openly use racial dog whistles and aggressively push policies like voter ID laws that disproportionately impede poor African Americans from voting. Thurmond’s taint, it would seem, is as thick as blood. It will take generations to wear off.
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