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The Year the GOP Lost to Carter and Embraced the Dark Side

Scott Porch
·8 mins read
Bettmann/ Getty Images
Bettmann/ Getty Images

The Deep South wasn’t always red. For nearly a century, Democrats won Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina in almost every presidential election. Republican Barry Goldwater flipped those five states in 1964 by appealing to white voters who opposed Lyndon Johnson’s Civil Rights Act, and Richard Nixon held onto them with racially coded talk of “states’ rights” and “law and order” in what came to be known as the Southern Strategy.

Jimmy Carter—a peanut farmer, evangelical Christian, and Georgia Democrat—scrambled the Southern Strategy in 1976 by running as a non-ideological antidote to Republicans who were reeling from Richard Nixon’s resignation and Gerald Ford’s deeply unpopular pardoning of his Watergate crimes.

It didn’t last, of course. Ronald Reagan won in the Deep South and nearly everywhere else in 1980. Historian Rick Perlstein’s Reaganland: America’s Right Turn, 1976-1980 is the story of how the Republican Party became more ideologically cohesive, more evangelical Christian, and more driven by white identity politics during the tumultuous Carter years.

Perlstein sat down with The Daily Beast to talk about how Jimmy Carter became a one-term president and conservatives became Republicans.

Tell me about the election of 1976. Did it go the way people expected it to?

It was a very strange election. Jimmy Carter’s TV commercials were very effective at depicting him as just an ordinary guy. They featured his family talking about what a decent, down-home person he was and how much they loved him. Gerald Ford’s TV commercials were very similar. Media scholar Kathleen Hall Jamieson pointed out that this was the first election where the two candidates needed to explain that the candidates were decent guys whose families loved them.

Was this a reaction to Richard Nixon and Watergate?

Yes, it was a reaction to Richard Nixon. It was a reaction to Watergate. It was a reaction to the economy falling apart. Gerald Ford’s pollster says early on that issues would have nothing to do with the election, and both candidates doubled down on politics as symbolism. At the same time, the political press coming off of Watergate were all trying to expose the next scandal. Instead of becoming a search into deep questions of power and structure and how politics works, they elevated the most picayune things into scandals.

Did that play out during the 1976 campaign?

Yes. Gerald Ford’s FBI director Clarence Kelley had supposedly made $335 worth of work from the FBI’s carpenter shop for his home. Gerald Ford once went on a golf vacation with a U.S. Steel lobbyist. Gerald Ford’s Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz privately told a racist joke. After all of the serious events of Watergate, the 1976 election was a watershed year of the trivialization of American politics.

Was there a sense during the campaign that the election was going to begin a progressive era for government ethics and responsibility?

Jimmy Carter didn’t make many specific campaign promises, but that was one of them. And Carter did pass new ethics laws, but they were as picayune as the focus had been during the campaign. There were new limitations on congressmen giving paid speeches but no big structural changes on how the government operates.

One thing that happens in Reaganland that struck me as inconceivable today was a Republican proposal in 1977 to make voter registration automatic and Election Day a national holiday. Conservative groups killed it, but why did Republicans think it was a good idea?

That’s an interesting question. The ideological sorting of liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans that we now take for granted was not yet complete at that time. There was still a sense that the Republican Party was a pluralist party with liberal and conservative elements.

Bill Brock, the head of the Republican National Committee, committed enormous resources to recruiting African-Americans to the Republican Party. Jesse Jackson was the keynote speaker at the Republican National Committee’s winter meeting in 1978. Part of the reason the Republicans scheduled the 1980 convention in Detroit was outreach to African-Americans.

This was a hinge moment when the Republican Party could still have been a diverse coalition that also represents African-Americans, and part of the story of Reaganland is why that didn’t happen. By 1980, Reagan’s campaign recognized that the Republican Party identified largely with white interests.

Jimmy Carter ran in 1976 as a conservative Democrat from a Southern state. Did that scramble the South’s trend toward Republicans that was already underway?

Since 1964 and more explicitly since 1968, the Republican Party’s Southern Strategy cemented its long-term fortunes by reaching out to white southerners. But then, when the Democrats nominated a southerner, there was a lot of talk about whether the Southern Strategy was dead. Jimmy Carter made very few ideological commitments in 1976, and the key to his success in that election was an ability to seem to be all things to all people. After the election, that became a problem for Carter because you can’t govern without pissing off some of those people.

What part of Carter’s coalition did he lose between 1976 and 1980? Is it as simple as: He lost the Reagan Democrats?

In 1976, people thought the country was on the wrong track, and Jimmy Carter won a lot of voters who wanted change. The coalition that Carter lost by 1980—which was the coalition that he brought to the Democratic Party in 1976—was white, evangelical Christians and particularly from the South. The more politicized that evangelical Christians became, the more they aligned themselves as Republicans.

You use the word “organizing” in the book as something that Republicans like Richard Viguerie and Phyllis Schlafly did around particular issues. I associate organizing more with Barack Obama’s coalition-building. Are those the same thing?

We have very short memories to associate organizing as something born in the Obama era. Organizing was traditionally associated with the left of an earlier generation. Labor organizers get employees together to tell the boss what their terms are. It’s how you build political coalitions and how you win power. The New Right studied labor, studied Lenin, studied Saul Alinsky, and built their own conservative coalitions.

Is political organizing the idea of getting people who are inclined to agree with you to vote?

Richard Viguerie figured out that organizing was also a great way to get rich. He charged exorbitant fees to candidates and causes who wanted to use his mailing lists. A lot of the profiteering we see now on the right has the same weird brew of ideological movement-building and grifting that’s pretty distinct to the American right.

There are obvious similarities between Reagan and Trump—image-conscious, outsiders from the entertainment world—and I’m curious whether you see their motivations being their major difference?

They were both reality TV stars. Their motivations are profoundly different, but the outcomes could be quite similar. Ronald Reagan was so skilled at understanding his own motives as coming from a place of innocence that he could be exploited by people whose motives were much less innocent. Donald Trump is a self-seeking, venal monster who’s also frequently exploited by people around him.

Reaganland ends in 1980 when conservatives take power and can start testing the ideas you’ve been writing about in these four books. Why quit now?

There are so many reasons. This has been my life, right? I was 11 years old in 1980, and the books are just getting to the question of whether I’d have any historical perspective on Michael Jackson and Back to the Future territory. This was how I conceived the project 23 years ago when I started working on it, and I have a sense of completeness with it.

You’re an outspoken liberal in your opinion writing and on Twitter, but I would consider you more a liberal and historian than a liberal historian. How do you think conservatives regard you as a historian?

Speaking as a person working for liberal goals and against conservative goals, it’s hard to take what conservatives say in good faith when they have overwhelmingly turned their movement over to authoritarianism and maybe fascism. It’s hard for me to care what conservatives think. I try to write in a way that speaks for itself and try not to worry much about how people will react to it.

You don’t write conservatives as the villains, though. You don’t take cheap shots or use sneery adjectives in your books to define conservatives.

I write from the liberal, enlightenment tradition where you write from the evidence and support evidence with fact. That stands in contrast with many conservatives where the scholarship is instrumental to an ideological goal. I’m not saying all liberals respect that ideal or that I reach that ideal at all times, but I try to present my work in good faith. I’ve been happy to be able to do what I do and make a living at it.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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