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In the 1960s, the Republican Party launched the Southern strategy – the use of coded racialized appeals to gain white votes. The large proportion of whites that now identify as Republican attests to the strategy’s resounding success. Its continued influence was evident on the stage in Cleveland Thursday.

Republican Southern Strategy

Despite the fact that Fox’s Facebook monitoring showed that “racial issues” were the top source of conversation among Facebook users this week, the Republican hopefuls engaged in a variety of rhetorical contortions in order not to mention the word “race” or acknowledge the deep, pervasive racial inequalities that exist in US society.

When asked about how to diversify the Republican base, John Kasich talked mostly about economic growth, saying only after you establish growth can you reach out to the “people in the shadows,” including “minority people.” He later underlined the same point by saying how the United States needs to “give everybody a chance” and not “let anyone be behind.”

The only candidate asked directly about policing problems, Scott Walker avoided mentioning the word race, only stating we need to improve police training and “treat everyone the same.”

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Rand Paul labeled himself a “different kind of Republican” because he had been to Ferguson, Chicago, and Detroit, but he did not say why those visits should be seen as meaningful. Their racial content was implied, not stated.

The only racial group that was mentioned directly was Latinos (specifically Mexicans), who were referenced as “illegals,” drug dealers, and murderers who need to be kept out through secure borders and a border wall. As Donald Trump has repeatedly demonstrated, denigrating Latino immigrants remains the one area where direct racial rhetoric is allowed among Republicans.

There was much talk after the 2012 election of the Republicans’ need to appeal to a more diverse electorate. Despite an African American and two Latinos on the stage, Thursday’s debate contained no substantive acknowledgment of or appeal to a broader audience. These candidates are still catering to their white base, holding strong to the Southern strategy.

Lisa Garcia-Bedolla

Lisa García Bedolla
The Berkeley Blog