In 1981, the late Lee Atwater, political mentor to Karl Rove and George W. Bush and one of the originators of today’s Republican propaganda attack machine, was interviewed anonymously by political scientist Alexander P. Lamis for his book, Two-Party South. In the interview, Atwater explained how the GOP, in its appeal to Southern voters starting with Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy, reconfigured overtly racist policies from the Jim Crow era into Reagan-era economic policies, including particularly budget cuts targeting the poor:
LEE ATWATER: As to the whole Southern strategy that [Nixon political strategist] Harry S. Dent, Sr. and others put together in 1968, opposition to the Voting Rights Act would have been a central part of keeping the South. Now [the new Southern Strategy of Ronald Reagan] doesn’t have to do that. All you have to do to keep the South is for Reagan to run in place on the issues he’s campaigned on since 1964 and that’s fiscal conservatism, balancing the budget, cut taxes, you know, the whole cluster.
QUESTIONER: But the fact is, isn’t it, that Reagan does get to the Wallace voter and to the racist side of the Wallace voter by doing away with legal services, by cutting down on food stamps?
ATWATER: You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger” — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me — because obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”