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Racist Political Advertisements and American Presidential Elections

In various American presidential elections—1968, 1972, 1980, 1984, 1988, and 2008—the presidential candidates of the Republican Party, the party itself and various conservative individuals and groups—used racist political advertisement as the deus ex machina for influencing the behavior of white voters. Using the mirror images that evolved from the racist portrait of African-Americans as the pivots, political advertisement is then use to frame the issues and prime white voters—what Caliendo and Mcllwain (2006: 48) refer to as “The primary effects of racialized political communication.” The six presidential elections, which occurred during the post-civil rights era, were chosen as the case studies because racialized political advertisement were used in them by the Republican presidential candidates and various conservative groups.

Case Studies of Presidential Elections

The 1968 Presidential Race

The 1968 presidential election was held against the backdrop of burgeoning crises in the American capitalist economy. One of the major problems was de facto racism and its continuing impact on African Americans. Clearly, the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts did not end racial discrimination against African Americans. As Worthington (1992: 1) observes, “black people continued to be intimidated, coerced and murdered.” African Americans with the assistance of progressive whites and others continued to wage the struggle for racial equality and justice. In some cases, acts of protest turned violent and further infuriated hard core white racists, who were already repelled by the official end of America’s “apartheid system.” Fearing a “black revolution” with cataclysmic consequences for white interests, the agents of racism hoped the 1968 election would produce an administration that would stop the escalating “black revolution.”

Against this backdrop, racist venom provided invaluable materials around which some of the political ads for the 1968 campaign were framed. The intent was to use racist political advertisements based on already deeply established antiblack prejudices to appeal to the white electorate. Thus, both Richard Nixon, the Republican candidate, and George Wallace, the quintessential racist former governor of Alabama and flag bearer of the American Independent Party, determined that “playing the race card” was the most effective strategy for winning the election. The two candidates crafted their political ads around the image that portrayed blacks as “violent and anarchistic” with the ultimate goal of subverting the cultural, economic, political, and social interests of “white America.”

Nixon used several racist strategies as the deus ex machina of his political advertising. First, his political ads made recurrent references to the “silent majority.” This was the racially coded expression for the white majority, who were concerned but quiet about the rising tide of “black violence.” Nixon pledged to serve the interests of this group by restoring “law and order” in the American polity. Second, the Nixon campaign designed and launched political ads that appealed to Southern whites, who were angry over the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. Dubbed the “Southern strategy,” the ultimate purpose of this racial- ized form of political communication was to get what Kevin Phillips, Nixon’s chief political strategist, called “Negrophobe whites to quit the Democratic Party and join the Republican Party against the participation of blacks in the electoral process” (Boyd 1970: 215). Third, there were ads that pledged that Nixon, if elected president, would “get welfare bums off welfare” (Glick 2004: 1). Again, the expression was a racially coded reference to blacks, portrayed as “lazy” and reliant on “government handouts.” Fourth, the Nixon campaign crafted ads to convey his opposition to school busing. These ads conveyed to white voters who were opposed to racial integration that Nixon was committed to keeping black kids from attending white schools and vice versa.

As for George Wallace, he used his national notoriety as a virulent bigot to galvanize white voters who were opposed to the legal termination of America’s “apartheid system.” Using his infamous 1962 gubernatorial inaugural address in which he said, “And I say, segregation now! Segregation tomorrow. Segregation forever” as the motor force, Wallace’s political ads sought to portray him as the true candidate of white racists. Although he did not win the presidential contest, Wallace had an impressive showing: he won the popular votes in five states, got 46 electoral votes, and 9.9 million popular votes (Smallwood 1983: 23). This placed him third behind Richard Nixon, the winner, and Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic runner-up.

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