The 1972 Presidential Contest

As has been argued, despite the legal end of American “apartheid” in 1964, racism remained an enduring feature of the American capitalist political economy. For example, each time the government took steps to obliterate the vestiges of de jure racism, the actions were met with a wave of opposition from white racists who had nostalgia for the “apartheid system” and its wanton discrimination against blacks. They desired the return of the era of legal segregation and discrimination in which, among other things, blacks were not considered humans, much less U.S. citizens.

In one such case in 1971, Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that school desegregation was mandatory, even if it involved busing children between schools. The executive branch was required to formulate and implement the requisite modalities for enforcing the decision. However, amid an avalanche of pressure from whites who were opposed to having their children bused to predominantly black inner-city schools, and having black students in white schools, the Nixon administration was derelict in executing the court’s edict. Clearly, the reason was President Nixon’s decision not to alienate a significant segment of the white electorate, especially in light of the ensuing 1972 presidential election.

By the 1972 presidential election, racial polarization in the United States had reached another peak. One of the major effects was, as Carmines and Stimson (1990: 131) note, that “race had become ‘nationalized’ as a central issue in American politics, giving shape and form to many voters’ political beliefs.” Sensing this state of affairs, President Nixon, primed white voters to perceive him as the candidate committed to the maintenance of “white privilege.” He portrayed his liberal Democratic rival, Senator George McGovern, as an advocate of racial integration. The racially coded message was that McGovern was a “nigger lover” who wanted to end “white privilege.” Continuing the “silent majority theme,” Nixon’s campaign ads framed his racist appeal around his unequivocal opposition to mandatory busing and school integration, two issues that resonated with racist white voters. In the end, Nixon cruised to a second term of office. While it is difficult to quantify the impact of racist political ads on voting behavior, there is no doubt that the ads were designed to influence how whites voted.

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