The 1980 Presidential Election

The 1980 presidential contest pitted Democratic incumbent Jimmy Carter against Ronald Reagan, actor and former governor of California. Reagan decided from the outset that his campaign would continue the Nixonian tradition of manipulating the racial fears of whites as a strategy for winning their votes. Accordingly, he began his campaign in one of the bastions of racism in the United States, Philadelphia, Mississippi. Central to the town’s racist legacy was that it was where the notorious Ku Klux Klan murdered three civil rights workers in 1964. Reagan used his campaign speech in the town as a “trial balloon” for one of his subsequent major racially designed political ads that revolved around the centrality of “state rights”—the euphemism used by white racists in the 1960s to defend Jim Crow segregation in the South (Suster 2008: 1).

Having established that his racist appeals resonated well with white bigots, Reagandesigned a full battery of advertisements that leached on racial prejudices and the resultant images white racists had about blacks. One of the central themes that adorned his political ads was the myth of a “post-racial America” as a result of the Civil Rights Act. The coded racist message was that whites and blacks were now “equal.” Hence, there was no need for policies such as affirmative action. The imagery of a “color-blind” society was used as the antithesis of affirmative action and other policies designed to help ameliorate some of the asymmetries between whites and blacks created by centuries of legal racism. In order to drive home his opposition to the government policies that sought to redress blacks’ grievances or compensate them for either the historical or contemporary effects of discrimination, the Reagan ads portrayed blacks as “lazy people,” who were both dependent on, and abusive of the welfare program (Glick, 2004). Significantly, the ads primed white voters with two major stereotypes that were anchors in the

American racist architecture. The first was of the “welfare queen driving a Cadillac” (Suster 2008: 1). The other was of “a young black buying steak with food stamps.” In the end, Reagan defeated Carter by 50.7 percent to 41 percent in the popular vote and a whopping 489 to 49 electoral votes. Again, while it is difficult to discern the specific impact of the racist ads on the voting behavior of whites, there was no doubt that the ads were designed to influence their behavior.

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