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LBJ and Jimmy Carter Hid Their Real Beliefs to Gain Power. Why Don’t More Politicians Do This?
When I reviewed The Outlier, a recent biography of Jimmy Carter, one story from his career made me do a double-take: the way he pretended to be a full-on racist in order to get elected governor of Georgia, only to reveal in his inauguration speech that he’d been faking it the whole time.
Sounds crazy, but this is pretty much what actually happened. In office, Carter was probably the most pro-civil rights governor the state had ever had, pushing for school desegregation and equal opportunity in employment, and issuing a blanket pardon for everyone convicted of violating segregation laws during the Civil Rights Movement. He even removed the confederate flag from the state capitol, something we still haven’t reached a national consensus on 50 years later.
But Carter knew he couldn’t get elected in 1970s Georgia as a supporter of civil rights. In fact, he’d tried running for governor four years earlier and lost—to a segregationist. So during his second campaign, he pretended to be a racist. And he pretended hard, criticizing his opponent for saying good things about MLK and repeatedly praising George Wallace, the firebrand white supremacist famous for his thundering declaration that he wanted “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”
This strategy of fake racism was so successful that Carter won the endorsement not only of the outgoing governor Lester Maddox—the guy who had beat him four years earlier—but also of the White Citizens Council, a full-on white supremacist group that had been formed during the backlash to Brown v. Board of Education1. Carter—now known for his genial, grandfatherly demeanor—was, in 1970, so cunning and manipulative that he successfully convinced most of Georgia’s most prominent racists that he was on their side.
The charade was, of course, all for the greater good. In his inauguration speech, Carter did a full 180, announcing that “the era of racial discrimination in Georgia is over”—to audible gasps in the crowd. Maddox fumed, and angrily denounced the new governor as a traitor, but as far as I can tell, Carter never expressed any second thoughts about his disingenuous behavior during the campaign. And neither did many of his Black supporters. State Senator Leroy Johnson later said “I understand why he ran the campaign he did. I don’t believe you can win this state without being a racist.”
Reading's excellent new review of Robert Caro’s The Years of Lyndon Johnson, I was reminded that LBJ employed a similar strategy during his career. He rose through the Senate by convincing the powerful old guard of Southern Democrats that he was, like them, firmly against civil rights, only to turn around and fight aggressively for racial justice as president.
Quoting from Caro’s book:
[U.S. Senator and avowed segregationist] Herman Talmadge said that during the 1950s, Johnson would assure the southerners that they could count on him to weaken a civil rights bill as much as possible, that he was on their side on civil rights, that he had to pretend that he wasn’t, to meet the [anti-civil rights] Southern Caucus as infrequently as possible, but that he really was their ally. “He would tell us, I’m one of you, but I can help you more if I don’t meet with you.” And, Talmadge said, the southerners believed him, believed that while changes in the civil rights laws were inevitable, Johnson would keep them as minor as possible, that “he was with us in his heart.”
The author then asked, “Did you feel that Lyndon Johnson betrayed you?” There was a longer pause. It could not have been easy for a politician as wily as Herman Talmadge to admit he had been fooled so completely. “Yes,” he finally said.
Echoing Carter’s story, LBJ’s also has a dramatic, audience-shocking quote: Johnson’s borrowing of the famous phrase “we shall overcome” in a speech to Congress pushing for the 1965 Civil Rights Act. (MLK apparently cried when he heard it.) More civil rights legislation was passed during Johnson’s five years in office than under administration before or since.
So these two stories make me wonder: why don’t more politicians lie to get what they want?
Obviously, politicians lie all the time—some level of dishonesty is practically a requirement for the job. But usually they’re either dissembling about secondary issues that don’t play a major role in their campaign or administration (i.e. Obama supposedly being against gay marriage in 2008), or adopting new beliefs out of political expediency and holding onto them forever (i.e. Romney opposing Obamacare even though it was closely modeled on the plan he’d shepherded as Massachusetts governor).
The specific type of lying Johnson and Carter did is unique: hiding your real beliefs on a major issue in order to gain power, only to reveal them once you have it. I call this the “psych!” strategy, a charming turn of phrase I hope to see in a political science paper someday.
Naively, you might think that politicians would pull this kind of thing all the time, as it seems to have worked out pretty well for Carter and LBJ. But as far as I can tell, they don’t. In fact, I could only come up with two other historical examples that maybe qualify: Nixon’s transformation from a staunch anti-communist into a president who leaned hard into diplomacy with the USSR, and FDR’s 1940 campaign promise to keep America out of World War II. And I’m not sure either fully counts. Nixon’s Soviet diplomacy might have been a genuine evolution of his views, and though many historians suspect that FDR had long seen U.S. involvement in the war as inevitable, his official story was that he only changed his mind about staying out after Pearl Harbor.
But even if we accept both of these examples, neither is nearly as devious as Johnson and Carter’s boldface lying. So why don’t more politicians employ this strategy? Let’s explore a few theories.
Unlike Carter and Johnson, I’ll never lie to you. Subscribe to Candy for Breakfast to get my white-hot honesty delivered to your inbox every other Sunday.
Politicians still try to pull this off, they just fail
Employing this strategy requires ascending to a high enough position that you’re no longer concerned about your political future—if you pulled this kind of switcheroo as a senator, you’d probably just lose your next election. LBJ was, of course, president, and Carter was term-limited as Georgia governor2.
If Carter had lost that second race as well, none of us would ever have heard of him. Johnson, meanwhile, revealed his true colors only once safely ensconced in the Oval Office, and though he’d had his eye on the presidency for his entire career (really, his entire life), it was only through a quirk of fate that he actually ended up there. He almost certainly would never have become president had it not been for Lee Harvey Oswald/the mafia/the CIA/Castro’s agents/[insert your conspiracy theory of choice here], in which case he probably would have continued to be a fake racist forever.
So perhaps there are, in fact, lots of politicians out there still quietly attempting to pull off this strategy—it’s just that very few of them ever achieve enough power to execute on the flip. But I don’t buy it. Even if the success rate for this strategy was very low, you’d expect to have seen it at least a few times in the past fifty years.
Lying like this is just too hard
I, of course, have never once lied, but I’ve heard from others that lying believably and consistently for an extended period of time is actually quite difficult. LBJ’s powers of manipulation were legendary, and beneath his agreeable demeanor, Carter was actually quite shrewd—Hunter S. Thompson called him “a ruthless sonuvabitch” and “one of the three meanest men I’ve ever met.”3
Perhaps most run-of-the-mill politicians just don’t have the stomach or long-term planning capabilities to pull off this kind of deception. Or perhaps they try, but accidentally end up changing their own beliefs in the process.
After all, the best way to convince someone of a lie is to genuinely believe it yourself. The best manipulators are known for their ability to convince themselves of whatever they need to in the moment—Steve Jobs was famous for this, and I suspect something similar is happening, on a more unconscious level, with Donald Trump. But most of us can’t handle that level of compartmentalization, and if we tell a lie for too long, we’ll start to believe it.
So maybe this strategy’s infrequent deployment is just because most politicians are simply not smart enough to pull it off.
Civil rights coalitions uniquely enabled this kind of strategy
Finally, we come to the theory I think is the most promising—this one structural rather than relying on the personality traits of individual politicians. It relies on the fact that in the mid-twentieth century, civil rights split the parties in an unusual way that enabled the “psych!” strategy for that issue and that issue alone.
During the mid-twentieth century, pro- and anti-civil rights politicians could be found in both parties—we effectively had four parties crammed into a two-party system. This meant that an ambitious politician could—and in some cases was even incentivized to—achieve power by lying about one specific, highly salient issue. Both Carter and LBJ were aligned with their fellow Southern Democrats on most issues besides civil rights, so it was relatively easy for them to get ahead by lying about their views on that one issue.
In today’s highly polarized political environment, the “psych!” strategy would be much more difficult to pull off. There are far more inter-party litmus tests for important issues—hence the approximately zero remaining pro-life Democrats and the near-complete Republican opposition to even token gun control.
Today, a liberal seeking power in a conservative area (or vice versa) would have to lie about the majority of their beliefs, which would be much harder to pull off. It would also require their voting and advocating for so many things they secretly opposed that the con probably wouldn’t be worth it, no matter how much good they were able to do later on. Johnson could presumably justify slow-walking civil rights bills as Senate Majority Leader because he was playing the long game; it would be much harder to justify voting against your conscience on every issue.
Politicians lying: not always bad!
To the long list of harms caused by today’s record-high levels of political polarization, we can now add another: they foreclose the kind of wily deception that Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter used to pull one over on their racist peers.
These two stories are a window into a time when a different kind of politics was possible. I find them hilarious and, in a way, weirdly inspiring. Perhaps one day the political environment will change again, and we’ll see a new wave of leaders pulling one over on the voters, their fellow legislators, or both.
Swallowing my pride and exhorting you all to like my last post worked—it did way better than anything else I’ve published this year—so please smash the like button at the bottom even harder this time!
And which, I learned while researching this piece, didn’t fully disband until 1995.
I’m not sure why he wasn’t worried that his history of lying on the campaign trail would come back to bite him during his presidential run, but somehow it never did, even though his entire campaign was centered around his personal decency (a winning theme in the immediate aftermath of Watergate). He even went so far as to make “I’ll never lie to you” one of his campaign slogans!
Disappointingly, he failed to reveal who the other two were