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The Southern Question, Part I

Sunday, October 17, 2004
I grew up in the South. I was born in South Carolina, and then lived in the Florida Panhandle, southern & western Georgia, and rural Tennessee. I didn't spend any real time in the North until I was 20 (I spent a year in D.C.), and it is only recently that I have really settled down here. Part of me will always be a Southerner. I think this background may help me understand what is going on down there in a way a lot of northern liberals can't. And it certainly has given me some insights into what the Republicans are like, and what they are capable of. You see, by all rights I should be one of them.

When I write about the South, I do so with some nostalgia and a great deal of sadness. When you read what I say below, I hope you remember that I do so "more in sorrow than in anger."

The legacy of slavery has bedevilled the United States throughout its history. Its effects have, of course, been felt largely in the South, where the institution was concentrated. But the consequences of slavery and its aftermath have distorted the entire history of this country. One could arge, as W.E.B. DuBois did, that the effects of slavery have been the chief obstacle to social justice in America.

You could say that the central challenge for liberals in this country is the South. If you set aside the South, liberals would have a large political majority. We would resemble very much our sister republics in Canada and Western Europe. But the existence of a "conservative" south has acted as a persistent break on social progress. Every time the left has attempted to advance social or economic justice, the conservatives in the North, who otherwise are in the minority, are able to win enough support in the South to block it.

The South is an obstacle to progressive change largely due to slavery. Because of slavery, the south became agrarian, and hence poor. As I have said many times, widespread poverty is no friend to democracy. Because of slavery, the white upper class has always been able to persuade poor whites to sabotage their own economic interests by pitting them against blacks or other unpopular minorities (jews, gays, catholics, immigrants, etc.). The agenda of this conservative political majority is very familiar: anti-urban, pro-corporate, pro-WASP, religious fundamentalism, imperialism, etc. The economic model is towards "extractive" growth (exporting natural resources), laissez-faire trading policies, and low-wage manufacturing by "creating a good business environment" (read: no unions, no regulation). Southern politics is characteristically viciously personal, elite-dominated, corrupt, and demagogic.

While the ideology and tactics of the southern right has remained essentially constant, its political tactics and party vehicles have changed. For the first sixty years of our history it tried with some success to dominate the Union from within (in the words of Shelby Foote), abetted by the 3/5 compromise. When this possibility was closed, the south sought secession. This effort failed, and the south spent a century as a political and economic backwater. It still provided crucial support to the Democratic Party, which remained its one avenue to power.

Everyone knows the story of what happened in the 1960's. The Democratic Party, which had captured the old liberal nationalist wing once so powerful in the Republican party, splintered on the shoals of civil rights for blacks. The South steadily re-aligned to the Republicans, and also came to dominate the Republican Party as thoroughly as it had dominated the Democrats before the civil war.

What we face to today is nothing less than the revival of Calhounism: the effort to "southernize" the country by mobilizing the South behind one political party, and then helping that party win a lock on political power. And we should remember that this southern leadership does not really serve the interests of its region: they have made the south poor, not rich. And the Calhounite leadership of the South has never had any real interest in preserving democratic institutions, respecting civil liberties, or even advancing growth. All that matters, all that has ever mattered, is accumulating socioeconomic and political power for the elite.

This group has always existed, but for most of U.S. history it was never able to get the reins of political power. The rest of the country would never stand for it. What has changed is that northern conservatism has been destroyed and permuted into southern conservatism. Old-line conservatives like Hamilton, Webster, Lincoln, Roosevelt, and even Taft were the hated rivals of the Calhouns, Davises, and Russells of the world. But that conservatism no longer exists. The South, led by Goldwater, Reagan, and now Bush, have re-molded to right along southern lines. And having done so, they now have within their sights the domination they always sought.

So when David Niewert compares the contemporary Republican party to German and Italian Fascists, he is certainly on to something. But there is a closer example here at home: the white southern nationalist elite of the South. This is not a new enemy, it is a very old one in a new guise and with more power than ever.

We have identified the enemy, and he is mean. The problem is how to defeat him. I'll start writing about that tomorrow.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 9:57 PM
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