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The Southern Question, Part II

Monday, October 18, 2004
Yesterday I wrote about the difficulties posed for liberals by the Calhounist leadership of the American South. Today I want to discuss what we might do about it.

As Thomas Frank has pointed out, the class animosity of working class whites has been deflected to "cultural" issues rather than economic ones. This phenomenon is most common among white southerners. Clinton's proposed solution was to alleviate our problems stemming from social cleavages by moderating our positions on those issues as much as possible. By doing so, we could defuse the culture war and return to class politics, which naturally favors Democrats. This strategy was suggested as long ago as the 1960's by Ben Wattenberg. Clinton's effort failed for a number of reasons. Among these was Clinton's personal foibles, his failure to enunciate the "New Covenant" in a systematic and comprehensive way, the neglect of the Democratic Party's institutional apparatus and grass roots organizations, and the skill and determination of the "Republican Noise Machine" (David Brock's phrase).

The Clintonite strategy was aimed in large part at midwestern "Reagan Democrats," but also towards populist southern whites. This idea goes all the way back to the post-Reconstruction Populists. It failed then, and it has failed now. In part this is because the Democrats have fallen into a number of well-laid traps and stereotypes, but the cultural divisions are also very deep-seated and hard to overcome.

There is a similar example of a cultural divide in America, and this is the Catholic-Protestant split. It seems bizarre to say so today, but once anti-Catholic bigotry animated a large portion of the U.S. electorate. It went away in part because John Kennedy openly confronted it. He said it was simply anti-American. I think this is a good example for us.

The problem with Calhounism isn't just that it is mean-spirited, or oppressive, or simply wrong headed. It is also profoundly at variance with core American principles. Remember, Calhoun explicitly repudiated the Declaration of Independence. In a similar vein, the modern Calhounites have attacked Roosevelt's Four Freedoms, which are still almost universally supported by the voters. I believe we should follow Lincoln's instructive example- he tied himself tightly to American traditions and painted his opponents (Stephen Douglas and Jefferson Davis among them) as opponents of that tradition.

I believe that the problem of the South can only be met openly. We cannot win converts there by treating southern whites as lepers, or talking down to them. Doing so will only reinforce their present loyalties. No, we must finally, once and for all, divide the Calhounites from their political base by reminding white southerners that they are, first and foremost, Americans.

More in the morning.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 9:57 PM
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