Monday, October 6, 2008

The South Rising Again

I'd like to tag-team with John's excellent essay on the "southernification" (huh?) of American politics. There is no question that southern-ness has expanded well beyond the borders of the Old South, and it has re-shaped American politics from the presidential level down to the level of local school-board elections.

Some of this, I believe, is demographic. While much has been made over the last generation of northerners moving to the Sunbelt, less has been reported about Southerners moving North. In a post a few weeks ago, I pegged the new Mason-Dixon line at I-70 - which runs across the middle of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois on its way to Denver.

They came - late as it turned out - for jobs in those Northern factories. They kept coming even after those jobs disappeared to occupy the lowest rungs of the low-wage service sector economy. In Columbus, OH the person checking you out at the supermarket, or drawing your blood at the doctor's office, or cleaning your office late at night is probably from West Virginia, Kentucky or Tennessee. Dayton, though the factories are all closed, remains a hot-bed of bluegrass music.

Likewise, I-75, a boulevard of broken dreams if ever there was one, connects what was once the center of the auto industry with much of the south. Follow it south from Detroit, through Toledo, Lima and Dayton and eventually to the Gulf side of Florida. The traffic between the south and the rustbelt is heavy on this road.

But it is more than demographics. This phenomenon is sadder, in its own way, and deeper.

In the first episode of Ken Burns' series on the Civil War, novelist and historian Shelby Foote tells a story about General Patton. Exhorting his troops during some battle during WWII, Patton reminds the troops that Americans have never lost a war. At that point Foote smiles and says: Southerners know what it means to lose a war.

But almost immediately, and certainly by the turn of the twentieth century, that defeat had been recast as noble. The Glorious Lost Cause. Defeat turned, like straw into gold, into some kind of victory. And that continues right to the present moment. Americans remain fascinated by the southern side of the Civil War - at battle re-enactments it is not uncommon that twice as many people show up portraying Confederates than show up to play Union soldiers. We still use words like "honor" and "valiant" to describe soldiers who, when all is said and done, were fighting to keep 4 million people enslaved.

That cultural memory of the Civil War, I think, and the valorization of the Confederacy helps explain the Stars 'n Bars that John (and I) have seen across the midwest. Those white working class (especially) men whose horizons have shrunk with their non-union wages are the losers in our Darwinian economic struggles. Their hold on the American dream grows ever more tenuous and they know it. Waving the Confederate flag allows people both to reject the America that has rejected them, and to identify with a different, more genuine America.

Theirs is a sense of failure, not necessarily of oppression, and for that reason their politics tends toward the bitter rather than the aspirational. Some of them may not vote for Obama for purely racist reasons. In fact, I suspect, they didn't vote for Kerry either (or for Gore).

Rather, Democrats make them angry because Democrats tend to remind them of the things that hurt the most - their lack of good jobs, their lack of health care, the lousy education their kids are getting. Republicans, on the other hand, work to deflect their anger at scapegoats and trivialities. In that way, in much the same way that big plantation owners convinced poor farmers to fight for slavery, Republicans allow the white working class to identify with the losers out of whom our culture has made the biggest heroes: Johnny Reb and his brothers.

3 comments:

simply scott said...

i tend to agree, and it's a very interesting point to make. i'm surprised i haven't seen this anywhere else before since it seems to make perfect sense.

conservative politicians, at least on the national scene, do tend to like to point to someone else and blame others, drag our perspective to other areas of the world and not talk about what's wrong right under our noses, which means admitting our failures. i think that needs to change -- it has to if conservatives want to start getting elected.

instead, they run on fear and show us that everyone else is out to get us. Bush did it in 2004 (but he had help because the Dems could only bring in Kerry, a lame-oh at best), and the McCain campaign is doing it again, pointing to the outside as the problem and leading with fear (we will lose in Iraq; Obama will erode all your freedoms; etc.).

it's a shame. i'm from Mississippi, and i've never felt proud of the results of the Civil War or of the causes for it. i am, however, proud that as a Southerner i tend to have good manners and am generally friendly, which is an old-school Southern hospitality thing i like to hang onto. and that's enough for me.

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