Tuesday, December 09, 2014

The Mind of the South

Now that I have relocated nearly 750 miles northeast from the South, I have moved from a solidly Republican region to a solidly Democratic one. I'm happy where I live, but I am more refugee than immigrant. Immigrants assimilate with great purpose to a new culture, but refugees retain a strong identification with home. I lament the inability to find overcooked, oversalted vegetables seasoned with pork or the proper form of cornmeal by which to make cornbread.

When traveling home or waiting in airports, I automatically gravitate to others from my state of birth. I deliberately seek out those with Alabama t-shirts on, engaging in enthusiastic small talk, most often about football or sports. Part of this comes from growing up in a small state with a population of only 4.8 million people. The city I live in now has more inhabitants than the entire state of my birth.

One topic is noticeably absent: politics. A sharp and immediate difference separates me from most Alabamians, and for that matter, most Southerners. I'm a liberal Democrat. They're usually conservative Republicans. For this reason, I simply don't go there. The conventional wisdom is that our country is as ideologically divided as it ever has been. I'm not convinced.

Writing in the Daily Beast, Michael Tomsky writes, with no small derision, about a new solid South.

It’s lost. It’s gone. A different country. And maybe someday it really should be. I’ll save that for another column. Until that day comes, the Democratic Party shouldn’t bother trying. If they get no votes from the region, they will in turn owe it nothing, and in time the South, which is the biggest welfare moocher in the world in terms of the largess it gets from the more advanced and innovative states, will be on its own, which is what Southerners always say they want anyway.

Once part of the New Deal Coalition, the politics of the South have changed from solidly (albeit conservative) Democrat to solidly Republican. This trend is not new and has been underway for at least the last fifty years.Things really began to change in 1964 with the passage of the Civil Rights Act and Barry Goldwater, but the region's overwhelming support for George Wallace's independent campaign in 1968 was the true onus. The 1990's saw massive party switching from conservative Democrats in the Senate and House to the conservative Republicans they are today.

Earlier in this year we glanced across the pond at Scotland, a region of the UK that has long had an ambivalent relationship with the rest of Great Britain. By a relatively close margin, it declined to secede. Should Southern secession be put to a vote, rather than a bloody armed conflict, it would be curious to know the results. Southerners, including yours truly, bear a chip on their shoulders a mile wide, believing themselves to be the red headed stepchild, always fearful and suspicious that they are being negatively judged and dismissed by other Americans.

Tomsky is right that the South simultaneously mooches off of the rest of the country while claiming disingenuously that its own affairs and self-governance are not respected. But it is also true that the region contains some of the most deplorable poverty and lack of opportunity in the United States. I left, refugee or not, because it was my observation that the demands and petty superstitions of the rural south consistently dragged down its urban counterparts.

The main point is this: Trying to win Southern seats is not worth the ideological cost for Democrats. As Memphis Rep. Steve Cohen recently told my colleague Ben Jacobs, the Democratic Party cannot (and I’d say should not) try to calibrate its positions to placate Southern mores: “It’s come to pass, and really a lot of white Southerners vote on gays and guns and God, and we’re not going to ever be too good on gays and guns and God.”

Politics in the capital city of Montgomery show this fight between more progressive city dwellers and the attitudes of those in rural areas that I can only describe as backwards and resistant to improve conditions for all Alabamians. I waited years for my state, and the South in general, to change its nationwide reputation and make things better for its citizens. After a time, I threw up my hands and headed North, as many Southern liberals do.

I speak with sadness, not derision. Tomsky's column begins with the failed campaign of now-former Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu.

That is what Louisiana, and almost the entire South, has become. The victims of the particular form of euthanasia it enforces with such glee are tolerance, compassion, civic decency, trans-racial community, the crucial secular values on which this country was founded… I could keep this list going. But I think you get the idea. Practically the whole region has rejected nearly everything that’s good about this country and has become just one big nuclear waste site of choleric, and extremely racialized, resentment. A fact made even sadder because on the whole they’re such nice people! (I truly mean that.)

Southerners know how to circle the wagons. They are well-practiced at that and at adapting a kind of siege mentality. Words like these are written for the outliers and outsiders looking in like me. The target of this column will build up walls at an even faster clip. This is why I don't think of the South as a lost cause for the Democratic Party. The failing of Tomsky's argument is that it sees the South as a single entity, with no significantly core distinctions and differences.

South Carolina-bred author and journalist W.J. Cash wrote a notable book about Southern culture and history called The Mind of the South. Writing in 1941, Cash's hypothesis was that Southern identity was uniform and dismissive of alternate points of view.

Proud, brave, honorable by its lights, courteous, personally generous, loyal, swift to act, often too swift, but signally effective, sometimes terrible, in its action -- such was the South at its best. And such at its best it remains today, despite the great falling away in some of its virtues.
Violence, intolerance, aversion and suspicion toward new ideas, an incapacity for analysis, an inclination to act from feeling rather than from thought, an exaggerated individualism and too narrow concept of social responsibility, attachment to fictions and false values, above all too great attachment to racial values and a tendency to justify cruelty and injustice in the name of those values, sentimentality and a lack of realism -- these have been its characteristic vices in the past. And, despite changes for the better, they remain its characteristic vices today.

It's been over seventy years since the book's initial publication, and one can say much the same thing today. Cash's words may be themselves an oversimplification in terms, but they retain enough truth to speak to us today. I don't pretend to know how to fix the problem, but current political realities may not always be daunting, not always leading liberals and progressives to throw in the towel. I'm glad it's not my fight, but it needs to be someone's.

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