Red State, Blue State, Old State, New State Part 2: The Neo-Confederacy
Copyright © 2005 by Stephen W. Potts
One of the chestnuts extracted from November’s election and passed around by pundits is that Bush’s 51% proves no one but a Southerner, or at least someone posing as one, can win the White House. How far we have fallen since the pinnacle of America’s international and economic power in 1960, when the reverse was held to be true. Then, in the hundred years since the Civil War, no Southerner had won the presidency save Dixie-born Woodrow Wilson, who campaigned from New Jersey as a former president of Princeton. Conventional wisdom regarded the South as too provincial, too backward, and too backward-looking to generate leaders of national stature. That was the main reason 1960’s Democratic kingmakers passed up the powerful Senator from Texas, Lyndon Johnson, in favor of Massachusetts Senator John Kennedy.
This belief was certainly justified by the facts. Historical retardation is not merely a hallmark of the American South; it has long been embraced by the region’s institutions and most of its populace as fundamental to their identity. Back in the immediate post-Civil War era, Mark Twain — native of the slave state of Missouri — blamed the South’s backwardness on its love of medievalism. He faulted the chivalric novels of British author Sir Walter Scott, although it is more likely that Southerners saw in Scott a romantic reflection of their own feudal caste and plantation system. In his 1883 book Life on the Mississippi, Twain complained that in the South, the “wholesome civilization of the nineteenth century is curiously confused and commingled with the Walter Scott Middle-Age sham civilization, and so you have practical, common-sense, progressive ideas, and progressive works, mixed up with the duel, the inflated speech, and the jejune romanticism of an absurd past that is dead, and out of charity ought to be buried.” Without this fascination for an idealized past, “the South would be fully a generation further advanced than it is.”
A few decades later, H. L. Mencken — native of Maryland, another border and former slave state — saw nothing but an ignorant, superstitious savagery south of the Potomac. Lamenting the cultural decline of Virginia since the nation’s founding, he observed dyspeptically that by 1920 the state’s “education has sunk to the Baptist seminary level; . . . she spends less than half upon her common schools, per capita, than any northern state spends.” Lynching was such a popular sport in the South, according to Mencken, “because the backward culture of the region denied the populace more seemly recreations.”
Although in the 1930s the solidly Democratic South supported Franklin Roosevelt, mainly because he could beat the then-hated Republicans, the region never wholly accepted the New Deal. As social historian Ann Markussen writes, “Roosevelt’s view that poverty was the South’s greatest problem clashed with their view that maintaining white supremacy should be the party’s number one goal.” While the South welcomed the generous federal aid and agricultural price supports the New Deal sent its way, the region abhorred “minimum wages, limits on working hours, the elimination of child labor, and the implicit threat to institutionalized racism present in the economic programs” (Regions: The Economics and Politics of Territory, 1987, p. 82). In short, the former Confederate states vehemently opposed any efforts to drag them into twentieth century civilization.
Indeed, not until Kennedy’s New Frontier and Johnson’s Great Society targeted the South with further New Deal-style development efforts did it even begin to catch up economically with the rest of the nation. The 70s and 80s proved good for the region’s economy, as manufacturers streamed south to take advantage of its retrograde labor and regulatory practices, especially in niches like textiles and food processing (the globalization of the 90s would send these further south to Mexico). During this growth spurt at the expense of the industrial North, New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan worried aloud, “What if it turns out that the New Deal was a one-way street?” and asked his southern colleagues what their region was prepared to give back for all the generations of government investment. With the dawn of the Reagan era, the answer came: worse than nothing. The former Confederate states abandoned the Democrats in favor of the GOP, now retooled as the party of the Neo-Confederacy. They longed, as they still long, to wind the nation back socially to an imaginary Golden Age — the 1950s, or better yet the 1850s.
The South today is by no means as benighted as Mencken averred in the 20s; it has its First World cities like Atlanta, with its own arts and gay communities, and Houston, with its six Superfund hazardous waste sites. It has its world-class authors and its public progressives like Texans Molly Ivins and Jim Hightower. But as any perusal of statistics shows, the Confederacy remains behind the rest of the country in most social and economic indicators. As a region it has the highest school dropout rates, the lowest spending on education, the lowest standard of living (outside of the few First World cities). The Alan Guttmacher Institute, which specializes in family planning issues, records that southern states are more likely to employ abstinence-only sex education programs in their schools. Not coincidentally, they have the highest teen pregnancy rates.
Regressive, racially divided, and faith-based social policies correlate with high crime. In 2002 Atlanta had 12,237.7 crimes against people and property per 100,000 residents; Los Angeles had 5,029.3. Or compare Orlando’s 11,722.6 per 100,000 with Philadelphia’s 6,183.1; Chattanooga’s 12,310.4 with Boston’s 6,315.6. Health care is less available in most of the South than elsewhere, despite being less expensive; thus, infant mortality is higher, average life spans shorter. In his popular 2004 documentary Super-Size Me, filmmaker Morgan Spurlock observes that the nation’s highest rate of morbid obesity occurs in its poorest state, Mississippi, and that of the fifteen fattest cities in America, five are in Texas. As he goes on to note, health experts predict that this region will experience something no industrialized country ever has: a generation of children growing up who will actually have shorter lifespans than their parents.
Historically unwilling to keep up with modern civilization, a triumphant Neo-Confederacy can only overcome its centuries-old inferiority complex by dragging the rest of the nation down to its level — on principle. Now that the Stars-and-Bars flies over Washington, we all risk being sold down the river.