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Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Conservative Paranoia, the South, and the Heartland

The major news story right now continues to be the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, and I have no particular value to add on that subject, at least until we know more about what happened and why (though you do have to wonder if the initial “Westerners being targeted” reports have distorted understanding of this atrocity, since the vast majority of victims have in fact been Indians).
Scouring the blogosphere for other topics, I ran across an interesting Digby post speculating that conservative paranoia and self-pity owes a lot to the southern cult of “honor” that treats opposing points of view as personal insults. As a southerner and as a fascinated observer of conservatism, the theory is catnip to me. But I don’t quite buy it.
Digby doesn’t go into a lot of detail, but I can see how a careful examination of southern political rhetoric over the years would justify the connection she suggests between today’s “persecuted” conservatives and yesterday’s “persecuted” southerners. During the Civil Rights era, white southern segregationists did indeed view themselves as a brave, beseiged minority under assault from overwhelmingly powerful forces, not as persecutors using every institution of government and civil society to oppress African-Americans and anyone who might sympathize with them. It took a special kind of hallucinatory vision to see Bull Connor as a freedom fighter rather than as the quintessential thug. I don’t know that the Celtic origins (which Digby does mention) of white southern culture was that definitive an influence, though, since precisely the same mentality and rhetoric characterized the very Anglo-Saxon Rhodesian regime of Ian Smith in the 1960s and early 1970s, and the Afrikaner apartheid state in South Africa then and later.
Going back further, the Lost Cause of the Confederacy certainly owed a lot to a willful exaggeration of the South’s plight in the wake of Abraham Lincoln’s election as president in 1860. Some southerners did indeed turn reality inside out by viewing potential restrictions on extension of slavery into the territories as both a provocation to southern sensibilities, and as a direct threat to the Peculiar Institution itself. But much of the secession agitation was focused more generally on the fateful emergence of a northern regional political party that had quickly destroyed the power associated with the South’s implicit veto over the policies of both the Democrats and the Whigs during the Second American Party system. And that was a real, not imaginary threat, even though it wasn’t really imminent.
But my main reason for doubting the distinctively southern roots of contemporary conservative paranoia is that there’s a different and much more proximate antecedent: the midwestern- and western-based isolationist demonization of “Eastern elites” that served as the main fault line in the Republican Party during much of the twentieth century. Dating back at the very least to the regional split in the GOP over intervention in World War I (and arguably to the 1912 presidential campaign), Heartland Republicans constantly complained that shadowy but powerful eastern cultural and economic forces undermined their own “natural” majority in the party and in the country.
This paranoid sentiment probably peaked in 1940, when Eastern financial interests and a shrewd propaganda campaign brewed up by Henry Luce of Time Magazine allegedly stampeded the Republican National Convention into nominating internationalist Wendell Willkie over Robert Taft. But it carried over to 1952, when many of the same forces pushed Eisenhower past Taft for the Republican presidential nomination. And though anticommunism and the Civil Rights movement changed some of the underlying ideological issues in the interim, the same dynamic was evident in the vengeful treatment of “Liberal Republicans” by the Goldwater movement of 1964, and its movement-conservative successors right up through 1994.
When you compare the rhetorical flourishes, it’s pretty evident that the intraparty conspiracy theories and cult of victimization that characterized Heartland Conservatives in the past has been largely projected onto the opposition Democrats in the wake of the conservative conquest of the GOP. The prominence of the South in the GOP today may give this paranoid narrative something of a southern accent, but for my money its roots are more in the prairies than the plantations.

2 comments on “Conservative Paranoia, the South, and the Heartland

  1. Cugel on

    There is a thread of continuity that runs through Southern consciousness that is largely absent in both the Midwest and North in general: fear over the loss of control over Black labor.
    That terror makes sensible Southern actions in 1860. The loss of control over the federal government meant that the North would refuse to enforce the Fugitive Slave Bill and would ban slavery from the territories. Their fears about slavery being ultimately doomed to economic subordination by the North in such circumstances were probably well taken rather than irrational, in that slave labor cannot compete economically with free labor.
    They feared that the loss of slavery would lead to a loss of social control over Black labor.
    The imposition of Jim Crow suppressed that fear, but it was revived in acute form by the Civil Rights struggle. That flipped the solid-South to the Republican party as the party of racist opposition to both minorities and Civil Rights. And with the South came into the Republican party the sense of being a besieged minority amid the Black hordes.
    You don’t see that kind of racist appeal in the Midwest, which is why the Republicans are doing so badly there today. The ONLY Midwestern state carried by McCain was Missouri, which has essentially Southern characteristics.
    The fear of integration as loss of social control was abandoned by Southern business elites after integration. But, Southern working class Whites fear minorities taking their jobs and being getting undeserved advantages from government “welfare.”
    All this crap closely mirrors the history of the Scots-Irish back in Ireland, where they formed the intensely Protestant shock-troops of Northern Ireland and acted as a similarly violent minority, facing off against the hostile majority Catholics.
    Their “persecution mania” was well developed long before they set foot on these shores.
    Certainly, there’s a Midwestern small-town flavor to some of it. But, look at where Republicans are strong today! It’s sure not the Midwest!
    Today, the persecution mania is almost purely a Southern and racist working-class white phenomena.

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  2. David in Nashville on

    Actually, what Digby seems to be talking about is really nothing more than Hofstadter’s “paranoid style.” It’s long been observed that the staple American political narrative runs along the following lines: America is the land of liberty; BUT there are always people plotting against it–usually elites, and frequently in league with dark foreign interests and/or a racial underclass. And *they* will in fact take over, unless you elect *us*! This style showed up at the beginning of the Republic, with Federalists accusing Republicans of being Frenchified subversives, and the Republicans accusing the Federalists of seeking to turn the country into a carbon copy of Great Britain. It played a major role in the coming of the Civil War; white southern paranoia is well known [and your account is quite good, BTW–much better than most of what I read in the blogosphere], but it had its northern counterpart in the “Slave Power Conspiracy” to deprive *white* Americans of their liberty–without this particular brand of paranoia it’s hard to imagine white northerners [racist and white supremacist as they were, and suspicious of abolitionists as fanatical subversives with British ties] actually becoming antislavery. Populism, of course, was drenched in this theme [See the Omaha Platform]. In short, it’s laced through American political history well before Midwestern isolationism.
    It doesn’t surprise me that it seems to be quite common in the South right now; white southerners have long been prone to feeling beleaguered [though Bull Connor is hardly the first example of someone asserting the “liberty” to deprive someone else of liberty; it’s been quite common in American history for many people to regard liberty in zero-sum terms, not in universalistic ones; see Edmund Morgan’s “American paradox”]. Obama seems to be the epitome of all the “exotic” threats to white liberty; he’s nonsouthern [of course], big-city, with a furrin name and an elite education. Given the absence of the Obama campaign from most of the Deep South, the “secret Muslim” meme seems to have taken hold among many rural white southerners [and the urban-white rural split in the South seems to have widened in this election]. Above all, he’s *black*; there’s a long tradition of middling whites regarding the “elite” as allying with a racial underclass to stifle their liberties; [consider Bacon’s Rebellion, or the Paxton Boys of 1760s PA], and Obama embodies this unholy alliance in one person! In other words, he’s made to order for paranoid-style demonization. In other parts of the country Obama was able to counter this; indeed, he was able to counter this in those southern states he took seriously, such as North Carolina and Virginia. But in places like here in Tennessee, where the campaign was virtually nonexistent, the Republicans had a free hand in exploiting all those themes–at least outside the major cities. But you don’t need a “cult of honor” or Celtic culture to explain this–just the traditional southern spin on American paranoia.

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