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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Third Reconstruction?

The prominent negative role of southern Republican Senators from states with large foreign auto plants in the struggle over the future of the Big Three automakers has spurred some fightin’ words aimed at the South in many progressive circles. I’ve uttered some myself, reflecting a career-long struggle against race-to-the-bottom economic development strategies in my native region.
But some observers have elevated legitimate condemnation of Southern Republican (and in some states, Democratic) economic policy “thinking” into a Unified Field Theory of southern perfidy, which also plays nicely into progressive celebration of the South’s relative political isolation in the 2008 presidential election.
It is exceptionally appropriate that Michael Lind has led this particular charge, in a Salon piece calling for a “Third Reconstruction” of the South by the nation as a whole. Lind, whose M.O. is to pursue vast over-simplifications with equally vast erudition, has been beating the drum against the evil politics, culture and economics of the South for a long time. In a very influential 1995 article in The New Republic (the strange demise of the TNR archives, unfortunately, denies me a link here), entitled “The Southern Coup,” Lind championed the Hamiltonian nationalist tradition against the southern Jeffersonian tradition which, he said, had achieved its apotheosis in the Gingrich-era GOP. So it’s hardly surprising that Lind now seizes on southern “treason” against national economic interests as grounds for a counter-attack: “The choice is simple — the reconstruction of the South, or the deconstruction of the U.S. economy.”
Turns out that Lind’s “Third Reconstruction” involves not federal bayonets but benign items like a much higher national minimum wage, a national preemption of state economic development programs, and–believe it or not–the truly terrible idea of a great big general revenue sharing program.
Playing off Lind’s essay, Paul Rosenberg has done a series of long posts at OpenLeft reinforcing the case for a self-conscious assault on the South’s political culture. Much of what he writes involves an excellent summary of the historical revisionism whereby both southerners and northerners learned to deny or ignore the true nature of the Confederacy and its Slave Power antecedents in the pursuit of an illusory “reconciliation.” But the upshot for Rosenberg is that the South’s “political system” has always been and is now a unilinear reflection of reactionary racial and economic attitudes–and of the class interests of “southern elites.”

What these two historical accounts indicate is the dominant power that Southern elite interests have had in shaping our national political discourse to satisfy their own ends. That race was central was inevitable, but that was only, at bottom, because race was central to their class interests. Controlling black bodies meant controlling white bodies (and minds) as well, as the well-honed politics of resentment assured, generation after generation, after generation. As clearly indicated in the section on Race and Reunion, the ideologies shaped well over 100 years ago are still alive today.

Unfortunately, this take, like Lind’s, oversimplifies, mainly because, like Lind’s, it obscures conflicts within the South–yes, even the White South–past and present.

As C. Vann Woodward explained so brilliantly in his 1951 book Reunion and Reaction, the post-Civil-War “reconciliation” of North and South was built on a direct deal whereby Republicans were awarded the disputed presidential election of 1876 in exchange for an end to Congressional Reconstruction. And both Northern and Southern promoters of the “Compromise of 1877” were often avid enthusiasts for the capitalist “industrialization” of the South, accompanied by corporate subsidies (particularly to railroads and banks) that were eerily similar to the foreign auto plant “deals” of contemporary vintage.
But there any “seamless web of reaction” theory about the South begins to break down. The two decades after the Compromise were characterized by savage political warfare across the region between supporters and opponents of capitalist development and corporate subsidies. And no one embraced the Lost Cause of the Confederacy myth more than the southern Populists, who viewed antebellum southern “civilization,” accurately, as anti-capitalist. The great southern Populist Tom Watson of Georgia, who once called himself a “red socialist through and through,” and who did actual jail time in opposing U.S. entry into the “imperialist” World War I, was a disciple of Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens and an unequalled romaniticizer of the Lost Cause.
This period also illustrated the highly ambiguous nature of the race issue in the South. The Populists initially appealed to African-American voters, but eventually championed disenfranchisement of blacks as the only way to build a class-based political movement among whites. And while hardly any notable white political figure in the South in this era was anything less than a thoroughgoing racist, the “New South” apostles, and the “Bourbon Democrats” who succeeded them and characterized one element of the Southern Democracy right on up to the Civil Rights Movement, often postured as paternalistic defenders of African-Americans against the violence of redneck populists.
The same disjunction of racial and economic attitudes persisted into the twentieth century. The renowned Southern Agrarian literary and cultural movement (crystallized in the 1930 manifesto, I’ll Take My Stand) reiterated the Populist argument for the anti-capitalist heritage of the Old South as against the capitalist longings of the “New South.” During the New Deal–which Michael Lind, in his essay, described as the “Second Reconstruction”–nobody was a more fervent supporter of FDR’s economic policies than Mississippi’s Theodore Bilbo, more famous in history for his especially virulent racism.
In general, the idea that the South–or the White South, at least–was a monolith that transferred its unitary allegiance from Democrats to Republicans after 1964 while maintaining the same reactionary economic and racial views and the same “elite” leadership just doesn’t bear up under much scrutiny.
To shift to the more recent fights over economic policy, it’s also misleading to contrast “enlightened” non-southern “high-road” strategies with benighted southern “low-road” strategies. One generally well-accepted way of looking at state economic development strategies distinguishes “first-wave” theories, focusing on corporate subsidies and “innate” advantages centering on low wages, little regulation, and the absence of unions, with “second-wave” theories that focus on home-grown entrepreneurship, high-wage and high-value industries (such as technology), and perhaps “third-wage” theories that depend on educational and infrastructure improvements with a long-range payoff. While the capital-starved South did indeed pioneer the low-road “first wave” strategies in a long period from the 1920s through the 1970s, they became the staple of Republican politicians nationwide by the 1980s. And “second-wave” and even “third-wave” theories were all the rage in the South when I was working on community and economic development issues in Georgia in the 1980s and 1990s.
In fact, Georgia offered a particularly striking example of how economic and racial issues didn’t follow any predetermined pattern. In 1990, former Ambassador and Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, a civil rights movement stalwart, ran for Governor on a platform that heavily focused on his determination to pursue “first-wave” economic development strategies to the very ends of the earth. He virtually promised to spend much of his gubernatorial tenure out-of-state and overseas, chasing smokestacks and cutting subsidy “deals.” His opponent, the white “populist” Zell Miller, on the campaign trail and in office, concentrated on educational and infrastructure investments as the key to Georgia’s economic future. Miller refused to participate in the subsidy competition for foreign auto plants, and publicly mocked “low-road” economic strategies as asking communities to supinely advertise their weaknesses and expect salvation “from pinstriped angels from Atlanta with [industrial] prospects in their hip pockets.” Miller’s later apostasy from the Democratic Party and the progressive cause should not obliterate that defiance of what Lind and Rosenberg apparently consider a unanimous southern heritage.
It’s true that in more recent years “first-wave” low-road development strategies have made a comeback in the South, in part because of the rise of Republicans in the region. I’d argue that the whole country embraced “low-road” economic strategies under George W. Bush. But there’s nothing inevitable or irreversible about that trend, in the South or nationally.
The bottom line is that any unilinear or seamless-web interpretation of the South’s political “system” as dictating reactionary policies in every realm misses much of the actual drama of southern politics. And I wouldn’t discount the ability of actual southerners–black and white and increasingly brown–to turn things around. The rhetoric of a “Third Reconstruction” or of inveterate hatred of the South’s political culture won’t help them–us–in that effort. And you don’t have to whistle Dixie or whitewash the South’s many sins–I certainly don’t and won’t–to express some real and fact-based hope in the region’s self-redemption.
UPCATEGORY: Democratic Strategist

9 comments on “Third Reconstruction?

  1. senor on

    A couple of things. Yes, there has by and large been a cultural and economic disconnect in the South. Certainly up to 1964, the Democratic Party, in exchange for electoral allegiance was willing to let the South deal with race, even in the New Deal. Being, from Tennessee, I do disagree about the economic/cultural motivation of voters. The state was settled for monetary and speculative reasons, and in most cases, desegregation for example, when the cultural interfered with the financial, the financial won out. Tennessee has a governor who was re-elected overwhelmingly with his major achievement being that he dropped several thousand persons from the TennCare roles. The UAW workers in the Spring Hill are from the North, so it’s a stretch to say there is widespread union support anywhere in the state. This notion of Reconstructing the South–again–is the kind of anti-democratic claptrap that has marginalized the Democratic Party since the 1960s. Follow the money; that’s how people will ultimately vote and why Obama won three states in the South. By the way, another good book on Southern newspapers is Donald E. Reynolds, Editors Make War: Southern Newspapers in the Secession Crisis (Vanderbilt Press, 1970). It’s out of print, too, but can be found nominally. Is the Steven Cohen who blogged here, the man who won Harold Ford’s seat and had to fight the Ford family machine tooth and nail?

  2. David in Nashville on

    Dickerson Pike,
    Agreed. Indeed, I was struck in this regard by what happened in the Mississippi First this past year, where a Republican from the Memphis ‘burbs was defeated by a Democrat who appealed explicitly to the problems of the rural and small-town South, which are getting really short shrift both from politicians and the media [and, dare I say it, the blogosphere?]. One point, though; while rural southerners do whatever comes to hand for survival, and rely heavily on mutual aid [they always have], by and large they *really do* rely on the larger economy. Many of them have commuted to factory jobs, and have seen them disappear; many now commute to service jobs [which are geographically concentrated, and require either longer commutes or moves away from the community], and the future of those is getting cloudy. If rural Tennesseans vote on culture, it’s because they don’t see politicians providing much help in the economic department.

  3. Dickerson Pike on

    “My sense is that none of that is happening.”
    I am a constituent of Senator Corker. I called his office to point out that he represents thousands of UAW members in the Nashville area (long a union stronghold in a right to work state), and that his insistence on wage cuts would be devastating to the local economy. Satisfied?
    Unfortunately, the overwhelming Democratic majority of Tennessee’s two major cities can’t counter the rest of the state.
    Outside of the white suburbs, many white Tennesseans don’t vote on economics. They vote on culture, and I don’t mean it in “culture war” sense. A lot of folks see themselves as living outside the broader economy, but sustain themselves in dozens of little ways, like gardening, hunting, sharing with family. Social change that makes their lives tangibly better, like rural electrification, without threatening the culture of the rural south, has been embraced. But rapid social change without tangible improvement in the lives of rural southerners is resented.
    Figure out how to make the lives of rural white southerners better and less of a struggle, and they’ll abandon the alliance with rich business leaders and evangelical activists.

  4. ducdebrabant on

    Daniel Boorstin’s trilogy of books, The Americans, contains (as I recall) an excellent account of the hardening of antebellum positions on slavery. The books are indispensable reading anyway, overflowing with insights.

  5. Steve Cohen on

    I was initially, in my anger over the Southern GOP Senator’s tactics and race-to-the-bottom arguments, happy to see the in-your-face pushback from Lind and Rosenberg. At least they are resisting.
    But you make some interesting points that cannot be overlooked. The Democrats nationwide have been too complicit in this race to the bottom business, themselves.
    Nonetheless, rather than argue about history, I’d much rather read about pushback today against Corker, Shelby, et. al. from outraged constituents. My sense is that none of that is happening. I’d love to be proven wrong. That is what needs to happen.

  6. David in Nashville on

    Fascinating post, and one that makes a lot of sense. I’m bothered a bit, though, at your characterization of standard southern economic development policies as “low-road.” I’ve been critical of them myself, but essentially they’ve been grounded in necessity. The South began its modern industrialization well behind the old Manufacturing Belt, especially suffering from dearths of human capital, both among its workers and its entrepreneurs. The best way to solve that problem has been to induce outside entrepreneurs to bring in prepackaged industry that minimizes the need for locally procured inputs such as skills. To be sure, in point of fact southern economic development policy has *not* neglected education–note the extensive development of technical education in the post-World-War-II South. But that education has been tailored to the needs of industrial recruiting–and, for that matter, the responsiveness of southern workers to education has been a function of the perceived payoff; working-class folk can’t take too many risks, after all. The problem with southern development policy is that it isn’t creative; instead of developing new industries [which Silicon Valley seems to do every other year] it targets mature industries developed elsewhere and concentrates on grabbing market share. That’s what early industrialists did with textiles, and that’s what southern states are doing now with autos. Note that auto assembly plants are not “low wage” operations *anywhere*; the notion of Lind and others that attracting them is part of a “low wage” strategy makes no sense at all, since a real “low-wage” strategy would discourage high-wage employers in order to protect low-wage ones. But they don’t require a high degree of worker skills. Moreover, while they’re recruited as “growth poles,” in the hopes of attracting suppliers, they don’t really foster entrepreneurial creativity. Here in Tennessee, despite coups such as the recent VW plant for Chattanooga, auto-industry employment has been on the decline for years, as easy-come, easy-go parts plants go offshore. An industry that doesn’t need to be anywhere in particular is likely to move elsewhere on a moment’s notice.
    Despite all the evidence that smokestack-chasing has reached its limits, though, it’s hard to identify a policy that will work *politically.* Contrary to what you allege, what you call the “low road” is hardly a monopoly of Republicans; politicians of all stripes are eager to grab credit for snagging the latest prospect, and, ever since World War II, governors have seen smokestack-chasing as central to their job description. The alternatives, as I suggest above, just don’t offer a clear political payoff. I once suggested to a NC political consultant that Democrats should embrace a more creative economic development policy; his response was that it would be a tough sell to voters. Contrary to what the South-bashers claim, smokestack-chasing persists in the South because it’s broadly popular among the electorate. Auto plants offer much better jobs than people had before, and voters as a result seem unaware that they’re being exploited by a narrow oligarchy.

  7. edkilgore on

    Thanks for the props!
    Much of my understanding of the motives of the secessionists comes from reading, way back in college, a collection of newspaper editorials published during the runup to the Civil War. It was called “Southern Editorials on Secession,” edited by Dwight Lowell Dumond (there’s a two-volume counterpart on northern editorials as well). It’s out of print (and rather expensive at Amazon), but you should be able to find it at any decent college library or maybe the Denver Public Library.
    On the post-Civil War South, the simple thing to do is to read everything by C. Van Woodward you can find. I mentioned “Reunion and Reaction” in my post, but “Origins of the New South” is equally important, and his biography of Tom Watson is one of my favorite books.
    Thanks for the comment, and I hope you and yours have a great holiday season as well.
    Ed Kilgore

  8. Jim Gibson on

    Thanks very much for your work at Democratic Strategist. I always find your insights very useful and interesting.
    I clicked to and re-read your “Appomattox” post from 2005. While not a southerner myself, I found it quite moving.
    I have done a lot of reading about the Civil War but have not really come across an in-depth look at the nature of the Southern leadership’s thinking leading up to the conflict. I found your comment about “the calculation that the people of the North would not sacrifice for abstactions like the Union and Freedom” especially interesting.
    Do you know of any good books on this subject? I would really appreciate any recommendations.
    Thanks and have a good holiday season!
    Jim Gibson

  9. ducdebrabant on

    I’m a transplanted southerner, and nobody is more critical of the south’s faults than that hard core of disgusted southerners (either remaining within it or wandering from it) who have been observing it up close throughout their formative years. Sometimes the south does need a big push, but those doing the pushing most effectively are those who don’t hate every last little thing about the region. You don’t absolutely have to be a southerner (or white) to change things, but you have to approach the people with respect for their more benign folkways and traditions. I think some of the south’s northern detractors might be surprised how many white southerners (even if they don’t agree with him ideologically) find Obama’s gentility and courtliness rather familiar, and both of the Obamas reminiscent on a personal level of black people they know. I think they might also be surprised at how many southerners are shocked at the spectacle of their Senators trying to wipe out trade unions, period, end of story. Quite a few people in the south do belong to unions, even if they’re not auto workers. Even more southerners are probably rather shocked at the idea that it’s okay to wipe out an entire national auto industry. Southerners are patriotic, and they’re proud of Henry Ford and how Detroit put the world on wheels. A lot of them think that’s their auto industry too, not just Detroit’s.


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