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