The New Year’s Day vote in Congress that brought a temporary truce to the fiscal wars showed the Republicans to be far more divided than the Democrats, and the division broke along regional lines. House Republicans from the Far West and from the Northeast favored the Senate’s compromise bill by large margins, and Midwesterners were split; but in the South, Republican opposition was overwhelming, 81–12, accounting for more than half of the total Republican “no” votes. In other words, Republicans outside the South have begun to turn pink, following the political tendencies of the country as a whole, but Southern Republicans, who dominate the Party and its congressional leadership, remain deep scarlet. These numbers reveal something more than the character of today’s Republican Party; a larger historical shift is under way.
For a century after losing the Civil War, the South was America’s own colonial backwater—“not quite a nation within a nation, but the next thing to it,” W. J. Cash wrote in his classic 1941 study, “The Mind of the South.” From Tyler, Texas, to Roanoke, Virginia, Southern places felt unlike the rest of the country. The region was an American underbelly in the semi-tropical heat; the manners were softer, the violence swifter, the commerce slower, the thinking narrower, the past closer. It was called the Solid South, and it partly made up for economic weakness with the political strength that came from having a lock on the Democratic Party, which was led by shrewd septuagenarian committee chairmen.
The price was that the Democratic Party remained an anti-modern minority until the New Deal. As late as 1950, there were just three Republicans among the South’s hundred and nine congressmen, and none in the Senate; a decade later, the numbers had barely moved. In 1964, Lyndon Johnson said that breaking the Southern filibuster and passing civil-rights legislation would cost Democrats the South for a generation (he was too optimistic), but the region’s conservatism had already begun to push it toward the Republican Party. And, as the South became more Republican, it became more like the rest of America. Following the upheavals of the civil-rights years, the New South was born: the South of air-conditioned subdivisions, suburban office parks, and Walmart. Modernization was paved with federal dollars, in the form of highways, military bases, space centers, and tax breaks for oil drilling.
At the same time, the Southern way of life began to be embraced around the country until, in a sense, it came to stand for the “real America”: country music and Lynyrd Skynyrd, barbecue and NASCAR, political conservatism, God and guns, the code of masculinity, militarization, hostility to unions, and suspicion of government authority, especially in Washington, D.C. (despite its largesse). In 1978, the Dallas Cowboys laid claim to the title of “America’s team”—something the San Francisco 49ers never would have attempted. In Palo Alto, of all places, the cool way to express rebellion in your high-school yearbook was with a Confederate flag. That same year, the tax revolt began, in California.
The Southernization of American life was an expression of the great turn away from the centralized liberalism that had governed the country from the Presidencies of F.D.R. to Nixon. Every President elected between 1976 and 2004 was, by birth or by choice, a Southerner, except Ronald Reagan, who enjoyed a sort of honorary status. (When he began the 1980 campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, scene of the murder, in 1964, of three civil-rights workers, many Southerners heard it as a dog whistle.) A Southern accent, once thought quaint or even backward, became an emblem of American authenticity, a political trump card. It was a truism that no Democrat could win the White House unless he spoke with a drawl.
Now the South is becoming isolated again. Every demographic and political trend that helped to reëlect Barack Obama runs counter to the region’s self-definition: the emergence of a younger, more diverse, more secular electorate, with a libertarian bias on social issues and immigration; the decline of the exurban life style, following the housing bust; the class politics, anathema to pro-business Southerners, that rose with the recession; the end of America’s protracted wars, with cuts in military spending bound to come. The Solid South speaks less and less for America and more and more for itself alone.
Solidity has always been the South’s strength, and its weakness. The same Southern lock that once held the Democratic Party now divides the Republican Party from the socially liberal, fiscally moderate tendencies of the rest of America. The Southern bloc in the House majority can still prevent the President from enjoying any major legislative achievements, but it has no chance of enacting an agenda, and it’s unlikely to produce a nationally popular figure.
As its political power declines, the South might occupy a place like Scotland’s in the United Kingdom, as a cultural draw for the rest of the country, with a hint of the theme park. Country music and NASCAR remain huge. Alabama teams have won the past four college football titles. After the Crimson Tide’s big win over Notre Dame on January 7th, a Web site called Real Southern Men explained the significance in terms of regional defiance: “Football matters here, because it is symbolic of the fight we all fight. Winning matters here, because it is symbolic of the victories we all seek. Trophies matter here, because they are symbolic of the respect we deserve but so rarely receive.” That defiance is a sure sign, like Governor Rick Perry’s loose talk of Texas seceding, that Southernization has run its course.
Northern liberals should not be too quick to cheer, though. At the end of “The Mind of the South,” Cash has this description of “the South at its best”: “proud, brave, honorable by its lights, courteous, personally generous, loyal.” These remain qualities that the rest of the country needs and often calls on. The South’s vices—“violence, intolerance, aversion and suspicion toward new ideas”—grow particularly acute during periods when it is marginalized and left behind. An estrangement between the South and the rest of the country would bring out the worst in both—dangerous insularity in the first, smug self-deception in the second.
Southern political passions have always been rooted in sometimes extreme ideas of morality, which has meant, in recent years, abortion and school prayer. But there is a largely forgotten Southern history, beyond the well-known heroics of the civil-rights movement, of struggle against poverty and injustice, led by writers, preachers, farmers, rabble-rousers, and even politicians, speaking a rich language of indignation. The region is not entirely defined by Jim DeMint, Sam Walton, and the Tide’s A J McCarron. It would be better for America as well as for the South if Southerners rediscovered their hidden past and took up the painful task of refashioning an identity that no longer inspires their countrymen.
Re-posted from a commentary article written by George Packer of the “The New Yorker” dated January 12, 2013.