A comment on last week's post linked an article from Slate arguing that we are in the midst of a second civil war. Last weekend in Washington, an old friend of mine pointed me to a Washington Post column by Colbert King arguing the same thing. There is obviously something to this, and it sets me thinking, once again, about what has happened to the South in the course of my lifetime. I am convinced they are indeed fighting the civil war over again, but I'm not certain who the real enemy is.
The Progressive era and the New Deal, in retrospect, did a great deal to bring the South and the North back together. They did so, to be sure, because until relatively late in the New Deal the North did not challenge the white South where it was most sensitive, on race. Yet the South, in many ways a third world country in the first half of the century, desperately needed infrastructure and, in the Depression, federal help. Recent scholarship emphasizes that black southerners were excluded from some New Deal programs, but they benefited from the New Deal nonetheless, as did poor whites. Progressivism and the New Deal rallied every section of the country, with the partial exception, ironically, of New England, some of which never voted for FDR. But things began to change in 1937, when the Democrats for the first time had a majority in Congress even without the votes of white southerners. Many southern legislators joined with Republicans to form a new conservative coalition. Still, well within my memory, as I have remarked many times, states including Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Florida and North Carolina sent a number of Senators and Representatives to Washington who were liberal on everything but race. A few, such as Estes Kefauver of Tennessee, even crossed that barrier.
There can be no question, it seems to me, that the civil rights movement and the court decisions and legislation to which it gave rise did the most to turn the white south against the Democratic Party. 1944 was the last year that the South as a whole voted Democratic, and after 1964 the Republicans were firmly established in the region. And thus, commentators even today blame "residual racism" for the South's extraordinary hostility to liberalism in general and Barack Obama in particular. While there may be some truth in that, I think it's an oversimplification. Outside of some urban areas, the white south has since the civil rights movement been able to keep local political power firmly within its own hands. Southern states have cut back on public services, including education, now that they go equally to black citizens, but the white folks don't seem to mind very much. What has happened is broader and deeper: the construction, to use a trendy word, in the last 40 years of a new southern identity based upon religious, intellectual and cultural differences from the bicoastal elite.
In recent years, a number of transplanted southerners have confirmed a friend's insight to me. The rise of political Christianity beginning in the 1970s was in a sense a substitute for overt racism, a new glue to hold the region together on behalf of the Republican Party. It occurs to me as I write that it fitted the needs of whites fleeing the integrated public schools as well, since Christian schools became the alternative in many areas. (My son taught elementary school in the Mississippi Delta for two years without having a single white student.) I still do not understand why the right to life movement has become so strong and so rabid in the South, but it is part of the same mix. I am tempted to suggest, then, that while integration led to a new political culture in the South, the enemy was not so much the black population as the Yankees who had forced integration upon them. The political leadership of the region now hates everything they stand for, including the danger of global warming and the theory of evolution. Emotion, as so often happens, has trumped reason.
It looks this evening as though the shutdown will indeed end with a government defeat, but I suspect we will have more budget and debt crises over the next year. Another comment last week reminded me of my posts about Republican dau tranh, which new readers might like to search for. Dau tranh was the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong strategy of chaos, which the Tea Party has been following now for three years. Pushing things all the way to a default would be part of that strategy. Some Republican leaders have even admitted that they are terrified that Obamacare will be invulnerable as soon as a few million people have signed up for it--a terrible commentary on where we are. I just checked Redstate.com, a very popular right-wing blog, and it is now pushing for a primary opponent for John Boehner. Limbaugh is ranting that the people are being taken in by phoney polls blaming the Republicans. The Tea Partiers may have lost this battle, but they will not give up the war.
In the long run, the Democratic position, I think, will remain vulnerable because of the weaknesses in our economy, weaknesses explored at some length in the new film starring Robert Reich, Inequality for All. Obamacare, with its subsidies for poor workers and Medicaid expansion, illustrates the problem. The American economy is in terrible trouble because so many jobs do not pay enough to allow workers to pay income taxes or buy medical insurance. While pundits like Niall Ferguson blame the situation on Obama and the Democrats, it is the relentless downward pressure of corporate America that has brought us to this place. Obama has no recipe for fixing it. Ever since Ronald Reagan, the federal government has done more and more to help Americans in low paying jobs. That in turn has created more of them. Reich obviously doesn't know how we will get out of this mess, and neither do I.