Monday, July 02, 2012

Sara Robinson: "the entire US is now turning into the global equivalent of a Deep South state"

Sara Robinson has a thoughtful, provocative article on how the values of the segregated South are having a resurgence and are even becoming dominant in US national politics, Conservative Southern Values Revived: How a Brutal Strain of American Aristocrats Have Come to Rule America Alternet 06/28/2012. She relies heavily in her argument on Michael Lind's Made In Texas: George W. Bush and the Southern Takeover of American Politics (2003). It's a sadly under-appreciated book, with some very perceptive analysis about how what in 1960 was "unreconstructed" Southern Democratic thinking has come to dominate today's Republican Party. I'm glad to see Sara calling attention to it.

Her conclusion is hard to dispute:

It's not an overstatement to say that we're now living in Plantation America. As Lind points out: to the horror of his Yankee father, George W. Bush proceeded to run the country exactly like Woodard's description of a Barbadian slavelord. And Barack Obama has done almost nothing to roll this victory back. We're now living in an America where rampant inequality is accepted, and even celebrated.

Torture and extrajudicial killing have been reinstated, with no due process required.

The wealthy and powerful are free to abuse employees, break laws, destroy the commons, and crash the economy -- without ever being held to account.

The rich flaunt their ostentatious wealth without even the pretense of humility, modesty, generosity, or gratitude.

The military -- always a Southern-dominated institution -- sucks down 60% of our federal discretionary spending, and is undergoing a rapid evangelical takeover as well.

Our police are being given paramilitary training and powers that are completely out of line with their duty to serve and protect, but much more in keeping with a mission to subdue and suppress. Even liberal cities like Seattle are now home to the kind of local justice that used to be the hallmark of small-town Alabama sheriffs.

Segregation is increasing everywhere. The rights of women and people of color are under assault. Violence against leaders who agitate for progressive change is up. Racist organizations are undergoing a renaissance nationwide.

We are withdrawing government investments in public education, libraries, infrastructure, health care, and technological innovation -- in many areas, to the point where we are falling behind the standards that prevail in every other developed country.
Sara is a bit too ambitious in her historical generalizations, though. She's working with a theory that the ruling elite in the US has, since the 18th century or even earlier, been divided between "a New England-based Yankee aristocracy that was rooted in Puritan communitarian values" and "the plantation aristocracy of the lowland South, which has been notable throughout its 400-year history for its utter lack of civic interest, its hostility to the very ideas of democracy and human rights, its love of hierarchy, its fear of technology and progress, its reliance on brutality and violence to maintain 'order,' and its outright celebration of inequality as an order divinely ordained by God." It's too much a an historical meta-theory to be easily contained in an article the length of the one linked.

The first time I came across a theory formulated in a similar way was in Carl Ogelsby's The Yankee and Cowboy War: Conspiracies From Dallas to Watergate (1976). Ogelsby was president of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in the 1960s. As the extended title suggests, he was looking for a way to explain the partisan conflicts of the day with reference to geographically-based divisions in what Sara calls the ruling elite. (Some SDSers were known to refer to it as the racist pig power structure, which admittedly has some rhetorical charm; but I don't recall off-hand the term Ogelsby used, though I'm sure it wasn't that one.)

Around the same time, Kirkpatrick Sale outlined a similar conflict in Power Shift: The Rise of The Southern Rim and Its Challenge to The Eastern Establishment (1975). An interview with Sale from the time is available online: Christopher Andersen, Kirkpatrick Sale Says the New U.S. Power Game Is the Cowboys Vs. the Yankees People Magainze 03/01/1976. Sale apparently was the one who coined the terms Cowboys and Yankees to refer to the respective dominant leaders in the Sunbelt ("Southern Rim" in his terms) and the rest of the country.

Sale has always been a bit of an eccentric writer. For instance, he made a case in Power Shift that Silicon Valley's Santa Clara County was culturally part of "Southern California". But what was once a more serious effort at anlysis has lately degenerated into full-blown defense of the Confederacy, as illustrated by his piece at the neo-Confederate LewRockwell.com, The Sesquicentennial Is Upon Us 04/19/2011.

In the 1976 interview linked above, some of the fuzziness of his Power Shift theory jumps right out at us (People's questions in bold):

Will this trend [of increased Sunbelt political clout] continue?

Today the 15 sunbelt states have 184 electoral votes, compared to 218 for the Northeast and Great Lakes. In 1980 that will narrow, giving the Southern Rim 196 versus 206 for the North. By 1990, if the trend continues, and all evidence shows it will, the Southern Rim will have more electoral votes.

You use the terms "Yankees" and "Cowboys." Who are the Yankees?

By the Yankees, I mean the button-down, Ivy League, tight-lipped, New England WASP types personified by the likes of David Rockefeller, Charles Percy, John Lindsay, Edmund Muskie, Bill Buckley, Henry Ford and Kingman Brewster.

And the Cowboys?

The aggressive, restless, swaggering, Southern-rooted Baptist types like Bebe Rebozo, George Wallace, Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson, Billy Graham, H.L. Hunt, John Wayne and country singer Johnny Cash.

Do Tennessee Williams or poet James Dickey represent the Southern Rim?

They may be from the South, but they think like Yankees. They are darlings of the Yankee culture.
This is a very impressionistic view as he summarized it there. Johnny Cash's inclusion in the "Cowboy" group as he describes it makes me wonder if he had any clue about either Johnny's music career or his politics. And while Lyndon Johnson may have shared some of the stereotpyical Sunbelt swagger, it makes it difficult to trace any coherent "Cowboy" and "Yankee" political trends with New Society liberal LBJ lumped with the Cowboys and National Review founder, segregation supporter and Joe McCarthy admirer William Buckley included among the "Yankees".

Sale makes a strange observation about LBJ in that interview:

Can you fairly lump Lyndon Johnson, George Wallace and Richard Nixon in the same category?

They are all Cowboys — all brothers under the skin. One of my favorite stories about Lyndon Johnson involves a statement he made during the Washington riots after Martin Luther King's assassination in 1968. When LBJ was told that the riots were moving closer to the exclusive Georgetown district, he said, "I've been waiting for this to happen for 30 years." That pretty much sums up what he felt about the Eastern Establishment elite.
Without knowing more details about the context, it's far more plausible that Johnson meant that he had been expecting ghetto conditions to produce chaotic violence on a large scale if those conditions weren't changed.

I bring this up to illustrate the trickiness of any grand historical theory based on a conflict between the traditional ruling elite of the South and that of the North. Sara is much more careful in her generalizations than Kirkpatrick Sale. But the argument is more plausible when it's more carefully restricted to tracing the continuities between Southern segregationism in the post-Second World War period and the national Republican Party today. Sara winds up lumping Southerner Woodrow Wilson into the civilized Yankee group, along with Old Man Bush (G.H.W.) who built his political career in no small part in Texas.

When you start trying to trace it into the early 19th century, you quickly run into the conflict between Jacksonian democracy and the pro-slavery and (sometimes latently and sometimes blatantly) secessionist, reactionary, anti-democratic trend symbolized by John Calhoun. Go back a little farther, and the reactionary Federalists of the very Yankee John Adams' Administration and the Virginian Thomas Jefferson's brand of liberals (who the High Federalists regarded as "Jacobins") both fail to conform to the model.

The former Confederacy today forms a kind pro-Republican Solid South, though a state like Florida is still competitive. There is no doubt that conservative Southern whites provide a bedrock regional basis for the conservatism of today's Republican Party. But regionalism is only part of the story. Concentrating too much on the geographic aspect can easily lead to flawed historical generalizations.

But her concluding generalization is a correct description of a real trend: "the entire US is now turning into the global equivalent of a Deep South state".

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