Do the new electoral changes we’ve seen this month portend the end of a particular tyranny of the minority?
Richard Nixon’s infamous ‘southern strategy’ was the beginning of a cynical era of politics in which the good of the country was mortgaged for the benefit of a single political party, perhaps even for the benefit a single politician. More than any other act in the past 40 years, the southern strategy has been the cause of the politics of division in the US by necessarily dividing the American South from the rest of the nation – cementing the South’s secessionism and seething regional resentment among conservative whites.
And more than any other act, this rancid strategy has been the source of the South’s regressive nature, reputation for ignorance and nativist anger.
As a native of the South, I am often struck by the incongruity between a people so deservedly noted for their hospitality and friendliness who are, contradictorily, so angry with the rest of the country. Mitigating factors are the continued migration of ‘other’ Americans into the South’s urban centers. This dilution, combined with a sustained drive to register new African-American voters, pose real threats to Republican hegemony over the region.
For the South, the legacy of losing a war is that absolute certainty is valued more than rational thought. This comes from the dissonance that it could not be possible that one’s forefathers fought valiantly for a cause that was, despite modern revisionist rationalizations, morally wrong.
Transcending race is at least an intellectual, if not a spiritual, enlightenment. Inevitably, if the intellectual culture of the South does not encourage this type of transcendence, someone else from somewhere else will. Thus the protectionist’s objective is not to educate toward a transcendence of race, it is to nurture a pre-existing resentment of those – today’s ‘intellectual elites’ -- who would advocate for it. Most of the white Civil Rights activists, for example, could be explained as college students indoctrinated by academic elites and sent to undermine the southern way of life.
Which is a repeated cycle to the white conservative southerner: ‘Others’ (predominantly northerners) ‘invade’ the region to force another way of life on a culture thus perceived as under threat.
A spark of resentment requires only oxygen to blaze. Nixon understood this from the perspective of a shrewd political outsider recognizing an opportunity to capitalize on the backlash against the Civil Rights Act.
George W. Bush and Karl Rove understand it as insiders. Their famous base of evangelical support was stoked with a victimization strategy that those same elites were attacking more than just a way of life – they were seeking to destroy the southern white conservative’s very religion with the theory of evolution and same-sex marriage.
In the wake of these perceived threats, this ‘culture war’, Bush has subordinated governance to moral certainty – bafflingly to the rest of the country, even to the point of total loss. This, to those like him, is the heroic Way of the South.
The rest of the country, who by and large do not see their way of life as under constant siege, politically marginalized the South this month. After dominating American politics for more than forty years, the South finds itself marching in a direction opposite the rest of the electorate.
Yet holding fast to your certainty, even (or especially) in the face of defeat and devastation is the embodiment of regional nobility. Isn’t that why town squares all over the South prominently display statues of confederate soldiers, heroically facing north?