Posted on | May 5, 2012 | 37 Comments
Years ago, when I was living in Georgia, I coined the term boreal supremacy to describe the attitude of certain people that all things Northern were superior to all things Southern. That attitude has offended me ever since the 1970s, when Yankees started flooding into my native Atlanta, where the municipal motto might as well be, “Will the Last Son of a Bitch Leaving Cleveland Please Turn Out the Lights.”
The newcomers brought with them an arrogant assumption of their own superiority to us local yokels. The late humorist Lewis Grizzard spoke for us when he told those latter-day carpetbaggers that if they didn’t like the South, well, “Delta is ready when you are.” In other words, if all you’re going to do is complain about the way we talk and the way we live, please go the hell back to whatever frostbitten Rust Belt wasteland you came from and stop annoying us with your snooty Yankee putdowns.
Bruce Bartlett is from Ann Arbor, Michigan, and uncorks a gallon jug of boreal supremacy in an article for the Fiscal Times:
The most talked-about article in Washington this week is the one by political scientists Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein blaming political polarization and gridlock on the Republican Party. They say that its breech of longstanding norms of political competition, especially routine use of the filibuster in the Senate, has gone over the line. Mann and Ornstein blame the extreme rightward tilt of the GOP for its destructive behavior. . . .
(So far, so good, although I haven’t talked at all about the Mann/Ornstein article, because I saw at a glance that it was just a couple of liberals making a tendentious argument scapegoating conservatives for partisan friction.)
The roots of political polarization go back to before the Civil War. The slaveholding society of the old South necessarily imposed upon it a very conservative view of the world, which impacts public policy to the present day.
(Oh, what fresh hell is this? Does Barlett really expect us to believe that opposition to, inter alia, Dodd-Frank and Waxman-Markey, are expressions of the antebellum South?)
One way in which this conservatism exhibited itself and still does is that Southerners tend to be very religious in an evangelical Christian way. The reason for this is that when slavery came under attack by Northern abolitionists, Southerners found comfort in the Bible. In it there are many passages that defend slavery and treat it as a normal part of life (e.g., Exodus 20: 20-21; Ephesians 6:5; Colossians 3: 22).
Perhaps the clearest biblical defense of slavery is that in 1 Timothy 6: 1: “Let all who are under the yoke of slavery regard their masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be defamed.” . . .
(Dan Savage, call your office.)
A complement to biblical literalism was constitutional literalism. Southerners noted, correctly, that the Founding Fathers did not ban slavery and, indeed, accepted it as a necessary condition of the great compromise that led to creation of the United States. Several provisions of the Constitution implicitly defended slavery as an institution, and the concept of states’ rights severely limited the federal government’s ability to do anything about it.
(Here, Bartlett is on more solid ground: Words mean things, whether in a covenant between God and man, or in an agreement among men. While such an agreement can be amended by mutual consent, the attempt to breach the contract by plainly dishonest “interpretation” ought to be stubbornly resisted.)
The Southern states also adopted extremely conservative tax and spending policies due to slavery. Since much of the wealth of the South was in the form of slaves, slave owners were always concerned that they might be made to bear a heavier tax burden as a consequence. The limitation on direct taxes in the Constitution was primarily to shield slaves from federal taxation.
(Eh? I seem to recall some Bostonians who took great umbrage at the British tax on tea, so excuse me for being suspicious of the idea that 18th-century Yankees were in favor of high taxes, federal or otherwise. And you’ll have to provide me some documentation from original sources for this unusual assertion that the constitutional prohibition on direct federal taxation had anything to do with slavery.)
In the “Jim Crow” era after the Civil War, Southerners resisted efforts to improve public education because they believed that African Americans would be the primary beneficiaries. They also resisted spending for better transportation because convict labor was a very cheap way of maintaining roads that justified harsh penalties for law breaking, especially by black males, who were often sentenced to long prison terms by kangaroo courts just to provide quasi-slave labor for the state.
And of course the “Bourbons” of Southern society wanted taxes kept low to maintain their wealth and lifestyle. It didn’t bother them if the public schools were dreadful because their children went to private academies.
(What is all this noise? Bartlett has either re-written the entire history of American public education, or else adopted the ideas of other revisionists. The question is, what requires explanation: The South’s relative reluctance to invest in public education, or the North’s fanatical faith in the efficacy of public schools? Having studied this history somewhat myself, I consider the Horace Mann/John Dewey enthusiasm for the Prussian model of statist education as the alien phenomenon which its advocates must defend, rather than to impugn the motives of those whose preference is for a more traditional view of education. Barlett merely seeks here to insult the South, by generally denouncing its public schools as “dreadful,” without consideration for any historical circumstance other than Jim Crow racism.)
The point is that political, economic and cultural conservatism has deep, deep roots in Southern society. Under normal circumstances, Southerners would naturally have gravitated toward the more conservative of our two major political parties, which has long been the Republican Party. But because it was the party of Abraham Lincoln and abolitionism, Southerners remained strongly averse to the GOP for more than 100 years after the war.
(Define “conservative,” Bruce. You are attempting to apply contemporary ideological categories onto the distant past, which is always a difficult proposition. The Republican Party was, in its origins and purposes, strictly a regional organization representing the North, and especially the anti-slavery movement in the North, specifically aimed to prevent the spread of slavery into the Western territories. Lincoln was elected in 1860 with slightly less than 40% of the popular vote, the Democrats having destroyed themselves in a regional split fomented in large measure by secessionist leader William Lowndes Yancey. The Republican Party represented regional interests, especially those of the industrial North. The Democrats subsequently — as one infamous GOP slogan had it — became the party of “Rum, Romanism and Rebellion,” representing mainly the rural South and immigrant labor groups in the urban North. As to which of the two major parties was truly “conservative,” we might say both and neither. The American conservative movement did not begin to take its present form until after World War II, largely as a Cold War opposition to communism in foreign policy, and against the Welfare State in domestic policy.)
Consequently, the most conservative region of the country remained solidly Democratic, an anomaly within what has long been the more liberal party. This marriage of convenience gave the Democrats control of Congress almost continuously from 1932 to 1994. It also long protected the South from legislative efforts to stop lynching, integrate schools, and provide voting rights for African Americans.
(Again with the race-baiting, eh? Why is it that you Yankees always imagine us Southerners are as obsessed with race as you are?)
The liberalism of the New Deal, however, began pushing Southern Democrats closer to the Republicans, especially on economic and national security issues. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s efforts to pack the Supreme Court and purge conservative Southern Democrats in 1938 pushed them into an alliance with Republicans that effectively controlled Congress throughout the 1940s and 1950s.
This was the golden era of bipartisanship, as shown graphically in the work of political scientist Keith Poole. Southern Democrats organized Congress with liberal Northern Democrats and were rewarded with committee chairmanships and other leadership positions, which they used to prevent the federal government from doing anything to undermine segregation.
(Again: It’s all about race, as if there were no other political controversies during the “golden era of bipartisanship.”)
But beginning with the Brown decision in 1954, federal courts began forcing the race issue onto the national agenda. The civil rights movement pressed Congress and eventually it acted with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But the real death knell of the conservative Southern Democrat was Watergate, which led to a vast influx of liberal Democrats into Congress beginning in 1974. They made no secret of their disdain for their southern brethren and they were actively pushed out of the party in various ways. For example, a number of Southerners were ousted from their committee chairmanships.
(If 1974 was the “death knell” of Southern Democrats, somebody forgot to inform Jimmy Carter, Sam Nunn and Howell Heflin, among others.)
The alienation of Southern Democrats from the national party provided the opportunity for Republicans to finally make inroads in the South. By 1994, the last truly conservative Democrats were gone and all either formally or effectively became Republicans.
The demise of the conservative Southern Democrat is the primary reason for the rise of political polarization. The era in which they held significant power in the Democratic Party was a historical anomaly; polarization is actually the norm, to which we are now returning. The good old days of bipartisanship are as dead as the conservative Southern Democrat.
So it ends. Again, as previously in regard to public education, Bartlett seeks to impose the entire burden of explanation on the demonized South. Would it not be possible to make the ascent of the “McGovern Democrats” the thing to be explained? And must we accept, without question, Bartlett’s specfic points of reference in the history of “polarization” he recounts? (Just last night, before I’d seen Bartlett’s article, I discussed the same history from a different perspective.)
For example, we might point to the key role of California and the rise of Ronald Reagan’s Cold War conservatism as a decisive factor. Is it an accident, I ask, that the Republican Party lost the White House in the first election after the collapse of the Soviet Union? And is it also an accident that, when the GOP took Congress in the next midterm election, they did so by vastly expanding their number of representatives in the South?
Foreign policy, you see, had a lot to do with the long dominance of Southern Democrats as the political linchpin during “The American Century.” The South’s long and proud military culture, and its profound suspicion of abstract secular ideologies, made those stubborn Southerners the very glue of the whole enterprise that ultimately defeated both Nazism and Communism.
It has always been the case, as far back as the War of 1812, that the surest way to get America into a fight is to inflame the pugnacious sensibilities of hotblooded Southerners, who would today be just as happy to go put a whuppin’ on the mullahs in Iran as their fathers and grandfathers were to whup Commies in Vietnam or Nazis in France — or Yankees at Bull Run.
The absence of foreign policy questions from Bartlett’s historical survey permits his readers to imagine that the basic problem of our present-day politics can be explained by the intractable racism and deficient education of those ignorant evangelical Christian yokels down South. However flattering such an understanding might be to liberals (Yankee and otherwise), it omits so many other variables as to be useless and misleading as an explanation, and is merely a 965-word insult to an entire region and its people.
We could carry this argument much further — I clipped off a thousand words of this reply for the sake of brevity — but I want to make clear that scapegoating the South is not something I will silently accept in political discourse, especially not from my conservative friends.
ADDENDUM: Let me hasten to add that I have enormous empathy for Bruce Bartlett, who fell victim to a purge for his criticisms of the Bush administration. A former aide to Jack Kemp and a member of the Reagan administration — among many other credentials that might be cited — Bartlett wrote an excellent 2005 book, Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy.
This resulted in Bartlett being fired from a think-tank job and (to give you an idea of how a GOP purge works) Bartlett was subsequently excluded from a 2006 event at the Heritage Foundation marking the 25th anniversary of the 1981 Reagan tax cuts, a measure that Bartlett himself helped draft.
Having seen some other friends go under the bus wheels of the Republican Establisment Express, I can think of few who suffered this treatment less justly than did Bartlett. Even if you didn’t share his hostile view of the Bush administration, Bartlett was never accused of racism or anti-Semitism (as in the cases of Joe Sobran, Pat Buchanan, and Sam Francis), but merely criticized Bush-era policy. Much of what Bartlett said about the Bush administration is now commonly accepted by conservatives, especially those aligned with the Tea Party.
So if Bruce Bartlett is disgruntled, it is not as if he has no legitimate grievance. Lashing out at scapegoats, however, isn’t going to redeem Bartlett’s losses or rectify what’s gone wrong with the Republican Party. While I have myself suffered some injuries, and have sometimes responded by lashing in anger, my fight has always been to maintain a position inside the Big Tent — however marginal and less exalted than I might wish — in order to influence, however slightly, the direction of affairs.
If Bartlett wants to follow the Michael Lind/David Brock path into the liberal camp, that’s his choice, but one I wish he would avoid.
My irascible temperament has made me many enemies and often disappointed those who remain my friends. However that my have impaired my own fortunes, my experiences have taught me many valuable lessons. A college professor of mine used to be fond of the ancient Persian saying, “The dogs may bark, but the caravan moves on.”
That is to say, we must either decide to cooperate with the ongoing project, or else we’ll be left behind with the complainers and critics.
Despite my feuds with various emincences within the conservative movement and my frequent complaints about the GOP Establishment, I try to keep in mind that the caravan continues rolling, and my criticisms will have no influence if I’m just another barking dog.