January 17, 2022 | Reading Time: 7 minutes
Martin Luther King Jr would have understood that the line connecting Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump runs through Dixie
The American south as mini-Russia.
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Today we honor the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. There are many obvious reasons to raise up his name in tribute and praise. But there’s another less obvious reason – the civil rights leader understood southern politics.
Much of our discourse treats southern politics as if it were just another regional bloc. Or the region and its history are whitewashed in ways similar to slavery being whitewashed from US history. I think King knew better. If you don’t understand southern politics, you don’t understand politics, period.
I’m not a scholar, but I lived in the south for nearly a decade. I was a reporter and editor at small newspapers. I’m here to tell you, things are different.
If you don’t understand southern politics, you don’t understand politics, period.
Speaking truthfully is not a civic virtue. Free speech is not valued. The common good is not recognized. There is no such thing as “the public.” Equality is paid lip service. The rights of property are unquestioned.
Conformity is enforced, gender roles policed, the racial hierarchy maintained unto death. To call southern politics the politics of a rightwing authoritarian collective is not too much. Everything is us against them. We talk about fascism as if it’s modern. The American sort goes back to 1619.
In a very real sense, the white south is like a mini-Russia – one-party control, endemic corruption, no concern for governance and constant appeals to the very worst in humanity for the sake of restricting liberty to the master race. The line connecting Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump runs through Dixie.
If this sounds unkind, consider this. Southern politics, by which I mean white southern politics, is what gave motivation and rationale to the J6 insurgents. They were not betraying the country. They were not committing acts of treason. They were instead defending “real Americans” from “tyranny.”
Let’s turn now to an authority, Angie Maxwell. She’s a professor of political science at the University of Arkansas and director of its Center of Southern Politics and Society. Her latest book, with Todd Shields, is The Long Southern Strategy. She explained that entertainment, not governing, is the thing in the south.
What about southern politics is vital to understanding American democracy that most people don’t know about, including southerners?
Prior to the publication of VO Key, Jr’s landmark study, Southern Politics in State and Nation (1949), most research in American politics (not historians) focused primarily on the non-south. The very short introduction to Key’s enormous book still reveals some of the most shrewd insights about the region.
Specifically, Key claims that because of one-party politics, the south has no real political system capable of solving its very real problems. In a one-party political system, politics becomes a “drole facade” – a politics of entertainment as opposed to a contest of ideas.
There is little oversight or restraint. Politicians who are cult of personalities are successful. Political rallies are tent revival-like sources of entertainment.
When the south was in the process of realigning from Democratic dominance to Republican dominance, observers and scholars thought the region was purple and competitive. The party labels were but the ideologies were not.
The one-party dominance still exists in most of the southern states. It’s just the GOP in control instead of the Democratic Party. So in many southern states there is no opposition party infrastructure.
Because of one-party politics, the south has no real political system capable of solving its very real problems. Politics becomes a “drole facade” – a politics of entertainment as opposed to a contest of ideas. There is little oversight or restraint. Politicians who are cult of personalities are successful. Political rallies are tent revival-like sources of entertainment.
There is scant participation in parties by the public. Little oversight is still the norm. Most of the substantive changes have been the result of federal laws and requirements or Supreme Court rulings.
This is important, because it shows why Georgia specifically has moved the needle and become so competitive.
Democratic workers there have invested in infrastructure and community organizing. It doesn’t matter how talented a Democratic candidate may be, without the grassroots network and public buy-in to the party, they will not be successful.
Another thing that many people may not realize is how important the south is for the national Democratic Party.
Most southern states go red, of course. Although Obama won three southern states, he could have lost them and still reached the magic number for an Electoral College victory. So many folks don’t see the importance of the south for the Democratic Party.
However, the south still has a significant number of delegates to the Democratic National Convention. Since many southern states moved their primaries up in the calendar – remember the moniker “SEC primary” – and since they often vote similarly in those primaries, they have an enormous impact on momentum in a crowded Democratic Party field.
Candidates who know that and invest in the south are often successful there, though it can seem like a waste of resources for winning votes in the general.
In terms of the Republican primaries, we all know the south is crucial, but I don’t know if we realize the extent. Because most of the Republican primaries are winner-take-most if not winner-take-all, and because the RNC awards bonus delegates to states that went red in the general in the last election cycle, the south has a disproportionate effect on who gets the RNC nomination. I wrote a piece about it last January.
Are you able to generalize the political values of one-party southern politics?
For the dominant party, symbolic politics is key, as opposed to governing. There isn’t a real threat to losing power or control, so catering to the base is everything, as is party loyalty and party allegiance.
The fear is always being primaried in your own party, not losing in a general. Compromise isn’t necessary, so it’s about jockeying for recognition within the party.
For the party in opposition, where one party dominates, it has to be about compromise and political pragmatism.
For example, the reason Bernie Sanders did not fare well in the south in the 2020 Democratic primaries is not necessarily because southern Democrats think Medicare for all is a bad idea. It just seems like a pipe dream. It seems so far from their lived reality in a state dominated by a politics of privatization. Many southern states never expanded Medicaid, and in the ones that did, it was a huge battle.
Many people don’t realize what an uphill battle it is in most southern states to reach real two-party competition. That’s why it was amazing to see Georgia, North Carolina and Texas too close to call on election night 2020. Just being at that place represents decades of work.
The reason Bernie Sanders did not fare well in the south in the 2020 Democratic primaries is not necessarily because southern Democrats think Medicare for all is a bad idea. It just seems like a pipe dream. It seems so far from their lived reality in a state dominated by a politics of privatization.
This is also why the gutting of the Voting Rights Act (as a result of the 2013 Supreme Court case Shelby County v. Holder) is so devastating in the south. Folks may look at a state like Arkansas, for example, and say well they have four GOP Congressman now, and they will likely have four after 2022. What’s the big impact of redistricting post-Shelby County?
What they don’t see is all the years of work that made an African-American woman and state Senator Joyce Elliot, a serious contender in 2020 in the 2nd district (Little Rock). But now Little Rock has been split into three separate congressional districts, undoing all of those decades of organizing.
The south is overly influential in selecting the GOP’s presidential nominee. The south is critical to any GOP victory in the general. The influence of the south in the selection of the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee is underestimated.
The long history of one-party politics in the south has created real structural barriers to progress and change. For the party in opposition, it takes decades of work to become competitive again, and a great deal of that could be wiped away without a restoration of the protections of the Voting Rights Act.
For Republicans, politics is symbolic. For Democratic, it’s about pragmatism. That sounds a lot like our national politics. Has American politics been “southernized”?
Yes. American politics has become southernized in that the majority of states are under one party rule, as opposed to divided government.
The longer that persists and the more extreme the gap in partisan power, the more likely non-southern states will encounter the same structural problems that have plagued the south.
In terms of parties, the Republicans nationalized southern white identity in an effort to turn the south red — The Long Southern Strategy — and that rebranded conservatism in a southern white image.
American politics has become southernized in that the majority of states are under one party rule, as opposed to divided government. The Republicans nationalized southern white identity in an effort to turn the south red — The Long Southern Strategy — and that rebranded conservatism in a southern white image.
Scoring high on scales that measure racial resentment, modern sexism or Christian nationals accounted for 95 percent of Trump’s white vote.
In terms of Democrats, Democrats outside of the south tend to resemble Democrats in southern states where Republicans dominate, leaving Democrats little recourse but to be pragmatic and compromising – because they have no other choice.
Democrats in strong blue states operate in a very different environment.
It seems that southern politics gives space to people like the J6 insurgents. Treason isn’t really treason. It’s standing up for “real Americans.”
Southern politics gives space to people like the J6 insurgents, because too many southern GOP politicians don’t call them insurgents, nor call their actions treasonous. If, for most of the 20th century, southern textbooks continued to call the Civil War, “The War of Northern Aggression,” or “The War Between the States,” and if well into the 21st century, monuments to the Confederacy still stand in public spaces, then there has been no honest reckoning of southern secession and defeat (nor a true confession of the protection of slavery as its motive). In the long run, that makes “treason” a subjective term. It isn’t.
I have said this numerous times in various forms in the Editorial Board: “When Republicans say ‘Real America,’ they have in their heads a very specific place. It’s not a real place, as I said. It’s a wholly imagined place that, as such, frees them from moral accountability and all manner of mutual obligation to anyone who is not already committed to this wholly imagined place. It is a confederacy of the mind and spirit, unbound by tangible boundaries, a ‘nation’ existing inside the actual United States, where ‘real Americans’ live as God’s chosen people.” Thoughts?
It is an imagined space. Just like the Confederacy was. Some see it as God’s chosen people. But a deeper place, they see it as a place where people like them (who look like them, who have the same values as them — Christian, white, who live traditional gender roles) are in charge and are never criticized. A space where all their life, lies go unchallenged. Where they never have to confront different people, opinions, religions, values. Where they are the good guys at all times.
Confederate nationalism was a house of cards built by propaganda to benefit wealthy slave-owners. In The Long Southern Strategy, I wrote this: “Poor white southerners have long been conditioned to forfeit a personal battle in the service of winning an imagined war from which they do not benefit.” True then. True now.
But not limited to the south now, because of rebranded GOP.
So you are totally right about the imagined America!
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.
Having lived in the South during my years in the military, I saw all this as true. So how do we counter it?
All I got this early morning is ‘Bless their hearts’…
Thanks, John, for this article and especially for the interview. Good to hear more perspectives from experts (huh…how un-southern of me…)