|John A. Elder's classic painting The Battle of the Crater|
Mitt Romney’s performance in the southern states, contextualized with the historical success of conservatism throughout the South, has been the subject of critique in the inevitable post-election hubris. Progressives ponder why they preform so badly in the South.
If you read this blog regularly you know I never supported Romney, not even back in 2008. I voted for Obama then. You also know I share many progressive ideas on issues like human rights, environmental protection, and a liberal supreme court. Nevertheless, being southern born and bred, I maintain a healthy interest in southern culture in general, in its customs, arts, and literature, and in particular the history of the Southern Confederacy, its honest rebellion against modernity.
I am not a secessionist. Recent talk of secession, even by someone I respect like Ron Paul, has not changed my opinion. Secession means war. That is what history teaches. I try to learn from history. Secession, while certainly a continuous thread through much of 19th century America in the northeast and southern states, is pretty much useless as a viable, peaceful political concept.
But, the problem progressives have with the South has little to do with secession. All 50 states have individually signed up for that. Politically speaking, secession is Passé. Rather, the problem lies with progressives themselves who, much like their polar opposites - evangelical Christians (many of whom are white southern males), want to force their ideas about the future course of American policy upon those who dissent from such social ideas.
It is the eternal problem of any political perspective attempting to attain as much Power as possible over its opposition. It is the problem of not seeing that there is nothing inherently wrong with the South. Instead it is the progressives who have a problem with the South. Progressivism itself is the issue, not southern conservatism which has existed since before the beginning of this nation. By any definition this is collective cultural nagging.
The problem is arrogance on all sides, which is natural. Human cultural behavior is neither inherently progressive nor is it conservative. It is dynamic and highly competitive and almost completely self-centered. There are many trends and influences in human culture. The conservative and the progressive political forces have their roots in the singular political thread of this nation - the conflict between the forces of Consolidated Government and the States.
The War Between the States settled two matters. First, the abolitionists were right, slavery was morally wrong. Secondly, secession meant bloody war and mass destruction. We should pay attention to history with all this highfalutin talk of secession. It is idealistically interesting but has little practical value. Secession does not solve the burdens of society. It makes them worse and leads to nothing fundamentally positive. I am, in the main, a States' Rights man. But I also believe there are many important reasons why our sovereign States should remain united.
But all that is mere preface. The actions of that war are still an integral part of who I am as a southern white male. What I want to make abundantly clear, within the context of the above, is that progressives tend to want to deconstruct the grandiose failure of the Southern Confederacy into a mere cultural exercise in bigotry. That is unacceptable to me. There is so much more to why secession took place with the election of Lincoln. Just as there are a multitude of reasons why all 50 States now have petitions for secession. Sure the most signatures have come from the old Confederacy, with Texas and Florida leading the way. But, greater percentages of the population are represented from states like Montana, outside the Old South.
To chain and isolate the demise of Antebellum Southern Culture completely to racism is nothing more than a progressive prejudice. It dismisses out of hand the nature of southern honor, romanticism, and agrarian livelihood. It ignores the existential validity that the industrial revolution was seen as a threat to the Southern way of life. I find its overly simplistic approach to historical fact (by turning history itself into social critique) to be naively reprehensible. I tolerate its ilk as I do all things but that prejudice strains my southern patience just as it did my Confederate ancestor who fought at Fort Sumter in 1863 and Petersburg in 1864. That such a prejudice has become so widespread as to ban even public representations of the Confederate military is surely the mark of a rigidly restrictive perspective. How unprogressive.
So, yeah, y'all progressives have a problem. You ridicule and misapprehend the southern white male in your quaint self-righteousness more than you know. And that, more than any alleged moral or intellectual defect in white southern culture, pisses off everyone in my culture, it triggers deeply rooted sadness and anger - which now transcends into a diaspora of southern culture all across this nation. Montana ain't genetically southern, but it sure has the southern cultural spirit where the matter of State Sovereignty is concerned.
So you progressives piss us off down here. I vote we stay in the union. I, myself, am in many ways a social progressive in the spirit of Martin Luther King and even George McGovern. I am equally conservative in fiscal matters and regarding most foreign policy. I am libertarian where individual rights are concerned. I consider myself almost unique in my political thought - being a rare liberal, libertarian southerner. But, I also point out it is not so much the validity of secession that is the question here as it is the underlying currents that secession reflects. This talk of secession is like a huge poll sampling of a specific demographic throughout the US. The States seriously question the power and legitimacy of the Federal Authority. As Ron Paul points out, this is a fundamental part of Americana. Particularly in southern culture.
While progressives can point to great and meaningful victories in overcoming discrimination, environmental protection, space exploration, general welfare, among other areas of public concern, it is simultaneously evident that the Federal Authority is dramatically shrinking. The southern penchant for individual responsibility and freedom is strong in areas of deregulation and the enhancement of private communication.
50 years ago you could not own a phone, the Federal Authority controlled it and, by law, forced you to rent your phone. You could not own (physical) gold, the Federal Authority prohibited it. All air flights were federally controlled, along with all railways and transportation trucks. The Federal Authority today has a fundamentally more deregulated approach to all our daily lives. The top tax rate in 1962 was 91 percent. Conservatives may whine about the re-election of "socialist" Barack Obama but, in truth, they have been holding their own quite well over the past few decades - led in no small part by white southern males.
My point is that many aspects of southern culture such as power shifted to the States from a limited Federal Authority, or a passionate and romantic intimacy toward a peculiar sense of prideful honor, have not only become more deeply rooted in the white geographic south but they have filtered through the vast, entangled transmigration of US peoples to other regions. This is not a racial thing, though perhaps, as with the War Between the States, race is a factor somewhere.
The true basis of the Southern Confederacy is growing throughout the United States. As of this post, States have rights to govern marijuana, to grant gay marriage, to control guns or not control guns, to authorize the teaching of creationism as part of the elementary curriculum, and to restrict late-term abortions.
These are all examples of the rights of the States - a vast and dynamic reflection of Americana. I may agree or disagree with any of the above but the freedom does not only lie with my free experience, it also and equally lies with those free experiences expressed with which I do not agree. That is the proper measure of human freedom.
And while some of the above are progressive and some are conservative achievements, in the main the States remain sovereign and unique. This is the best basis for democracy because it fundamentally protects the rights of the minority opinion, the rights of the white southern minority have always been the basis for their actions even unto the war that began in 1861. Though the war was lost, today white southern males are far better off in terms of their freedom and wealth than they were 50 years ago; a naïveté if you participant in the myth of postmodern progress.
So, if progressives want to make inroads with southern white males, stop nagging about our "peculiar institution" between the 1600's until 1865. Start treating us as equals to your political and cultural philosophy. Because that is what we are. We are competing with you for the future course of the Federal Authority vs. State Sovereignty debate and, in many respects, we are winning.
Note: I am aware of the apparent contradiction between this piece and my previous praise for George McGovern as a political prophet. As I see it, both the Consolidated and the State governments have transformed the political landscape in America for the past several decades. I do not see one as dominating the other, rather I see both as a dynamic flow of competitive ideas that are shaping America in ways neither side fully controls.
Note II: On Sunday morning I read this piece which provides an interesting perspective on the dynamic of State sovereignty.