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July 05, 2012 9:12 AM On the Rise of the (Deep) Southern Oligarchy

By Colin Woodard

The Southern oligarchy has been taking a beating in the blogosphere this week, and it seems I’m partly to blame.

Sara Robinson, editor of AlterNet’s Visions section, put out this post on the Southern aristocracy’s nefarious influence on current American politics and society last week, which was cross-posted at Salon this past weekend, where it currently has over 3000 Facebook “likes.”

Drawing on Michael Lind’s Made in Texas, David Hackett Fisher’s Albion’s Seed and my own American Nations, Robinson argues that - on account of the rise of Dixie in national politics — the United States is increasingly being run like an old Southern slave plantation.

“The rich are different now,” she writes,

because the elites who spent four centuries sucking the South dry and turning it into an economic and political backwater have now vanquished the more forward-thinking, democratic Northern elites. Their attitudes towards freedom, authority, community, government, and the social contract aren’t just confined to the country clubs of the Gulf Coast; they can now be found on the ground from Hollywood and Silicon Valley to Wall Street. And because of that quiet coup, the entire US is now turning into the global equivalent of a Deep South state.

Those familiar with American Nations - or at least with my recent feature in this magazine- won’t be surprised to learn that I agree with the central thrust of Robinson’s argument. The radicalization of the Republican Party in recent years has a lot to do with it having been taken over by Deep Southerners like Trent Lott and Newt Gingrich, Dick Armey and George W. Bush, Haley Barbour and Jim DeMint. The central policy goals of Tea Party Republicanism mirror those of the Deep Southern elite: rollback federal power, environmental, labor, and consumer protection laws, and taxes on capital and the wealthy. It’s a program one never would have seen in the days when the GOP was run by Yankee - read “Greater New Englander” - figures like Teddy Roosevelt or George Bush the senior.

That said, Robinson’s effort to shorthand American regionalism as a struggle between two elites - those of Yankeedom and Dixie — led to a few errors which the wonk in me can’t help but point out.

First, it’s not entirely true that, “for most of our history, American economics, culture and politics have been dominated by a New England-based Yankee aristocracy…rooted in Puritan communitarian values, educated at the Ivies and marinated in an ethic of noblesse oblige…” That Yankee elite held sway over our fractured federation during the presidency of John Adams and in the period from the Civil War to the early post-World War II era, but aristocrats from the Chesapeake country generally ran the show in the Early Republic, and Woodrow Wilson, Harry Truman, Eisenhower, L.B.J., Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan were neither Yankees nor Deep Southerners. (Wilson, whom Robinson casts as a wonky Yankee intellectual, was raised in Appalachian Virginia and introduced racial segregation to federal agencies.)

Secondly, there’s a big difference between the Deep South - which indeed champions those “plantation” vales - and “the South” as the term is usually understood. Fact is there are three southern regional cultures, each with their own founding ideals, elite characteristics, and founding values. (I encourage readers to consult this map of the regional cultures today.)

When it comes to noblesse oblige, it’s hard to outmatch George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and the other Enlightenment-influenced aristocrats of the Chesapeake region (a.k.a. Tidewater), a regional culture whose origins, ethnography, and founding ideals were distinct from that of the Deep South.

As for the “upland South” —- better understood as part of a Greater Appalachia stretching from south-Central Pennsylvania to the Hill Country of Texas and the Missouri Ozarks - it was a region hostile to the aristocracy and plantation system of the Deep South and the “common good” reasoning underpinning Greater New England’s understanding of what “freedom” and “liberty” really meant. Indeed, a central thrust of Lind’s argument in Made in Texas is that there is a regional basis to Texan politics, with the progressive strain (personified by L.B.J and Ralph Yarborough) having come from what I would call its “Greater Appalachian” section.

The “north” is similarly divided. While dominated by Greater New England (or “Yankeedom”), it also includes a swath of territory that is not at all supportive of Utopian government missions. The Quaker-founded, multiethnic Midlands (again, see that map) are the great swing region of our national politics precisely because they reject both “plantation” politics and the Yankee faith in public institutions.

So, yes, American politics has been under the increasing influence of the elite of a southern region, but it’s a deep southern one.

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Colin Woodard is State and National Affairs Writer at the Portland Press Herald / Maine Sunday Telegram and author of American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America.

Comments

  • Sean Scallon on July 06, 2012 7:22 AM:

    One wonders why Salon, which has any number of good writers, wants to troll through the trash found at AlterNet and its stable of hack Leftists? In so doing it enables writers like Ms. Robertson produce pornographic pieces like one above.

    This is simply a hate-piece. It's nothing different Michelle Malkin would write only from a different point of view. She takes bits a pieces from good works of scholarship and produces Leftist agit-prop, no doubt envisioning herself working for the War Department in 1863.

    The modern South nor the Republican Party is not run by Wade Hampton and Nathan Bedford Forrest. It is run by the same elites who work for same big banks and big corporations you'll find in Philadelphia or New York or D.C. or any other large metropoles. And they live in the same big houses in same suburbs as you'll find in Detroit, Milwaukee or Chicago.

    Does the GOP get a large percentage of its votes from the South? Sure it does. But the reasoning is no different than you'll find in places the rural parts of the Midwest or the West or maybe even the Northeast. They are perceived to be the party on the side of gun owners, religious folk, small businessmen and yes, white people. But that's hardly a Southern distinction. What's different between the South and the North is that the pool of white liberals and Hispanics is much greater outside the South and thus there is more of base for the Democratic Party to exist in and vise-versa. That's why the Democrats barely exist in places like Wyoming or Idaho or Utah and the same would be true in places like Alabama and Mississippi if it weren't for black voters.

    And not only is Robinson's piece just hate-filled propaganda the author misses two big factors which have changed Southern politics profoundly: 1). The influx of Northerners such retirees and veterans who have fled places like Massachusetts and New York for places like South Carolina and Georgia making the latter more Republican and the former more Democratic; 2). The establishment of an organized religious Right voting bloc which forms a great part of he Republican base. Without it, I suspect the competition for white voters and Southern politics as a whole would be much more competitive.

    Robinson can talk about "plantations" all she likes to make herself feel morally superior as the abolitionists but the politics she describes draws from that great Southern patriot Ayn Rand! The reality is the Southern GOP sums up the eternal contradiction of the Right wing ideology. It wishes to be both Johnny Reb and Jamie Whitten, the Mississippi Congressman who headed the House Agriculture Committee for many years, at the same time. It wants to pretend it can protect the South from federal encroachment and wants to keeps Federal largess as well. The plantation mentality died during the Floods of 1928 and the Depression. The South's young Congressmen of the New Deal/World War II era whether they were Sam Rayburn or Richard Russell or L. Mendel Rivers were determined to use the Federal Government to help build the region and oh boy did they ever. The modern South is the result of this and their political decendants, now with the GOP because it is politically safer to be so as a white in these polarized times, are aware of this as much as anyone (just look at the latest farm bill). Poll any number Southern GOP Congressmen and you're not going to find a lot enthusiasm for privatizing the TVA or Johnson Space Center or defense cuts for that matter given the number of military bases in the South. It is this sentiment that makes it almost impossible to "cut the size of government" gong back all the way to the Reagan era to the Republican Revolution of 1994. So long as Southerners are determined to hold on to the legacy New Deal and World War II, the federal government will not shrink in any appreciable way. I think a few GOP Congressmen like Jim DeMint understand this but are really powerless to do

  • Guest on July 17, 2012 10:43 AM:

    The author's clarifications were necessary and provide much needed nuance. But Sean Scanlon goes over the top in describing Robinson's original piece as hate speech. That's absurd. The point that she made is still valid, that is, it is the philosophy originated in the South that now has spread across the US. I wonder if the commentator is responding more to Robinson's gender than to the issues in question.

  • Bernar on July 17, 2012 3:31 PM:

    sean scanlon reply seems to be a little over the top. as they say, sometimes the truth is a little too bare. lol
    Southerners would and do appreciate his defense of the South. after all, how else can the Plantation economy keep its' influence, if it is exposed as being part and parcel of the Elites who run things.

    Being a Southerner, the facts Mr. Scanlon decries are more proof that one must never face the fact the South has always been elitist. just now the Rich Northerners and the rest have figured how to use the Southern Strategy to rip us all off.

    too bad the truth of the article counters the tirade against the writer. the truth is still the truth.
    increasingly, when attacked the Elites deny, divert and dismiss any idea taht might expose them for what they are.

    just like the Southern Elites who ran the South in the Pre Civil War period. nowadays, they just use the Bankers and Politicians more effectively.

    the War against the South just continues on in its' various forms. some things never change, just the appearances at time

  • Bo Yerxa on July 17, 2012 6:02 PM:

    As one who has volunteered in the Presidential campaigns of three "Barrys"- the first surnamed Goldwater and the last Obama - I had to leave the GOP when Nixon adopted his racist "Southern Strategy" in order to make manifest in my life the Republican principles in which I was raised. And that IMHO was an extreme pivot point to garnering votes though appealing to racism, sexism, anti-science elements, extreme(& patriarchal)religious groups, and ethnocentrism/xenophobia, which has been the GOP's playbook since 1972.

  • niat holder on July 17, 2012 8:02 PM:

    Both my parents were southerners,one first generation US born Irish catholic and the other from NW Georgia. After years as a dependent in the military we settled in Atlanta. I married and taught 30 years DeMint's district.The phrase"..it's me and mine,to hell with thine" is an unspoken motto,and lived by.Communities remain insulated(culturally and intellectually) and socially restricted by their family and Church (almost always free Baptist)The idea of even dating another from 12 miles away is an "issue".Shallow(lots of blonde and red heads)gene pools contribute to multiple health problems. Calumny,loose sexual rumor mongering and pedophilia and solicitation charges are common business practices to eliminate competition. Arson,a business practice for insurance collection on rental properties or a remodeled home.Discrimination of Asian Americans or Af.Americans even if a sibling, increasing open KKK meetings at Macdonalds and of course the lynchings, only now they include (perceived) gays. One might also look at Douglas Blackmon's book and dvd, Slavery By Another Name and realize this is it,on a bigger scale.