Magazine article The New Yorker

Southern Discomfort

Magazine article The New Yorker

Southern Discomfort

Article excerpt

The New Year's Day vote in Congress that brought a temporary truce to the fiscal wars showed the Republicans to be far more divided than the Democrats, and the division broke along regional lines. House Republicans from the Far West and from the Northeast favored the Senate's compromise bill by large margins, and Midwesterners were split; but in the South, Republican opposition was overwhelming, 81-12, accounting for more than half of the total Republican "no" votes. In other words, Republicans outside the South have begun to turn pink, following the political tendencies of the country as a whole, but Southern Republicans, who dominate the Party and its congressional leadership, remain deep scarlet. These numbers reveal something more than the character of today's Republican Party; a larger historical shift is under way.

For a century after losing the Civil War, the South was America's own colonial backwater--"not quite a nation within a nation, but the next thing to it," W. J. Cash wrote in his classic 1941 study, "The Mind of the South." From Tyler, Texas, to Roanoke, Virginia, Southern places felt unlike the rest of the country. The region was an American underbelly in the semi-tropical heat; the manners were softer, the violence swifter, the commerce slower, the thinking narrower, the past closer. It was called the Solid South, and it partly made up for economic weakness with the political strength that came from having a lock on the Democratic Party, which was led by shrewd septuagenarian committee chairmen.

The price was that the Democratic Party remained an anti-modern minority until the New Deal. As late as 1950, there were just three Republicans among the South's hundred and nine congressmen, and none in the Senate; a decade later, the numbers had barely moved. In 1964, Lyndon Johnson said that breaking the Southern filibuster and passing civil-rights legislation would cost Democrats the South for a generation (he was too optimistic), but the region's conservatism had already begun to push it toward the Republican Party. And, as the South became more Republican, it became more like the rest of America. Following the upheavals of the civil-rights years, the New South was born: the South of air-conditioned subdivisions, suburban office parks, and Walmart. Modernization was paved with federal dollars, in the form of highways, military bases, space centers, and tax breaks for oil drilling.

At the same time, the Southern way of life began to be embraced around the country until, in a sense, it came to stand for the "real America": country music and Lynyrd Skynyrd, barbecue and NASCAR, political conservatism, God and guns, the code of masculinity, militarization, hostility to unions, and suspicion of government authority, especially in Washington, D.C. (despite its largesse). In 1978, the Dallas Cowboys laid claim to the title of "America's team"--something the San Francisco 49ers never would have attempted. In Palo Alto, of all places, the cool way to express rebellion in your high-school yearbook was with a Confederate flag. That same year, the tax revolt began, in California.

The Southernization of American life was an expression of the great turn away from the centralized liberalism that had governed the country from the Presidencies of F.D.R. to Nixon. Every President elected between 1976 and 2004 was, by birth or by choice, a Southerner, except Ronald Reagan, who enjoyed a sort of honorary status. (When he began the 1980 campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, scene of the murder, in 1964, of three civil-rights workers, many Southerners heard it as a dog whistle. …

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