Forget Red vs. Blue -- It's Slave States vs. Free States in 2012
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White supremacy was never an end in itself, but a tactic used by the Southern oligarchs to divide white workers from nonwhite workers. But the Southern elite can dispense with racism, because it has never cared what color its serfs are. Indeed, in the seventeenth century Southern planters initially experimented with white British and European indentured servants as farm workers, before trying black slaves, who were easier to identify if they ran away. In theory, in a truly post-racist South, a multiracial Southern oligarchy could lord it over an underpaid, vulnerable and equally multiracial Southern regional majority.
The traditional Southern regional economic strategy, then, depends on the control by Southern employers of a huge pool of low-wage workers with little or no bargaining power in their dealings with their local bosses or the foreign (that is, extra-Southern) investors and corporations who are invited in to exploit their labor. This regional economic strategy can succeed only if the power of the Southern employer class over Southern urban and rural workers is protected from political and legal interference from outside the South and within.
Protecting the prerogatives of the Southern economic elite and the politicians it owns from external interference is the rationale for the defense of states’ rights, in the twenty-first century as in the nineteenth and twentieth. While they demonize “the federal government” as though it were some external force, Southern conservatives are actually afraid of democracy—national democracy. They are afraid of their fellow Americans outside of the region they control. They are afraid that national majorities will impose unwelcome reform on the South, at the expense of their profits and privileges, as national majorities did during Reconstruction, the New Deal and the Civil Rights revolution.
The Southern system is also threatened by internal democracy. The Populist movement of the late 1800s, which in some cases united white and black Southerners in the cause of reform, terrified the white Southern establishment. By World War I many Southern states had adopted variants of the “Mississippi system” of disfranchising all of the black and up to half of the white population, by means of poll taxes, means tests, and other devices, ensuring that elections in the South would be dominated by upper-income voters. The purpose of the “voter ID” laws pushed by today’s Dixified Republican party is similarly to prevent lower-income citizens from voting.
Southern conservatives are sometimes accused of being hypocritical in denouncing the federal government even as their states take a disproportionate amount of federal military and civilian subsidies. But that isn’t hypocrisy; it’s cunning. As long as the local Southern oligarchs control how the federal money is spent in their region, they have no objection to massive restribution from Yankeeland to Dixie. Plans like Romney’s and Ryan’s for block-granting federal subsidies support the self-serving strategy of the Southern elite: federal funding but regional control.
Note that throughout this essay I have used the phrases “Southern establishment,” “Southern oligarchy,” and “Southern elite.” All too often outsiders treat the victims of the Southern oligarchy—the majority of white and black and Latino Southerners—as though they are to be blamed for their misfortune. Unfortunately, many northern progressives are snobs who would rather sneer at the manners and lifestyle of the Southern white working class than mobilize to defeat the Southern elite, which tends to be well-educated, well-spoken and well-traveled.
What about the future? Theorists of a “new majority” at the national level may be vindicated, if this year the Democrats win the popular vote for the five times in six consecutive elections. If Texas, the powerhouse of Southern electoral votes, shifts from red to blue in the next generation or two because of demographic change, that would further ghettoize Dixie conservatives. Gerrymandering can delay the inevitable decline of influence of white Southern conservatives in the House of Representatives, but cannot stop it. As before the Civil War, the Senate may be the last redoubt of the Southern right, but only as long as it can find enough allies among the low-population states of the prairie and mountain regions.