The Old South's Last, Desperate Stand
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In understanding the polarization and paralysis that afflict national politics in the United States, it is a mistake to think in terms of left and right. The appropriate directions are North and South. To be specific, the long, drawn-out, agonizing identity crisis of white Southerners is having effects that reverberate throughout our federal union. The transmission mechanism is the Republican Party, an originally Northern party that has now replaced the Southern wing of the Democratic Party as the vehicle for the dwindling white Southern tribe.
As someone whose white Southern ancestors go back to the 17th century in the Chesapeake Bay region, I have some insight into the psychology of the tribe. The salient fact to bear in mind is that the historical experience of the white South in many ways is the opposite of the experience of the rest of the country.
Mainstream American history, from the point of view of the white majority in the Northeast, Midwest and West Coast, is a story of military successes. The British are defeated, ensuring national independence. The Confederates are defeated, ensuring national unity. And in the 20th century the Axis and Soviet empires are defeated, ensuring (it is hoped) a free world.
The white Southern narrative — at least in the dominant Southern conservative version — is one of defeat after defeat. First the attempt of white Southerners to create a new nation in which they can be the majority was defeated by the U.S. Army during the Civil War. Doomed to be a perpetual minority in a continental American nation-state, white Southerners managed for a century to create their own state-within-a-state, in which they could collectively lord it over the other major group in the region, African-Americans. But Southern apartheid was shattered by the second defeat, the Civil Rights revolution, which like the Civil War and Reconstruction was symbolized by the dispatching of federal troops to the South. The American patriotism of the white Southerner is therefore deeply problematic. Some opt for jingoistic hyper-Americanism (the lady protesteth too much, methinks) while a shrinking but significant minority prefer the Stars and Bars to the Stars and Stripes.
The other great national narrative holds that the U.S. is a nation of immigration, a “new nation,” a melting pot made up of immigrants from many lands. While the melting pot story involves a good deal of idealization, it is based on demographic fact in the large areas of the North where old-stock Anglo-Americans are commingled with German-Americans, Polish-Americans and Irish-Americans, along with more recent immigrant diasporas from Latin America, Asia, the Middle East and Africa.
But even before the recent wave of immigration from sources other than Europe, the melting pot never included most of the white South. From the early 19th century until the late 20th, the South attracted relatively few immigrants. Who wanted to move to a backward, rural, apartheid society dominated by an oligarchy of a few rich families? Apart from several encapsulated minorities — Cajuns in Louisiana, Germans in central Texas — most white Southerners remained descendants of colonial-era immigrants from the British Isles, chiefly English and Scots-Irish. And while Irish and German Catholics and Jews diversified the religious landscape of the North, the South was dominated by British-derived Protestant sects like the Episcopalians, Baptists and Methodists from Virginia to Oklahoma and Texas.
Two maps illustrate the demographic distinctiveness of the white South. The first shows the close correlation of evangelical Protestantism with the states of the former Confederacy. The second map is even more revealing. It shows the concentration of individuals who identified themselves to census takers as non-hyphenated “Americans.”