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Is the South Dragging the Rest of the Nation Down?

Why poor white Southerners keep voting for policies that screw them and how this hurts the rest of the nation.
 
 
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In 1978, out of college without a job and having failed to establish Birmingham’s version of The Village Voice, I took a job as advance man for the Alabama Republican Senate candidate.

One incident that stuck with me was a visit to campaign headquarters by a young Republican adviser—I didn’t recognize his name, but I remember that he strummed a guitar while talking to us. He told us, “Don’t ever use the words ‘black’ and ‘white’ in an argument. Always say ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative.’ You’ll turn every argument about race into a political one. You do that, and race will start to disappear as an issue.”

Our candidate, Jim Martin, lost the election to somebody named Donald Stewart, who was the very model of the politically ineffectual Democrat who would soon get steamrolled by the new Reagan-led Republican Party. Within a few years, however, Alabama would move, along with much of the South, from the Democratic to the Republican Party. But it was a case of rebranding rather than change. In less than a generation, every Wallace segregationist Democrat I knew had turned into a conservative Reagan Republican; as the guitar-picking adviser had predicted, race almost ceased to be a political issue and, as my friend the late journalist Paul Hemphill put it, “George Wallace’s role in framing the politics of the new South was obscured.”

I thought of these words while reading Chuck Thompson’s “Better Off Without ’Em: A Northern Manifesto for Southern Secession.” Or rather, rereading. On its release in August, I dismissed it because the author is rude and obnoxious and because his chapter on football in the South is utterly lacking in logic and sound history. Thompson doesn’t think that the Alabama Crimson Tide has the greatest tradition in college football. But I digress. (More on football later.)

Over the past months, however, I’ve become more convinced by Thompson’s main argument, that the South—the states that comprised the Old Confederacy—should not only be allowed to secede, but both countries created by the split would be better off. 

Most of Thompson’s main points are in the first 40 pages:

—“It’s too bad that we just didn’t let the South secede when we had the chance.”

—“Everyone has joked about a modern-day secession. Politicians, like Texas Governor and presidential hopeful Rick Perry, have even threatened it. But what would the measurable impact be if it actually happened? … In fact, for both sides, an exciting by-product of separation would be an explosion of southern tourism. … ”

—“With time, Americans would start thinking of the South as another Mexico, only with a more corrupt government.”

—“The South has operated like a competing nation in cannibalizing and degrading Michigan and the American auto industry.”

—“ … [A] union based on such a diametrically opposed approach to social organization—uncompromising Bible literalism versus protean secular law—is like a bad marriage that needs to end in order to save the children. … “

—“All these gloom and doomers … whining about a world on the brink of extinction are descendants of the Lost Cause defeatism fostered and fetishized in post Civil War southern churches. …”   

Let me interject: Ever since the rise of the Nashville Fugitives, a group of poets, novelists and historians who met at Vanderbilt University in the 1920s, it’s been a popular argument among Southern academics that the Civil War wasn’t fought over slavery but in defense of states’ rights. (I’ll never forget the Birmingham News’ 1963 Civil War centennial issue that proclaimed “The True Story of the Heroic Struggle for States’ Rights.”) This ties into one of the primary myths being hammered home to white school kids in the South: that because slavery only benefited the rich and not the common soldier/farmer, the latter did not believe he went to war in defense of slavery.

As historian James M. McPherson noted, the leaders of the Confederacy were clear before the war that they were quite willing to fight for slavery. Here’s McPherson from his essay “The War of Southern Aggression” in The New York Review of Books (Jan. 19, 1989): “Whether or not they owned productive property, all southern whites owned the most important property of all—a white skin. This enabled them to stand above the mudsill of black slavery and prevented them from sinking into the morass of inequality, as did wage workers and poor men in the North.”

 

I don’t think racism is the cardinal sin of the South, and it certainly isn’t exclusive to the South. The South’s cardinal sin is in pretending that racism didn’t cause the Civil War, and that racism doesn’t survive as a major issue.

On this point Thompson is unrelenting. “We can no longer afford to wait on the South to get its racial shit together,” he writes. “It’s time to move on, let southerners sort out their own mess free from the harassment of northern moralizers.” This is pretty much what William Faulkner wrote in more eloquent terms some 60 years ago. And, as we approach the 150th anniversary of the battles of Vicksburg and Gettysburg, Thompson finds plenty of Southerners who think, as one of them tells him, “We’re on the verge of a civil war.” Thompson asks, “Between North and South?” The answer: “Between conservative and liberal.” 

It’s attitudes like this that keep white Southerners from understanding that year after year, decade after decade, they support policies that don’t help them. “Rank-and-file southern voters—who have lower average incomes than other Americans—resoundingly defeated Barack Obama in 2008; the eventual president carried just 10, 11, and 14 percent of the white vote in Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana respectively,” Thompson writes. “An influential percentage of poor, uneducated, underserved, insurance-less white southerners continue to cast votes for candidates whose agendas clearly conflict with their own self interest.” What Thompson doesn’t do—what I’ve never seen anyone do—is offer a valid explanation for why white Southerners ally themselves with the party that treats them contemptuously. 

 

Whites in the South overwhelmingly support right-to-work laws, which Thompson defines, correctly, as “the Orwellian euphemism for ‘the right for companies to disregard the welfare of their workers.’ ” According to a 2009 survey by Grand Valley State University, annual salaries for autoworkers in Alabama, Tennessee and South Carolina averaged about $55,400, while their counterparts in Michigan averaged $74,500. Thompson notes that Southern blue-collar workers also have “inferior health and pension plans, less job security, higher risk of being fired for trivial reasons, and diminished safety precautions. … ”

Not only are Southern workers hurt by their anti-union attitudes, the whole nation suffers. “Southern economic success,” writes Thompson, “comes at the expenseof the rest of the country.” By luring foreign manufacturers to Southern states with promises of cheap labor, “The South is bad for the American economy in the same way that China and Mexico are bad for the American economy. By keeping corporate taxes low, public schools underfunded, and workers’ rights to organize negligible, it’s southern politicians who make it so. … [The South] is an in-house parasite that bleeds the country far more than it contributes to its collective health.”

That leads to what is for me the single most baffling 21st century paradox about the South. The region, home to nine of the nation’s 10 poorest states, is rabidly against government spending, yet all of its states get far more in government subsidies than they give back in taxes, as pointed out by Sara Robinson in a 2012 piece for AlterNet, "Blue States Are the Providers, Red States Are the Parasites."

I live in a blue state, New Jersey, where we get about 70 cents back for every dollar in taxes we send to Washington. I work several days out of my year to support Southern states as well as Western red states like New Mexico and Arizona, which can’t support themselves. Is Kentucky a Southern state? Well, it’s red, and it receives $1.57 from the feds for every buck it pays. How does its senator, Rand Paul, justify this? 

“The hard fact,” writes Thompson, “is that the South simply does not pull its own weight.”

I wish I didn’t have to come back to Thompson’s football argument, but he’s completely and obviously wrong, and unfortunately this chapter has been the most quoted from “Better Off Without ’Em.”

Thompson argues that “Between 1950 and 1997 only nine southern teams were crowned as undisputed national champions.” He seems unaware that until the Bowl Championship Series started in 1998, just about every year more than one team was chosen No. 1 by various polls. Having family ties to Notre Dame, Thompson resents that in 1973 the Alabama Crimson Tide was voted the national champions by UPI, despite the fact that the Fighting Irish beat Alabama 24-23 in the Sugar Bowl. I guess he isn’t old enough to remember 1966, when defending champion Alabama finished 11-0 and was still outvoted in the AP and UPI polls by a 9-0-1 Notre Dame.

He insists that the SEC has been regarded as the nation’s top football conference for so long because “It’s better than other conferences at media manipulation.” I wonder what Thompson thought this past January when Alabama manipulated the media into thinking it had crushed Notre Dame 42-14 in the BCS title game.

Thompson is right that we are two separate countries with irreconcilable differences on health care, gun control, abortion laws, gay marriage, voter registration, subsidies for education, the role of religion in society, the definition of patriotism and the importance of unions. It could be an amicable divorce where everyone gets what they want: Southerners want the federal government to stop spending so much money and get out of their lives, and we in the Northeast would pay lower taxes because we would no longer have to support the poorest states in the country. All the crackpots and phonies who vied for the Republican nomination for president last year—Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, Ron Paul and for good measure I’ll toss in Sarah Palin—were taken seriously only because the potential nominee would have all the Southern states on their side of the ledger. (When someone reminds Thompson that Palin is not from the South, he responds, “Hitler wasn’t from Germany, either. Palin wouldn’t exist if not for the South.”)

Let all the other states decide which country they want to be part of, and if Texas really believes it can be self-sufficient, let it declare itself an independent republic.

To Thompson’s credit, Southerners are allowed their comments. “I think,” one of them tells him, “you all would be dull as shit without us.” That guy is right. So much of American culture comes from the South: writers Edgar Allan Poe, Faulkner, Tennessee Williams and Flannery O’Connor, to say nothing of our music—blues, jazz, country, rock ‘n’ roll. But if we did split into two countries, we’d still get to enjoy all that culture. Being separated by a 3,000-mile ocean didn’t keep the Brits from loving rock ‘n’ roll.

One of Thompson’s interviewees tells him, “The most fundamental flaw I see in your scenario is the South has come to really embody the real patriotic America. If we secede, the USA would become Canada South. We are the real USA.” I might agree if I saw Southerners expressing their patriotism on any subject other than war. In any event, it’s of no concern to me who gets to be the real USA—maybe the competition would do us both good. And right now, to be frank, Canada South sounds pretty good.

 
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