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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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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."

 
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