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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.

 
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