Rise of the Paranoid South: How Fear of 'Outsiders' Cemented Conservatism's Stranglehold in the Region
The Civil War ended in 1865. Before the war, it was common parlance in America to speak of two regions: the “North” and the “South,” which were divided, above all else, over the issue of slavery. After the war, however, the idea of the “North” gradually disappeared from American culture, but “The South” as a regional, cultural and ideological construction has lived on. The South still maintains a persistent hold on American culture, and while the Old Confederacy is unlikely to ever “rise again” in another militant bid for national independence, the South has continued to rise again as a political force to be reckoned with, most recently in the 2014 midterm elections, during which the Republican Party won near total political control of Dixieland. Thus, we come to the vexing question of Southern history: Is the South “exceptional” when compared to the rest of the country?
Southern exceptionalism is a concept that historians discuss ad infinitum – yet it resists a straightforward definition. In the broadest sense, however, Southern exceptionalism is the idea that the South is a nation-within-a-nation: a distinct cultural region where the past maintains a persistent influence on both the present and the emerging future. The exceptional South was shaped by the antebellum legacy of slavery, which created a racially stratified society in which hierarchical relationships flourished amid a traditionally agrarian culture. This hierarchical society also instilled in Southern culture a deep mistrust of the federal government, which white Southerners have long viewed as an existential threat to their cherished social order. The South finally rose up against, and was defeated by, this outside threat in the Civil War, but this hasn’t stopped Dixie from waging a long-term cold war against its perceived enemies since 1865.
Southern exceptionalism, then, positions the South as a cultural and geographical “other” within the greater United States where, as Mississippi-born author William Faulkner famously wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” This “othering” of the South has solidified in the region a cultural conservatism that manifests in a preference for laissez-faire economics, the existence of widespread inequality, a proclivity toward religious fundamentalism and racial strife, and suspicion of the federal government. When combined, these characteristics have constructed a cultural levee against a wave of outside forces that allegedly threaten to destroy Southern society
Despite the influence that Southern exceptionalism has had on the study of Southern history, historians have debated whether it actually exists. Everyone is familiar with the idea of an exceptional “South,” but few can really hammer out the concrete details that define it.