What we can learn from the South

Sam Smith

It has been long my cautiously understated view that while the South lost secession and slavery in the Civil War, it has had, post-reconstruction, a stunning yet too little noted influence on the course of the United States. It would be hard to find another place on earth where the losers of a major war have done so well.

I say this as a Southern born guy, for while far fewer remember it today, my hometown of Washington DC had heavily southern tendencies when I was a kid. I went to a segregated public elementary school, DC restaurants were segregated and whites were buying homes with restrictive covenants that prevented their sale to black, Jews or Persians..

But later as an alternative journalist and a member of the civil rights group SNCC, I also learned that the South can change. As a young reporter I covered desegregation protests at area restaurants and a major amusement park. And before I left DC, the city had already had years of a black mayor and a majority black city council.

Unfortunately, the DC story was not typical of much the south, of which I have been reminded by the grim presence of Jefferson Beauregard Sessions as head of our Justice Department.. As Dietrich Fischer, author of Albion’s Seed, notes, freedom in the South was hegemonic from the start: the more power you had the more liberty came with it Much of the South continues to reflect the cultural values of its wealthy and powerful.

When I first started covering Washington in the late 50s and early 60s I became aware of this because of the stunningly disproportionate influence of Southerners on Capitol Hill. For some of these men – and they were almost all men – a congressional committee was their plantation.

It is different now, but not so much that the Southern influence on our politics and cultural values can be safely ignored , although it mostly is.

For example, in a southless country Hillary Clinton would have beaten Trump by 63 electoral votes. Of the southern states, only Maryland and Virginia went for her.

And it is not just about politics. As the LA Times reported in 2015:

Increasingly, America’s warrior class is defined by geography. Southern states consistently provide the biggest proportion of recruits. California had the highest number of enlistments in 2013 — a total of 18,987 — but the state supplies a relatively low percentage of its 18- to 24-year-olds, the age group that fills the military rolls every year. The highest-rate contributors were Georgia, Florida, Idaho, Virginia and South Carolina.

You find a similar disproportionate interest in Christian evangelicalism. Of the 12 states with at least a third of their people identifying with evangelicalism, 10 are in the South

Add to this the sorry history of discrimination and you find yourself with a culture that is far more comfortable than the North with belligerent white males claiming disproportionate power often in the false name of Christ. People who like war. People with whom Donald Trump can feel quite comfortable. Washington is now his plantation. So it is not accidental that he named someone like Sessions to supervise hegemonic justice.

This, of course, in no way describes the whole South, only that portion that has in different ways for two centuries run things the way it wanted including, among other things, bullying much of the rest of the south’s residents.

Yet bad as this has been, the South has at least shown how a culture that is proud of its values and spends time spreading them around has an unstructured power over those around it.

One of the reasons many feel they know more about the South than, say, Montana or Ohio, is that we have been its audience. On the other hand, what was formerly known as the Union has been too diverse to share its principles with similar vigor. What do Massachusetts and Colorado have in common?

In fact, a lot. The Progressive Review keeps a scorecard of states based on various ratings, legislation and public action. The current top ten include not only Massachusetts and Colorado, but New Hampshire and Hawaii as well as Minnesota and California. Of the bottom ten, eight are southern states.

In recent decades, liberal thinking has become obsessed with action at the federal level – the stage of government least appreciated by the public – and have, not surprisingly, played a political price for this. But now that Trump and the corporate plantations are in charge, federal reform and progress will be hard to come by, and liberals and progressives would be wise to rediscover the importance and potential of state and local government and culture. In other words to take a lesson from the South and make the rest of America – the former Union – a place of clearly shared positive values and policies

Some of this is already happening. The common reaction and cooperation of cities and states over the immigration disaster is an encouraging example. Everything from sanctuary cities to state attorney generals joining together.

There has recently been more talk of state banks like the current sole example of North Dakota. States and cities could also raise the encouragement of cooperatives up on their agendas. And so forth.

The trick is for common action and decency to not be just a matter of law but one of shared practice and consultation.

For starters it wouldn’t be bad for many governors of the states of the once Union to come together in a public conference for a display of unity, priorities and values with which to stand against those of the Trump neo-confederacy.

Our success in the immediate years to come will depend on no small part on the ability of the good states to take a common stand for the best values of our land as well as the South has taken a common stand that has undermined many of those values

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