I’ve highlighted the idea that US politics are driven as much by historical cultural forces as by contemporary ones. Colin Woodward’s eleven nations thesis argues that the US is divided into 11 distinct cultural areas which align themselves in a series of shifting alliances and thus shift and move national political power. Certain longstanding alliances (Yankeedom, the Left Coast and the Midlands on the one hand and the Deep South, Tidewater and Greater Appalachia endured for decades). Woodward summed up his thesis:
The Tea Party agenda may hold sway over large parts of the South and interior West, and with the economy and the president in such a weakened state a Tea Party favorite like Rick Perry could conceivably win the White House. But the movement has no hope of truly dominating the country. Our underlying and deeply fractured political geography guarantees that it will never marshal congressional majorities; indeed, it almost guarantees that the movement will be marginalized, its power and influence on the wane and, over large swaths of the nation, all but extinguished.
Woodard’s argument is that South is not a unified region – it consists of multiple cultural areas that have a long standing tradition of allegiance – Michael Lind’s Chesapeake Bay area is part of the Tidewater region
Tidewater has always been fundamentally conservative, with a high value placed on respect for authority and tradition, and very little on equality or public participation in politics.
Tidewater is a nation in decline as the Midlands have taken over sizable portions of Tidewater (think of Northern Virginia for a good example).
The Deep South and Tidewater have long shared similar perspectives
Established by English slave lords from Barbados as a West Indies-style slave society, this region has been a bastion of white supremacy, aristocratic privilege, and a version of classical Republicanism modeled on the slave states of the ancient world, where democracy was the privilege of the few and enslavement the natural lot of the many . . . Its slave and caste systems smashed by outside intervention, it continues to fight for rollbacks of federal power, taxes on capital and the wealthy, and environmental, labor, and consumer safety protections.
Given that frame, his an article at Salon, Michael Lind’s perspective is insightful:
In understanding the polarization and paralysis that afflict national politics in the United States, it is a mistake to think in terms of left and right. The appropriate directions are North and South. To be specific, the long, drawn-out, agonizing identity crisis of white Southerners is having effects that reverberate throughout our federal union. The transmission mechanism is the Republican Party, an originally Northern party that has now replaced the Southern wing of the Democratic Party as the vehicle for the dwindling white Southern tribe.
As someone whose white Southern ancestors go back to the 17th century in the Chesapeake Bay region, I have some insight into the psychology of the tribe. The salient fact to bear in mind is that the historical experience of the white South in many ways is the opposite of the experience of the rest of the country.
The South (at least its dominant regions) has lived a very different history than the rest of the US:
The white Southern narrative — at least in the dominant Southern conservative version — is one of defeat after defeat. First the attempt of white Southerners to create a new nation in which they can be the majority was defeated by the U.S. Army during the Civil War. Doomed to be a perpetual minority in a continental American nation-state, white Southerners managed for a century to create their own state-within-a-state, in which they could collectively lord it over the other major group in the region, African-Americans. But Southern apartheid was shattered by the second defeat, the Civil Rights revolution, which like the Civil War and Reconstruction was symbolized by the dispatching of federal troops to the South. The American patriotism of the white Southerner is therefore deeply problematic. Some opt for jingoistic hyper-Americanism (the lady protesteth too much, methinks) while a shrinking but significant minority prefer the Stars and Bars to the Stars and Stripes.
We have a scenario in which a sizable chunk of the population is living inside a narrative of loss – in which their traditions and understanding of the world have been repeatedly defeated by national forces. Southerners for instance joined the New Deal coalition for economic reasons and because Yankee and Midlands liberals agreed to not push Civil Rights. When Northern liberals began pushing Civil Rights, even though it was Texan LBJ who pushed for and signed the legislation, Southern whites rebelled, first by forming the Dixiecrats in 1948 and later by moving to and becoming the dominant force in the Republican party.
JP Green at The Democratic Strategist offered a brief refutation of Lind’s article:
While many white southern progressives, me included, will recognize the stereotype Lind projects so broadly on whites in the region, his “prolonged and turbulent” prediction may be overstated. Yes, the GOP will pitch a prolonged hissy fit to aggravate racial animosities and the more gullible white southerners will buy into it. But the more numerous white conservatives, particularly in the middle-class suburbs, are less likely to wholeheartedly embrace the reactionary fortress mentality Lind describes in the years ahead, as the Republican brand becomes increasingly contaminated.
Living standards under southern governors and state legislatures have not improved, and in some case have gotten worse. In December for example, Public Policy Polling reported that “Georgia Governor Nathan Deal could be vulnerable in 2014, given the right Democratic opponent. Only 37% of voters in the state approve of the job he’s doing to 40% who disapprove.”
Green offers a powerful explanation for his position:
Every day in today’s southern suburbs, northerners are migrating in and more southern whites are working along side African and Latino Americans and socializing with them as neighbors. A more likely scenario is that the rigid white southern tribalism of earlier decades will soon begin melting like the polar ice caps.
Lind predicted that response:
If Southern culture had a tradition of assimilating immigrants, then cultural “Southernness” could be detached from any particular ethnicity or race. One could be an assimilated Chinese-American good old boy or a Mexican-American redneck. To some degree, that is happening. And Southern whites and Southern blacks have always shared many elements of a common regional culture.
But it is difficult, if not impossible, for many white Southerners to disentangle regional culture (Southern) from race (white) and ethnicity (British Protestant). The historical memory of white Southerners is not of ethnic coexistence and melting-pot pluralism but of ethnic homogeneity and racial privilege. Small wonder that going from the status of local Herrenvolk to local minority in only a generation or two is causing much of the white South to freak out.
Many of the cultural forces Woodward, Green and Lind are talking about are at play when other observers predict the Republican party is going to splinter in the coming years. The Bush/Rove faction of the party is ideologically indistinct from the teabagger faction; their basic disagreement is about tactics. The Bush/Rove side wants to run stealth candidates who cloak their ideological extremism in Orwellian rhetoric. The teabagger faction, by contrast, rewards candidates who wear their ideological positions proudly and who declaim them for all to hear. Predictions of a Republican schism are predicated on the notion that come 2016, Rand Paul might lose a bid for national nomination, bolt the party and form a third party and deliver victory to the Democrats by doing so (a la 1992 and Ross Perot). My model for such a revolt is closer to Strom Thurmond’s Dixiecrat revolt; Republicans corporate side forcing a Mitt Romney style candidate on the party could lead to a revolt and a Southern governor or Senator leads a major revolt. I don’t think either model of revolt is probable – possible yes, probable not. Party discipline is greater today than it’s been in probably a century. A Republican who steps out of line in 2016 would be soundly punished if the party loses the White House.
The coalition that elected and re-elected Barack Obama is going to grow stronger in the next few years, not weaker. Yankeedom, the Midlands and the Left Coast are all going to remain influential. Come 2016, the long slow political realignment to a new party system in the US will most likely continue as the cultural forces that have shaped the last few elections continue to operate in the US. The difference will be that the Left Coast and Yankeedom and the Midlands have learned some key lessons and will (hopefully) work harder to prevent a recurrence of 2010. We could find ourselves in a similar political alignment as the post Civil War era – a solid South nevertheless a national political minority against a united North, Midwest and West.