We are in a strange and dark time in our nation’s history. We are a two-party country. For much of the time the two parties possessed enough diversity that whichever one proposed policies that were beneficial there would be enough crossover votes to pass legislation. When the votes came up for the major legislation on civil rights and social legislation of the 1960s, Democrats could depend on enough assistance from socially liberal Republicans to gain passage. That has all changed. When Obama labored to pass the Affordable Care Act, he received no support from the Republican Party. The sixties would see the nomination of Barry Goldwater and the success of the segregationist George Wallace as a national candidate. Both republican presidents Nixon and Reagan noticed and made it clear that anyone with racist tendencies would be welcome in their party. The conservative, anti-civil rights southern democrats would all move to the Republican Party, giving it a policy lean that would be uncomfortable to moderate republicans who would gradually disappear.
The Democratic and Republican Parties have become ideological opposites with each viewing the other as an existential threat. The last time we found ourselves in such a state was prior to the Civil War. The defining issue then was slavery and the fate of millions of black people whose ancestors had been brought to the nation against their will. It has remained a major issue up to this day.
The current Republican Party is built on a base consisting of wealthy would-be oligarchs, status-threatened whites, and the right-wing religious. It is no accident that the former slave states form the base of the Republican Party and that the contention with the Democratic Party is essentially racial in nature. To justify slavery, southern religious groups had to shed Christian teachings and reach back to the Old Testament and its ancient views. Accepting slavery had to be consistent with an extreme version of private property rights which would make the religious ideal pawns for the wealthy who like to think of taxation as a form of theft. Slavery worked in the South because the wealthy could use the threat of slave labor as a means of keeping white wages low but then balancing that with the promise that the sorriest white would always to superior to best of the slaves. They might be dirt poor, but they could dream of owning a slave one day.
The conditions leading to the Civil War centered on the institution of slavery and were thus racial in nature. To claim that the current political standoff is still racial requires some explanation. Let us first gather some historical insight.
Historians, social scientists, and political analysts have often been moved to use a phrase similar to “the southernization of America” to describe the process by which the Republican Party was reconfigured to take its current form and the white working class switched from seeking the economic benefits promised by Democrats to pursuing the cultural values promoted by Republicans. Could it be that southern values propagated out of the South with the huge migrations that dispersed throughout the rest of the nation during the twentieth century? James N. Gregory is a history professor at the University of Washington who believes that to be the case. He presents his data and conclusions in The Southern Diaspora: How the Great Migrations of Black and White Southerners Transformed America (2005).
The migration of Blacks from the South to the cities of the North and West has been referred to as “The Great Migration.” The migration of whites from the South over the same period was much larger, but much less studied. Gregory provides this summary of what his investigations demonstrated.
“This book is about what may be the most momentous internal population movement of the twentieth century, the relocation of black and white Americans from the farms and towns of the South to the cities and suburbs of the North and West. In the decades before the South became the Sun Belt, 20 million southerners left the region. In doing so, they changed America. They transformed American religion, spreading Baptist and Pentecostal churches and reinvigorating evangelical Protestantism, both black and white versions. They transformed American popular culture, especially music. The development of blues, jazz, gospel, R&B, and hillbilly and country music all depended on the southern migrants. The Southern Diaspora transformed American racial hierarchies, as black migrants in the great cities of the North and West developed institutions and political practices that enabled the modern civil rights movement. The Southern Diaspora also helped reshape American conservatism, contributing to new forms of white working-class and suburban politics. Indeed, most of the great political realignments of the second half of the twentieth century had something to do with the population movements out of the South.”
“In the Great Migration era of the early twentieth century, when African Americans moved north for the first time in large numbers and established much-noticed communities in the major cities, less-noticed white southerners actually outnumbered them roughly two to one. The margins became larger after 1950 and still larger as the century drew to a close. Over the course of the twentieth century, more than 28 million southerners left their home region—28 percent were African Americans, 68 percent were non-Hispanic whites, and 4 percent southern-born Latinos, Tejanos mostly, who had been joining the flow north and west since World War II.”
Gregory provides a breakdown of where former southerners lived in 1970 by region. By far, the most densely settled regions are what he refers to as the Pacific (California, Oregon and Washington) and the East North Central (Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio).
“In 1970, 12 percent of California residents were southern born. This was proportionally similar to Ohio, where 1.4 million southerners of both races lived, and to Indiana, which was home to 617,000. In Illinois, where former southerners numbered close to a million, and Michigan, where there were more than 800,000, they constitute 9 percent of the population.”
The thing about migrants is that they tend to head towards regions where they will be welcome, where the culture they bring will be tolerated. They will follow earlier migrants to where they can congregate. Consider California as an example. It saw a huge influx of migrants from Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Texas during the depression years. Many of them settled in the Central Valley where agricultural jobs were available and became a significant fraction of the population. California is today, politically, two states: the coast and the inland region. It is perhaps the most liberal state in the union because most of the voters live on the coast where the settlers had mostly non-southern origins. The inland parts of the state are highly conservative, differing little in political views from those found today in Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Texas.
Culture endures, and it also spreads. Southerners didn’t introduce racism to the North, that wasn’t necessary, but they did contribute a view that was more rigidly hierarchical and that was more violent in nature. As Gregory points out, they were not numerous enough to dominate the racial violence that ensued, but they could be the tinder that lights the flame.
“Southern whites played a real part in the hate strikes and white-against-black housing riots that occurred in northern and western cities in the 1940s and 1950s. Sociologist Katherine Archibald worked in a shipyard in Oakland, California, during World War II. She witnessed neither riots nor major violent clashes, but in her book, Wartime Shipyard, she explored the tense racial dynamics of the yard, where about 20 percent of the workers were African Americans from the western South and another 20 percent were whites from the same region….Okies often took the lead in whites-only conversations about the ‘Negro problem.’ Vicious, uncompromising racism, she pointed out, was widespread, virtually universal among whites of all backgrounds in the shipyard, but the southerners spoke loudly about their hatreds and theories, drawing a sense of authority from their supposed special knowledge about how to handle black people. Talk of lynching was an Okie contribution to the racist discourse: ‘What you need round here.’ one former southerner counseled, ‘is a good old fashioned lynching. Back in my home state we string a nigger up or shoot him down, every now and then, and that way we keep the rest of them quiet and respectful’.”
The effect of southern culture should have been obvious when George Wallace brought his campaign to the North in the 1960s. He received considerable support from southern migrants, but probably more importantly, their support provided the cover for others who might have hesitated to vote for such a controversial and unlikely figure.
By the time Wallace arrived on the national scene a number of developments had occurred that would augment polarization on racial grounds. School desegregation and affirmative action were, and still are, contentious matters. Perhaps the most crucial issue centers on the concept of welfare or social support and who deserves it. The republican “southern strategy” and the focus on “cultural issues” encouraged the politicalizing of southern churches. Recall that southern religion had to support slavery of blacks which explicitly must conclude that blacks are inferior to whites, both in man’s eyes and in God’s eyes. This Old Testament approach discards Christian notions of having a duty to help the unfortunate and instead tends to blame the unfortunate for their status. These views lead to the assumptions that it is blacks who will need welfare and that it is blacks who will not deserve welfare. As a result, it is the more secular democrats who behave like Christians and the religious republicans who do not.
Let us turn to Arlie Russell Hochschild and her 2016 book Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right for additional insight into what separates the two political parties. She is a sociology professor at the University of California at Berkeley who was disturbed and puzzled by the increasing political polarization within the nation. In particular, she wished to discover why the republican base, generally thought of as Tea Party members pre-Trump, would be willing to vote against what seemed to be in their best interests. She chose to study the people of Louisiana as an example of the most avid Tea Party state.
She set up shop in Lake Charles, Louisiana and set about meeting and talking to people. She would come back a number of times to re-interview Louisianans over a period of about five years. She was interested more in the why of their attitudes than the what of their political beliefs. Others had tried to explain the mindset of the conservative voter, but Hochschild thought they had missed an important component.
“While all these works greatly helped me, I found one thing missing in them all—a full understanding of emotion in politics. What, I wanted to know, do people want to feel, what do they think they should or shouldn’t feel, and what do they feel about a range of issues? When we listen to a political leader, we don’t simply hear words; we listen predisposed to want to feel certain things”
Hochschild digested what she was learning and managed to assemble a description that captures and illustrates the perspective shared by those she encountered in Louisiana. She refers to it as a “deep story,” a concept that is a bit hard to describe but is clear once an example is provided.
“The deep story here, that of the Tea Party, focuses on relationships between social groups within our national borders. I constructed this deep story to represent—in metaphorical form—the hopes, fears, pride, shame, resentment, and anxiety in the lives of those I talked with. Then I tried it out on my Tea Party friends to see if they thought it fit their experience. They did.”
This is Hochschild’s deep story.
“You are patiently standing in a long line leading up a hill, as in a pilgrimage. You are situated in the middle of this line, along with others who are also white, older, Christian, and predominately male, some with college degrees, some not.”
“Just over the brow of the hill is the American Dream, the goal of everyone waiting in line. Many in the back of the line are people of color—poor, young and old, mainly without college degrees. It’s scary to look back; there are so many behind you, and in principle you wish them well. Still, you’ve waited a long time, worked hard, and the line is barely moving. You deserve to move forward a little faster. You’re patient but weary. You focus ahead, especially on those at the very top of the hill.”
“The sun is hot and the line unmoving. In fact, is it moving backward?”
“Look! You see people cutting in line ahead of you! You’re following the rules. They aren’t. As they cut in, it feels like you are being moved back. How can they just do that? Who are they? Some are black. Through affirmative action plans, pushed by the federal government, they are being given preference for places in colleges and universities, apprenticeships, jobs, welfare payments, and free lunches, and they hold a certain secret place in people’s minds….Women, immigrants, refugees, public sector workers—where will it end?”
“Then you become suspicious. If people are cutting in line ahead of you, someone must be helping them. Who? A man is monitoring the line, walking up and down it, ensuring that the line is orderly and that access to the Dream is fair. His name is President Barack Hussein Obama. But—hey—you see him waving to the line cutters. He’s helping them. He feels extra sympathy for them that he does not feel for you. He’s on theirside. He’s telling you that these line cutters deserve special treatment and that they’ve had a harder time than you’ve had.”
This story that Hochschild constructed—and that was endorsed by her Louisianans—is built on a blatantly racist concept: white supremacy. And true to their Old Testament learning, women are considered substandard human beings along with all others who don’t possess their moral and ethnic characteristics.
It has been a century and a half since the Civil War. Have attitudes really changed? Are blacks viewed any differently now than they were right after the war?
Whereas people on the left see conflict between a tiny wealthy elite and the rest of the nation, the right admires the elite and wishes they could join them. For the right, the conflict is between the middle class and the poor.
“For the right today, the main theater of conflict is neither a factory floor nor an Occupy protest. The theater of conflict—at the heart of the deep story—is the local welfare office and the mailbox where undeserved disability checks and SNAP stamps arrive. Government checks for the listless and idle—this seems most unfair. If unfairness in Occupy is expressed in the moral vocabulary of a ‘fair share’ of resources and a properly proportioned society, unfairness in the right’s deep story is found in the language of ‘makers’ and ‘takers.’ For the left, the flashpoint is up the class ladder (between the very top and the rest); for the right it is down between the middle class and the poor. For the left, the flashpoint is centered in the private sector; for the right, in the public sector.”
Hochschild recognizes the “southernization” that has taken place. She sees the Tea Party as an emergence of southern attitudes that has taken hold in conservative minds in the North as well. She provides this assessment of what that means for our nation and its future.
“So in the Tea Party idea, North and South would unite, but a new cleavage would open wide; the rich would divorce the poor—for so many of them were ‘cutting in line.’ In the 1970s there was much talk of President Richard Nixon’s ‘Southern strategy,’ which appealed to white fear of black rise, and drove whites from the Democratic Party to the Republican. But in the twenty-first century, a ‘Northern strategy’ has unfolded, one in which conservatives of the North are following those of the South—in a movement of the rich and those associated with them, to lift off the burden of help for the underprivileged. Across the whole land, the idea is, handouts should stop. The richer around the nation will become free of the poorer.”
This view is consistent with the tenets of the three groups gathered within the Republican Party tent. The wealthy are relieved of the need to pay taxes to support social programs, the religious believe poverty is an indication of a character flaw that should not be rewarded, and the threatened whites see eliminating support for social programs as a means to keep blacks from butting in line.
For completeness, Hochschild produced a deep story that is held by liberals or democrats.
“In it, people stand around a large public square inside of which are creative science museums for kids, public art and theater programs, libraries, schools—a state-of-the-art public infrastructure available for use by all. They are fiercely proud of it. Some of them built it. Outsiders can join those standing around the square, since a lot of people who are insiders now were outsiders in the past; incorporation and acceptance of difference feel like American values represented in the Statue of Liberty. But in the liberal deep story, an alarming event occurs; marauders invade the public square, recklessly dismantle it, and selfishly steal away bricks and concrete chunks from the public buildings at its center. Seeing insult added to injury, those guarding the public square watch helplessly as those who’ve dismantled it construct private McMansions with the same bricks and pieces of concrete, privatizing the public realm. That’s the gist of the liberal deep story, and the right can’t understand the deep pride liberals take in their creatively designed, hard-won public sphere as a powerful integrative force in American life.”
Can there be two more irreconcilable worldviews than that of the democrats and that of the republicans?
The southern states seceded and initiated the Civil War when it became clear to them that they would not be able to add enough new slave states to escape from being a minority in the governing of the nation. Such a situation would put the institution of slavery at risk and thus minority status was viewed as a threat to their existence. The Republican Party is built on a base consisting of wealthy would-be oligarchs, status-threatened whites, and the right-wing religious. Neither of these groups have much prospect for growth in the future, consequently they see majority rule as a losing proposition. They have demonstrated that they are quite willing to drastically change the way our nation is governed in order to maintain power. And they have demonstrated a willingness to resort to violence to get their way.
Since Donald Trump’s defeat, republicans around the nation have been busy designing ways in which the will of the people can be overruled by the will of republican leaders. This is more insidious than seceding. This is a minority of people taking over the country so they can run it the way they wish. The insurrection continues in the courts and legislatures of the nation.
We are at war!
You can learn a little about a lot of things or you can learn a lot about a very few things. Guess which is the most fun.
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