Modern GOP is still the party of Dixie

How the South poisons American conservatism and sabotages our politics

Published October 12, 2013 6:00PM (EDT)

George Wallace, Rand Paul   (AP/Erik Schelzig)
George Wallace, Rand Paul (AP/Erik Schelzig)

In two earlier articles (here and here), I argued that the Republican Party’s extremism can be traced to its increased dependence on an electorate that is largely rural, Southern and white. These voters, who figure prominently in the Tea Party, often decline to interpret political conflict as a struggle among interest groups or a good-faith clash of opinion. Instead, they tend to identify the country as a whole with an idealized version of themselves, and to equate any dissent from their values with disloyalty by alien, “un-American” forces. This paranoid vision of politics, I argued, makes them seek out opportunities for dramatic conflict and to shun negotiation and compromise.

In what follows, I want to extend these thoughts a bit further by exploring one simple question: why is this strain of political paranoia so entrenched in the South? The answer, I believe, will shed light not only on the current state of our politics but on the evolution of American conservatism generally.


We should begin with a clarification. What we want to explain isn’t why rural voters might think their interests sometimes diverge from those of urban (and suburban) Americans. That is easily enough explained: they think it because it’s true. Rural and urban areas have distinctive concerns, and these sometimes result in incompatible demands on policymakers. These kinds of conflicts are the mother’s milk of politics, so none of this is particularly surprising or, indeed, interesting.

What is surprising and interesting is when this conflict is experienced not as a matter of interests but of identity. It’s one thing to see urbanites as fellow citizens whose policy preferences depart from one’s own; it’s quite another to argue that their policy preferences give rise to serious doubt about whether they’re really Americans. Yet exactly this is the message of all those conservative complaints about “socialistic” Democrats who ignore our constitutional traditions as they labor to install a “nanny state.” These aren’t true Americans, resolute, independent, self-reliant; they’re feckless, faux-European traitors. (Though one, in particular, may have closer connections with Africa than Europe. You know who I mean.)

To think in this way, one must identify the country with one’s own beliefs and values. Those with different preferences then become almost definitionally “un-American.” This identification has the consequence, however, that political conflicts are often experienced as personal crises; what’s at stake isn’t simply policy, but one’s own sense of self. This releases anxieties that cluster around an intensely imagined Other: liberal, conspiratorial, seditious.

This explanation of the mechanics of political paranoia may or may not be correct; I argued in detail for it in the first article mentioned above. But even if true, it leaves one important question unanswered: what prompts that first crucial step -- the identification of one’s own values with the country as a whole?

A partial answer arises directly from the sociology of rural culture. Persons who live in cities learn quickly that the world is full of different kinds of people; diversity -- of race, religion, outlook, speech, etc. -- is a fact of life. Because of this, they tend not to connect these personal attributes with one’s ability to be a trustworthy member of the community. If they think about the conditions of citizenship, they are more likely to associate them with general qualities of character -- honesty, integrity, loyalty -- equally available to everyone, regardless of background.

Many rural areas, by contrast, lack this aboriginal experience of diversity; they may be characterized by high levels of uniformity in ideology, race and religion. Given this, it may be natural to assume that “everyone” believes what you believe, or worships as you worship, or looks and speaks as you look and speak. And because these attributes characterize the community as a whole, it may be equally natural to define the latter in terms of the former -- to think of these qualities as necessary for responsible citizenship, for being “one of us.” Only a small step is needed to extend this logic from one’s own community to the country as a whole.

I said this answer is only partial. That’s because it explains why the identification of self with nation arises in the first place, but not why it persists. In the America of 2013, more thoroughly colonized by communications technology than any society in the history of the planet, no community is an island; each is part of the main -- and The Matrix. Geographic isolation has been overwhelmed by smart phones, the internet, cable and satellite TV and Red Box. One’s own community might be an emblem of ideological orthodoxy, racial purity or religious conformity -- but there is no escaping the knowledge that the country as a whole (much less the world) is not. So if we want to know why this identification endures in some environments but not others, we’ll have to add something to our account -- a mechanism to explain the stubborn insistence that some people will always be outsiders. And because the South is ground zero for the paranoia that rules today’s Republicans, our explanation will have to apply with particular force and resonance to it.

I don’t think we have to look far. The explanation lies in the South’s experience with black slavery and white supremacy.

Slavery has been around a long time, of course, but in the ancient and medieval worlds it was rarely a matter of race. Slaves were often drawn from conquered peoples -- they were part of the spoils of war -- and were more often than not of the same race as their masters. When the ancients bothered to justify slavery at all, they usually did so on purely utilitarian grounds: you couldn’t run a successful society without it. There were occasional exceptions, Aristotle being the most notorious, but they stand out precisely because of their rarity. As the British philosopher Bernard Williams pointed out, Aristotle’s tortured attempt to argue that some people were “natural slaves” convinced few and puzzled many.

This view of slavery as grounded in social (mainly economic) necessity had an important implication. It meant there was no irrevocable fund of social animus directed at former slaves. Classical civilization accepted the slave’s fate, from his or her own point of view, as a grievous personal misfortune. A slave lucky enough to gain his freedom did not face a community which regarded him with sustained suspicion and contempt. He took his place in society and enjoyed the liberties and prerogatives to which his station entitled him.

The situation was quite different in the antebellum South. Slavery there was based on race and was justified by an ideology of white supremacy. Blacks were seen as inherently, necessarily, irreparably inferior to whites, who ruled over them in accordance with Nature and Nature’s God. But this meant, of course, that even a freed slave was exiled from his wider society. He could never participate in its dominant institutions or gain acceptance from its members. The membrane dividing slave from non-slave might be legally permeable; manumissions did sometimes occur. Socially, however, it was unbridgeable.

For black Americans slavery was a holocaust and a nightmare. For white Southerners it meant (among other things) living intimately with millions of human beings who were permanent outsiders -- persons whose natural incapacities, as the white South saw them, meant they could never be trustworthy members of the community. For white supremacists, citizenship had one very definite condition of entry: white skin, and the potential for moral personality that came with it. The racial divide defined the difference between civilized society and the enthralled barbarism that lay beyond and beneath it.

It would be hard to overstate the influence of this experience on the mind of the South. For one thing, it meant that the white South was, in effect, a garrison state. White Southerners lived in close proximity to a large population they routinely abused, terrorized and defiled. Fear of black violence and revolt is a constant theme of white society before and after the Civil War. The South’s noisily martial version of patriotism has its roots here, as does the region’s love affair with guns. And there are obvious connections between these facts and its stubborn embrace of patriarchy and misogyny. (Does the name “Todd Akin” ring any bells?)

Of greater relevance to our present concerns, however, are the implications for the South’s political psychology. Here the region’s history as a slave society left a very particular imprint, one that lingered long after slavery and Jim Crow collapsed. I mean the habit of imagining society as a two-tiered structure, with the “normative” community on top and a degenerate class of outsiders below. The former consists of those who satisfy the prerequisites of citizenship, and can therefore be trusted to fulfill the social contract voluntarily; the latter of those whose inherent debilities ensure that coercion is the only reliable guarantee of cooperation.

This is a fraught subject, so I want to make my meaning clear. I am not arguing that all Southerners -- or all conservatives -- are racists or paranoids; I’m not even arguing that all Southerners are conservatives. (I myself would personally disprove that assertion.) Slavery, thankfully, disappeared long ago, and Jim Crow is now almost two generations behind us. Racism lingers on in the South as in America generally, but for the most part must now keep its head down and its voice low; it’s the vice that dare not speak its name. (This is not to deny, of course, that it retains considerable social valence.)  What I am arguing is that a certain habit of thought, powerfully shaped by the experience of slavery, survived the passage of that curse and continues to influence some Southern conservatives to this day. It no longer takes the form of a blatant assertion that only the white race is worthy of social trust; its definition of the normative community has shifted. (Though it remains associated with racialist, or at least race-conscious, themes.) It is now more likely to define that community in ideological terms -- to see it as consisting of those who endorse a particular view of government and its rightful relations with traditional mores and economic power. It has, however, retained certain aspects of its earlier, darker origins. It is still obsessed with purity -- ideological if not racial -- and still invests those it regards as impure with a harsh, acute animus. And it continues to equate difference with illegitimacy. Those on the outside -- the liberals, the Democrats, the “socialists” -- cannot be trusted partners in political life; they want only to undermine our institutions and must therefore be expelled from them.

Thus we arrive at the paranoid version of politics described above, in which policy disputes signal an insidious betrayal of “our” way of life. This is surely what animates the conduct of today’s Republicans -- the reflexive rejection of compromise, the flagrant violation of long-established institutional norms, the experience of diversity as an invasion by foreign, unfamiliar powers.

The Republican belief that it would be better to suspend the government (or default on the debt) than to fund “Obamacare,” for instance, can be explained only by this kind of wrathful, embattled logic. There is a sense in which the current shutdown is the culmination of the last 50 years of Republican history. Today’s GOP is the heir of Reagan’s remark that “[G]overnment is not the solution… government is the problem,” even as Reagan embodied the strident, anti-statist dogmas of Barry Goldwater. The Party’s development since 1964 has, in effect, been one long preparation for the time when it would have to argue that no government would be better than liberal government. It would make no sense to say this if liberals were simply misguided souls with some bad policy ideas. It makes perfect sense when one sees them through the prism of Tea Party doctrine: as illegitimate interlopers from the outer darkness whose intent is to exploit and subvert the normative American community.

Not long after the shutdown began, Rep. Martha Blackburn, a Republican from Tennessee, appeared on Fox News. “I think… people are probably going to realize they can live with a lot less government than what they thought they needed,” she chirped. The hapless John Boehner, emerging from a meeting with the President and other Congressional leaders, was less exuberant but no less revealing. The President’s refusal to negotiate, he implied, was inconsistent with the fact that “we’ve got divided government.” In his mind, whether the government should continue to function is just one more conflict to be stage-managed and gamed out; one more thing we might be divided over, no different in kind from disputes about tax rates or military policy. That government is the framework within which democracy occurs; that a minority committed to democracy would recognize this; that therefore real questions are raised when a minority favors its own constituency over the continuation of government -- none of these things occurs to him. But the intellectual architecture behind these thoughts disappeared from Boehner’s universe long ago. For today’s Republicans, government -- like health care reform, abortion, and same-sex marriage -- is just another emanation from the liberal darkness. These New Confederates have reversed the logic of the Old; unlike their predecessors, they don’t want to secede from government: they want government to secede from American life. But like their ancestors in 1860, they’ve bestowed upon us a full-blown legitimation crisis. It’s their gift to America.


As the shutdown makes clear, we don’t have the option of shrugging this off as a matter of purely sectional concern. While these attitudes are certainly not confined to the South, they seem to have a special virulence there, and the South is now the electoral center of gravity for the Republican Party. That party, in turn, is the institutional face of the conservative movement. In closing, I would like to explore the implications of this analysis for a certain question about American conservatism.

Left-leaning students of conservatism -- in whose ranks I include myself -- sometimes impose on it the demand for a specious (not to say foolish) consistency. They want to find a principle that reconciles John Adams with Joe McCarthy, or that exhibits William F. Buckley, Jr. as a direct descendant of Edmund Burke. Seeing that this is impossible, they infer that conservatism isn’t a coherent intellectual tradition at all but simply an amalgam of reactionary impulses -- a “collection of irritable mental gestures” as the critic Lionel Trilling memorably put. (Though Trilling, I hasten to add, was far too subtle a thinker to believe this caricature applied to the conservative tradition as a whole.)

The truth is that conservatism, like liberalism or any other tradition worthy of serious study, is too complex to sustain this kind of reductionism. Outside of mathematics and logic, coherence is rarely a matter of deductive rigor. If we can find a few core concepts or concerns in a body of ideas, and if these have any force at all, that justifies taking it seriously.

I think we can find such an intellectual core in American conservatism. It is most easily discerned, perhaps, in contrast with its great rival, liberalism. Liberals -- surprise! -- believe in liberty. To put this point less abstractly (and tendentiously), they believe individual liberty should be the central value in the organization of political life. A corollary of this view is that liberty should be restricted only for the sake of a greater liberty.

Conservatives may agree that liberty is an important value -- Burke, for example, endorsed the ideal of an “ordered liberty” -- but not that it’s the paramount value. Because no person can lead a recognizably human life outside society, conservatives believe the integrity of the social fabric must be ensured even when this conflicts with individual liberty. The paramount value for conservatism, then, tends to be a principle of authority.

One way to distinguish among different strands of conservatism is to ask exactly how this principle is defined and applied. When given a narrowly religious construal, for example, it can result in a social world that is punitive, harsh and dogmatic. (One thinks immediately of Joseph de Maistre and the Catholic Right in France.) More influential for American conservatism, however, was the English emphasis on society as a network of institutions and practices -- some religious, some cultural and political, some economic -- whose combined efficacy depends on a carefully preserved balance. This view, presented so forcefully by Burke in England, was echoed by early American conservatives such as John Adams and Alexander Hamilton.

The idea of society as a delicate weave of various elements has an important consequence: namely, that every element makes some claim on every other. These conservatives certainly thought of hierarchy as important to society, but it was a hierarchy within society: each “interest” was accepted as part of the social fabric and its concerns accorded an appropriate weight. This sense of the nation as a community prompted Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin, for instance, to criticize the socially corrosive effects of early English capitalism.

This vision did not, of course, transfer seamlessly to the very different society of the new American nation. Some tensions were always apparent, most notably the fact that, outside the South, American society was significantly more liberalized than the English. This gave rise to a peculiar (if piquant) paradox: the social order that American conservatives sought to “conserve” was in many respects a liberal one.

Most of the obscurities and difficulties of American conservatism derive from this antinomy. The solution of mainstream thinkers was to argue that American culture includes conservative forces -- forces, such as religious faith, that constrain the dynamism of its economy and society -- and that these should be safeguarded and encouraged. They also emphasized, more or less persuasively, the importance to capitalist democracy of certain “conservative” habits of thought and conduct -- honesty, prudence, reliability, etc.

In doing so, conservatives did not abandon their sense of society as a kind of community, one whose stability depends crucially on relations of fidelity and mutuality. Not, that is, until they responded to the entreaties of white Southerners in full recoil from the civil rights movement of the mid-1960s. Under the influence of this new constituency, their vision of the community as a whole began to curdle and contract, until finally it extended no further than the “normative” community: that subset of persons whose interests alone were deemed to have weight and value.

As mentioned previously, it is no longer customary to specify this subset in explicitly racial terms. These days the preferred enumeration is ideological: the insiders consist of the productive and self-reliant, those who accept and enact the values of work. On the outside are the “takers,” the parasites, the “47%,” all those whose sloth and selfishness leave them dependent on the diligence of others. (That this ideological turn is still heavily implicated in racial distrust may be too obvious to require mention.)

This fracturing of vision has secured for conservatives the loyalty of the revanchist South, but at a considerable price. A creed that once sought to moderate social tensions is now the vehicle of an intense animus. The belief that all members of society have claims to make has been replaced by an angry, bitter exclusionism. And its embrace of self-reliance has hardened into an economic Darwinism more inclined to celebrate than to critique an increasingly rapacious global capitalism.

This last point is especially important, because it highlights the absurdity of the notion that today’s conservatives have any meaningful relationship with libertarianism. One often hears, for example, Rand Paul or Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz referred to as members of the “libertarian wing” of the Republican Party. This sort of thing makes one wonder if the commentator thinks “libertarian” is a synonym for “intransigent.” It is, in fact, the name of a particularly stringent form of liberalism, one that differs from anarchism only in its belief that some kind of highly minimal, schematic state can be justified. The question, of course, is what fills the social space created by the contraction of the state. Libertarians, rightly called, believe this space should be filled by a principle of individual liberty. But this is not what Paul or Rubio or Cruz or any other Republican believes. Paul, for instance, opposes abortion rights and same sex marriage. Like Rubio and Cruz and the Tea Party generally, he seeks a smaller government in order to fill the resulting space with some other source of authority and power. He is a perfect example of Sunbelt business conservatism, which wants to displace government so corporate and personal wealth can prevail in a social world dominated by the traditional culture of the evangelical South.

William F. Buckley, Jr., in so many ways the father of modern American conservatism, once famously described the conservative as “standing athwart History, yelling ‘Stop!’” But the shrill faux-individualism of today’s Southern-fried conservatives actively abets one of the most destructive trends in American life: the fact that our notions of agency are increasingly fragmented even as the structural forces which constrain agency grow ever larger. In a 2012 Republican Presidential debate held in Florida, Ron Paul, Rand’s father, asked rhetorically what should happen if someone without health insurance shows up at an emergency room. “Let him die!” roared part of the audience, to loud applause.

That is the cry of our Southern conservatism.

By Kim Messick

Kim Messick’s work has appeared in Salon, Real Clear Politics, Huffington Post, and other venues. He’s writing a book about the liberalism of Lionel Trilling and Bernard Williams.

MORE FROM Kim Messick

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Confederacy Conservatism Editor's Picks Libertarian Marco Rubio Rand Paul Slavery Tea Party Ted Cruz