Rise of the paranoid South: How defending against "outsiders" brought the region together

Throughout history, the region has always coalesced politically. Here's what really accounts for the unity

Published December 17, 2014 6:45PM (EST)

         (Jeff Malet, maletphoto.com/<a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/gallery-86856p1.html'>Henryk Sadura</a> via <a href='http://www.shutterstock.com/'>Shutterstock</a>/Salon)
(Jeff Malet, maletphoto.com/Henryk Sadura via Shutterstock/Salon)

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.

Nonetheless, Southern exceptionalism continues to rear its nebulous head. For example, consider the 2014 midterm elections. As the AP pointed out, the so-called "Solid South" -- a regional political bloc that, in the not-too-distant past, gave its whole-hearted support to the Democratic Party -- is now a solid political lock for the Republican Party. After the Democrats’ midterm thumping, the AP's Bill Barrow wrote that, "the GOP stands one Louisiana Senate runoff away from completely controlling Southern politics from the Carolinas to Texas. Only a handful of Democrats hold statewide office in the rest of the Old Confederacy." Well, incumbent Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu just got bulldozed in her runoff election against Republican challenger Bill Cassidy, topping off a year that put Democrats below the Mason-Dixon Line on the endangered species list. The South's transition from a solidly Democratic stronghold since Reconstruction to a bastion of support for the GOP is one of the defining political realignments of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. And while the Republican Party is strong in other regions, it has established an exceptional hold on the conservative South.

Thus, it would seem that Southern exceptionalism has risen once again via the GOP's takeover of Dixie. Or has it?

Although Southern historians have long worked within the confines of Southern exceptionalism, scholars Matthew Lassiter and Joseph Crespino mounted a full-on assault against this concept in their book, "The Myth of Southern Exceptionalism." They argue that all of the supposed ills that appear to have made the South exceptional over time -- racial strife, economic backwardness, a proclivity toward reactionary politics -- are hardly unique to that region. One only needs to look at the prevalence of racial segregation, "backlash" politics, and economic turmoil in other regions, they write, to explain why "the tendency to isolate distinctive regional characteristics from a normative American narrative has set southern history in false opposition to an idealized national standard" based on spurious notions of liberal "progress" and American innocence.

In many respects, Lassiter and Crespino's arguments aren't new. The great historian of the South, C. Vann Woodward, made similar points in his influential study, "The Burden of Southern History," first published in 1960. "It is not that the present South has any conspicuous lack of faults," he wrote, "but that its faults are growing less conspicuous and therefore less useful for purposes of regional identification." Writing just before the wave of Northern race riots that swept the 1960s, Woodward's words were quite prescient. But he also wanted it both ways, as he simultaneously claimed that the South's ills were not exceptional but that the region itself still was. This was because the South had experienced what a pre-Vietnam America hadn't yet experienced: military defeat. In this reasoning, when the last helicopter fled Saigon during Operation Frequent Wind, the notion of Southern exceptionalism should have fled with it.

But the idea of Southern exceptionalism endures, none more so than in the persistence of the Republican Solid South voting bloc. So the question remains: is the South exceptional? I'd argue that, in one crucial way, it is. While no one can reasonably claim that the South's ills and strengths are unique to that region alone, the South's tendency toward one-party rule, fueled by a deep suspicion of the supposed threats posed by outsiders, continues to make Dixie exceptional.

In his book "Pursuit of Unity: A Political History of the American South," Michael Perman writes that, historically, the South has defined itself through reactionary politics that have supported one-party rule even as parties have changed names and form over time. "The South ... has considered itself a minority at odds with the rest of the country, sometimes even under attack from it," Perman notes. The South's need to unify itself against outsiders has resulted in a historical trend in which "one party has been so dominant that opposition has been completely marginalized or else one party has functioned as the only accepted political organization." Outsiders have thus shaped the Southern political system, which has served as a continuous institutional bulwark against internal and external threats to the region. Defending the South against outsiders demanded unity, and unity fostered one-party rule.

One-party rule in the South has not gone unchallenged, and the region has never been politically monolithic, but whether it was the Jeffersonian-Republicans, the Jacksonian Democrats, the Democratic Party in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and now the Republican Party, one party has always had a dominant upper hand in the South. And the supposed threats posed by outsiders has been a common thread running through this history of one-party dominance. As historian Glenn Feldman writes in "The Irony of the Solid South," the locus of the modern Republican Party's united power in the South can be traced back to the end of the Civil War, an era that planted the seeds of a "Reconstruction Syndrome," characterized by "very strong anti-black, anti-federal government, anti-liberal, anti-Yankee, anti-outsider/foreigner, and pro-militarily patriotic beliefs."

Historians have long recognized how a fear of outsiders molded southern identity. In his 1941 classic "The Mind of the South," W.J. Cash wrote that the "South" was defined by its conflict with the North over the issue of slavery. In the white Southern mind, the Civil War was a Yankee attempt to "remake the South, to strip it of its 'southerness' and absorb it into the nation entirely" by destroying its system of racial hierarchy. Confederate defeat finally united the South. The postwar white South's struggles against the Republican-controlled federal government took the form of a backlash driven by white supremacy and "states’ rights," the twin talons of the region's singularly powerful Democratic Party. Since the end of Reconstruction, the South has been fertile ground for reactionary politics, and it's no coincidence that the hallmarks of "Reconstruction Syndrome" echo the tenets of modern conservatism. And while these hallmarks are not unique to the South, they're nonetheless most concentrated there.

Even as the pronounced racism of the past has long diminished (so much so that African-Americans are moving back to the South in huge numbers), a general fear of outsiders continues to fuel the reactionary conservatism that drives white Southerners to the GOP. The Republican South is, for all intents and purposes, the white South, and race is an issue that always simmers below its political surface. GOP dominance speaks to the white South's need to protect itself from a host of nefarious outsiders. In this past, those outsiders consisted of blacks, abolitionists, Yankees and Republicans. These days, those groups have been replaced by liberals, gays, atheists, minorities and Barack Obama, who symbolizes a changing America that threatens the white South's cultural clout. In response, the solid Republican South has mounted a defense against these outside threats via shady redistricting that curtails black political representation and by passing voter suppression laws that disenfranchise minorities who support the Democratic Party.

But the byproducts of one-party rule aren't even limited to the white South. The New York Times' Nate Cohn notes that white Southern loyalty to the GOP matches the equally fervent loyalty that Southern blacks show to the Democratic Party. Blacks and whites in the South may exist socially on more cordial terms, but when it comes to politics, they're still at each other’s throats. Each group has its own party, but only one party truly rules. Historian James Cobb reminds us that "the history of southern identity is not a story of continuity versus change but continuity within it," and nowhere is this on better display that with the rise of the Republican Solid South.

Even as shifting demographics in Southern states like North CarolinaVirginia and Georgia threaten to erode the power of the white conservative vote, the 2014 midterm results demonstrate the enduring strength of a reactionary force powered by the long arc of Southern history. That history encompasses a potent mixture of change and stagnation, but until the unique power of the white South is curtailed, the echo of Southern exceptionalism will continue to reverberate like the Rebel yell across the American political landscape.

By Jarret Ruminski

Jarret Ruminski is a writer and historian who blogs at That Devil History, where he discusses the intersection of U.S. history, politics, and culture. Follow him on Twitter at @TheDevilHistory.

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