Like a bad smell that just won’t go away, the myth of the glorious South refuses to die. Incredibly and unfortunately, that myth has enjoyed a recurring renaissance since the founding of this country. And now that myth has morphed into a nihilistic political philosophy that is far from quaint and very close to dangerous.
While racism and slavery were very much a part of the way of life in all thirteen of the original colonies, as much as gravity and oxygen in the air, slavery drove down its deepest sociopolitical roots in the primarily agrarian Southern colonies. The incredible wealth fueled by cheap human labor satisfied the monetary needs of a few and slaked the thirst for superiority of the many. This combination of monetary and psychic satisfaction was so potent that the Southern colonies, once they became states, were willing to fight to the death to preserve this peculiarly horrific institution called white supremacist slavery.
History tells us that the division between North and South played a pivotal role in the drafting of the Constitution which shamefully labeled black slaves 3/5 of a human being and established a bicameral legislature which insured that states with smaller populations (the Southern states at the time) would be on a par with states with larger populations. The structure of this new government also locked in provisions which allowed a minority to obstruct, delay and sometimes destroy initiatives that represented the will of the majority.
A brief stroll down the memory lane of American history reveals that two of the first three presidents were Southern slave owners (Washington and Jefferson). However the last Southern slave owning president was Andrew Jackson and since then very few Southerners have become president.
Woodrow Wilson was the first Southern elected in the modern era and he brought his racist roots with him into the White House with the infamous premiere viewing of “Birth of a Nation”. The next Southerner elected president was Lyndon Johnson and since then only Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton were born Southerners elected to the White House (the two Bushes were born in Connecticut).
Despite being denied the presidency, the South has wielded inordinate power, first in foiling the civil rights movement for the first half of the twentieth century and now in seeking to dismantle the federal government in the first two decades of the twenty first century. Utilizing the leverage built into the legislative process by Washington, Jefferson and the other slave owning Founding Fathers, the Southern way has impacted this country, particularly on matters of race, all out of proportion to the moral, economic or demographic weight of the region.
Now the Southern strategy has morphed into a political philosophy that, if adopted by the country as a whole, is virtually suicidal. The federal governmental infrastructure is a key reason why this country, even with all of its flaws, has been successful in establishing a standard of living and a way of life that is historically remarkable. The idea that “government is the enemy”, a Southern lie promulgated by Ronald Reagan in a faux Southern moment, comes from the fact that in the South the federal government has indeed been the enemy of the Southern way of life.
It was the federal government that outlawed slavery and essentially burned the South to ground in the process. It has been less than two centuries since this bit of business was concluded and that is a blink of the eye in historical – and cultural – terms.
It was the federal government that dismantled the apparatus of Jim Crow and legalized segregation, using federal soldiers, federal judges and federal prosecutors to enforce this process. That took place less than fifty years ago, a mere heartbeat in historical terms.
In the Southern narrative, government as “the enemy” fits very nicely with those who would wish to dismantle government so as to reduce taxes to an afterthought as they amass untold wealth. Government as “the enemy” also fits in nicely with neoconservative thought that would reduce government regulations in industry and financing letting the market forces prevail (another term would be letting market forces run wild).
It would seem that this would be a good time to connect the dots before this country follows the stars and bars over the cliff.