The Ambiguous Legacy


Ed Kilgore has a really interesting post on Southern political history that gets into the winding and complicated manner in which racial politics has interacted with other issues in Dixie:

But there any “seamless web of reaction” theory about the South begins to break down. The two decades after the Compromise were characterized by savage political warfare across the region between supporters and opponents of capitalist development and corporate subsidies. And no one embraced the Lost Cause of the Confederacy myth more than the southern Populists, who viewed antebellum southern “civilization,” accurately, as anti-capitalist. The great southern Populist Tom Watson of Georgia, who once called himself a “red socialist through and through,” and who did actual jail time in opposing U.S. entry into the “imperialist” World War I, was a disciple of Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens and an unequalled romaniticizer of the Lost Cause.

This period also illustrated the highly ambiguous nature of the race issue in the South. The Populists initially appealed to African-American voters, but eventually championed disenfranchisement of blacks as the only way to build a class-based political movement among whites. And while hardly any notable white political figure in the South in this era was anything less than a thoroughgoing racist, the “New South” apostles, and the “Bourbon Democrats” who succeeded them and characterized one element of the Southern Democracy right on up to the Civil Rights Movement, often postured as paternalistic defenders of African-Americans against the violence of redneck populists.

One thing I might add is that perhaps the defining picture of contemporary southern politics is that this sort of thing has ceased to be the case. Overall, the region is clearly — like the rest of the country — much more progress on racial matters than it was during Watson’s time. But unlike in the past, basic left-right economic issue disputes are now very closely aligned with people’s attitudes toward racial questions. In general, over time American politics as a whole has shifted from a two-dimensional conflict to one-dimensional conflict and this has had particularly acute consequences in southern states where racial polarization in attitudes is higher-than-average and where you often see an unusually large black population. But this world is actually a consequence of the Civil Rights era that replaced an earlier, more complicated dynamic.