The debt ceiling crisis may be over (at least until February), but the crisis created by the Republican Party’s sharp reactionary turn emphatically is not. I’ve argued that the Tea Party, is the legacy of structural racism in the South dating back to the 1930s, and will remain a powerful force in the Republican Party absent tectonic shocks to the political landscape on the level of the civil rights movement.
This analysis can and should be pushed further. The South is best understood as an exceptional region inside the United States, with a unique political and cultural milieu birthed by the intersection of slavery and deep religiosity. Southern influence on the rest of the United States has been immense, but the South nonetheless has always been different, marked by the racial caste system that defined its existence until the Civil War. It remains different today.
Race And Religion
The buried story of Wednesday’s government-opening vote in the House was a split between Republican Southerners — and everyone else. Southern Republican whites voted overwhelmingly against the deal — 73 against, 18 in favor. Other Republicans were evenly split (69 in favor, 71 against) and Democrats, of course, unanimously supported the deal. Roughly the same thing happened the last time House Republicans almost took the United States off the default cliff.
The overwhelming Tea Party conservatism in the Southern delegation reflects the region’s exceptionally conservative bent. In a brand-new American Politics Research article, Columbia University’s Steven White ran a series of regressions analyses aimed at separating out the effect of region and religion on Southern political views. White found “very substantial support” for the idea that Southern whites were across-the-board more conservative than whites in the rest of the country. Moreover, whites in the Deep South (Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina) were more reactionary than their also super-conservative peers in the Peripheral South (Arkansas, Florida, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia).
Southern political uniqueness appeared to be partly religious — but only partly. Roughly half of America’s evangelicals live in the South, a pattern dating back to the early 1800s. Though early Southerners were largely Anglican, evangelical missionaries began flocking to the region in the late 18th century. They found it fertile ground: historian David Edward Harrell Jr. writes that “by 1830 the ‘Solid South’ was more of a religious than a political reality.” Since then, Southern Oregon University’s Mark Shibley documents, evangelical faith has dominated spiritual and cultural life among Southern whites in a way that it hasn’t anywhere else in the United States.
White’s research suggests this preponderance of fundamentalism explains the region’s socially conservative bent. It also somewhat accounts for the South’s heavy Republican tilt in Presidential elections, but only partially and in certain Southern states. And it does virtually no lifting on region’s broader conservatism on issues like the Iraq War and attitudes towards Muslims. Something else, something distinctly regional, explains why the South, both Deep and Peripheral, has more conservative views across-the-board than the rest of the country.
Race, and its historical legacy, appears to be the key. While early America was no doubt shot through with racism everywhere, slavery set the South apart. Slavery, and the attendant distinctions between black and white created to provide its intellectual underpinnings, formed the very core of the Southern political, economic, and social system. The idea that a system so important that the South went to war rather than compromise over it would not play an extraordinary role in shaping the region’s politics is absurd.
Demonstrably absurd, in fact. Three political scientists at the University of Rochester found that, when you control for series of potentially confounding factors, white Southerners in the Mississippi Delta-to-Georgia “Black Belt” were “less likely to identify as Democrat, more likely to oppose aﬃrmative action policies, and more likely to express racial resentment toward blacks” if their county housed high percentages of slaves prior to the Civil War. This effect survives controls for the percentage of African Americans in-county today, inclining the Rochester scholars to believe that racial prejudice (in mutating forms, to be sure) has been passed down continually among Deep South whites from parent-to-child since slavery.
This jives with other recent research on the broader South, which finds that “whites residing in the old Confederacy continue to display more racial antagonism and ideological conservatism than non-Southern whites.” Moreover, “racial conservatism has become linked more closely to presidential voting and party identification over time in the white South, while its impact has remained constant elsewhere.”
Race and religion, then, have always set the South apart. So the South’s turn away from the Democratic Party over race, beginning in the 1930s and finalizing in the 1990s, is a pattern of evolution consistent with the region’s long history of racial conservatism. That the religious right became a dominant force in both the South and the Republican party in the 80s and 90s is the other side of the coin. Evangelical conservative hostility towards government interference with religious schools and “traditional” cultural norms relating to gender and sexual orientation meld quite well with the fiscal conservative insistence on keeping the state out of private economic affairs and civil society — a cause that segregationists took up after the civil rights movement’s victory to defend de facto segregation using race-neutral language.
The South, in short, was a region uniquely well suited for the modern conservative movement’s “fusion” between social and economic conservatism. It’s no surprise that the South is the driver of hard-right conservatism today. That’s what its racial and religious heritage would suggest.
The Not-So-Exceptional South?
Not everyone agrees. In a fantastic essay in Jacobin, Seth Ackerman presents an alternate history of the growth of the Tea Party in which the South plays no special role. His target is not merely folks like John Judis and myself who emphasize the South’s role in modern conservatism, but the idea of Southern exceptionalism itself.
The Southern bolt from the Democratic Party was not principally about uniquely Southern race issues, Ackerman argues, but rather an outgrowth of the South’s economic catchup with the North. As Southern whites became more affluent, they became more open to free-market policies. After affluence opened the crack, religion pushed the South over the edge: the South today votes more conservatively because of its highly religious white population.
And The Tea Party, Ackerman concludes, isn’t particularly Southern. Instead, it’s born of the American “reactionary national consensus over a backward set of fundamental governing structures.” Because the Constitution has foiled any attempt to legislate effectively, he suggests, Americans have developed a deep skepticism about the idea of legislating itself. The Tea Party is merely the latest manifestation of this skepticism.
Ackerman’s essay is a valuable corrective to some of the more reductionist tendencies in the sort of explanation I’m partial towards. In particular, he is right to say that the South slid towards GOP and broad-based conservatism gradually from the 1930s forward, rather than in isolated bursts in 1964 and 1980. He’s also right that the Tea Party isn’t solely made up of Southerners and that Southern political behavior can’t be understood in isolation from Southern religiosity.
But he’s quite wrong on the main issue. The South’s shift to the Republican Party really was principally about the region’s unique racial heritage — a history that Southern religion cannot escape from.
Let’s look at some of Ackerman’s particular arguments. First, he cites research by Byron Shafer and Richard Johnston to support the idea that “white-collar, affluent, and suburban districts — i.e. those that were the most “modern”, “American,” and populated with northern transplants — that led the way toward GOP dominance, while those that were most traditionally ‘Southern’ lagged behind.” It couldn’t be race that pushed the South Republican, in other words, if its most racially progressive areas led the move towards the Republican Party.
Subsequent reviews, however, have found fatal flaws in the Shafer and Johnston thesis. CalTech’s J. Morgan Kousser writes that Shafer and Johnston “fundamentally rested their case on a simple chronological argument: The Republican Party became solidly established ﬁrst in the areas with few African-Americans,” failing to take a more serious look at the data correlating the politics of race with the rise of the Republican South. A more detailed look found that “substantial economic development in the Rim South (the more-white states) preceded the development of vigorous state level Republican parties, which emerged only with the passage of national civil rights legislation.” Moreover, “the timing of the onset of serious state-level Republican campaigns coincided not with the long, slow, ongoing development of the economy, but with the commitment of the Democratic Party nationally to a civil rights agenda.”
This pattern can be seen on a state-to-state level. M. V. Hood, III, Quentin Kidd, and Irwin L. Morris find that “the Southern states with the largest per capita income growth from 1960 to 1980 were (in order) Virginia, Florida, and Texas,” while “the states with the largest GOP growth during the time period were (in order) Mississippi, South Carolina, and Georgia.” The state where the GOP grew the fastest — Mississippi — was the one with the slowest economic regional economic growth during the critical Southern transition period, leading the authors to conclude “at the most basic level, there are obvious problems with a class-based explanation.” Hood, Kidd, and Morris proceed to put together strong statistical evidence that race, not “normal” class politics, explained the Southern shift towards Republicans.
Second, he cites research suggesting Southern Democrats were as or more left-wing on economic issues as Northerners up until roughly the end of the New Deal. This bafflingly leads him to conclude that “the closest modern-day equivalents of the conservative Democrats of the 1940s are modern-day conservative Democrats.” Today’s Southern Democrats are, if anything, the opposite of Dixiecrats: they’re more conservative on economics than their Northern peers today and far more progressive on race than their regional peers in the 1930s.
It’s also not very helpful to attempt to map political views one-to-one from one historical time period to the next, and no proponent of the race theory depends the Dixiecrat-to-Tea-Party line on such a mapping. Instead, the argument is that the same underlying structural trends in Southern political opinion produced both the Dixiecrats and hard-right Southern Republicans — sometimes in the same person (see Thurmond, Strom). If I’m right, and racial conservatism pulled Southern whites towards economic conservatism, then the thread tying the Dixiecrats to the Tea Party is that structural racism caused the same population to transition from the former to the latter.
Segregation And The Religious Right
But what about religion — they other key cause of Southern exceptionalism?
Ackerman suggests Southern religiosity explains its propensity to vote conservatively in presidential elections, but this simple correlation between whites saying religion is “very important” in their lives and conservative voting does not sustain a more detailed regional analysis. According to White’s data, Republican dominance in Texas and the Deep South — the heart of the modern Republican Party — cannot be explained by the prevalence of born-again Christianity alone.
Historically, Ackerman’s theory is also quite puzzling. In the 30s and 40s, when by Ackerman’s own account Southern politicians were to the nation’s economic left, “evangelicalism was…part of the very fabric of Southern life,” as Shibley puts it. “Explaining just how evangelicalism among Southern whites has driven the surge in Southern Republicanism is difficult,” Hood et al. write, “and the empirical connection between evangelicalism and the growth of Republicanism at either the regional level or the subregional level, remain unestablished.”
That’s because the Religious Right, the movement that took Southern evangelicalism from a quietistic cultural force and made it into a political juggernaut, didn’t take shape until the late 70s — well after the growth of the GOP in the South was underway. But even then, the Religious Right’s growth was tied up in the South’s race problem.
White evangelicals played a mixed role during the Civil Rights movement. Church leadership was generally indifferent or hostile, but some lower-level faith organizations helped break down racial barriers. In the late 60s and 70s, however, conservative operatives came to realize evangelicals’ enormous untapped political power. According to Paul Weyrich, easily one of the most important figures in the Religious Right’s founding, nothing could mobilize religious voters for the right (they voted for Jimmy Carter in huge numbers in 1976) until the federal government came after segregated schools.
That’s right. “It was not the school-prayer issue, and it was not the abortion issue,” Weyrich said. “What caused the movement to surface,” he told Columbia University’s Randall Balmer, “was the federal government’s move against the Christian schools.” After Brown v. Board of Education, many Southern whites moved their kids to private schools (“segregation academies,” in common parlance). Many of these academies were religious in character.
Though segregated private schools were most common at the pre-college level, Bob Jones University, which was fully segregated until 1971 and subsequently continued to ban interracial dating, become the flashpoint. In in 1970, the Internal Revenue Service began proceedings against BJU and, in 1975, the IRS revoked its tax-exempt status, citing its racially discriminatory practices. Weyrich and his allies spun IRS’ action into a liberal campaign against the Christian way of life. The Religious Right as an organized movement grew in significant part out of the defense of Bob Jones and other similarly “persecuted” Christian schools.
This history is fairly well-established. Ed Dobson, one of Jerry Fallwell’s top aides, confirmed it to Balmer: “government interference in Christian schools,” he said, was one of the core original causes of the original religious right. Balmer, rightly acknowledging that the defense of Bob Jones was motivated by a perceived federal threat to Christian institutions rather than racism, nevertheless notes its history can’t be understood absent race:
The evangelical defense of Bob Jones University and its racially discriminatory policies may not have been motivated primarily by racism. Still, it’s fair to point out the paradox that the very people who styled themselves the “new abolitionists” to emphasize their moral kinship with the nineteenth-century opponents of slavery actually coalesced as a political movement, effectively, to defend racial discrimination.
The point of all this is that is that Southern evangelical faith is not “naturally” a conservative political force in the way that Ackerman implies. Evangelical Christianity was politicized by conservative activists who exploited the legacy of Jim Crow to mobilize evangelicals as foot soldiers in the emerging Republican and conservative Southern establishment that itself was born from segregation’s ashes. It isn’t religion that explains the South’s conservatism; it was the rise of conservatism that explains the powerful political role Southern religion plays today.
Southern Exceptionalism Forever?
Ackerman’s other arguments similarly do not persuade. Yes, the Tea Party isn’t exclusively Southern — but that’s explained by the nationalization of Southern conservatism. Yes, the Constitution likely plays some role in making Americans more hostile towards government than citizens of other liberal democracies, but that does not explain why the South is so much more conservative than the rest of the nation. Americans in New York, after all, are governed by the same U.S. Constitution as Americans in South Carolina.
But I’d like to highlight one other thing I think Ackerman gets right. He diagnoses the debate over Southern exceptionalism as a proxy for an older and deeper one between progressives and folks to their left. Progressives tend to think that America’s broadly liberal ideology — individual rights, democracy, the whole kit and kaboodle — is fundamentally opposed to a more sinister ideology that also shaped our founding — the black/white racism that sustained slavery. More radical leftists, especially those of a Marxist bent like Ackerman, disagree, believing that emphasizing racial exceptionalism obscures the ways in which the broader structure of American society makes the country’s political institutions intrinsically unfair and unequal.
Allow me to side with the first camp. We’ve made significant progress beating back discrimination, to the point where naked racism is politically unacceptable even in the Deep South. Movements suffused with liberal ideals about freedom and individual rights played a huge role in these victories.
This progress seems primed to continue, as younger Americans, including younger whites, are both significantly more tolerant and significantly more leftist than their older peers. Demographic change will hasten this trend — even in the South. Virginia voted for Obama twice, after all, and North Carolina did so once — the first time a Democrat had won either state since Jimmy Carter mobilized the evangelical vote in 1976.
Studies of Tea Party attitudes suggest a pervasive fear that America is no longer “their” country. Sociologist Theda Skocpol, one of the foremost scholars of the political movement, sees a tinge of racism and xenophobia in that, but more importantly “they also resent young people — including in their own families.”
They believe, according to Skocpol, that younger folks “hold ideas that are not very American.” In reality, these younger folks hold ideas that are not very traditionally Southern. That’s a hopefully sign that the South’s past does not need to be its future.
Chris Butterfield contributed research for this article.