Like the election of 1860, that of 2008 provoked an over-the-top reaction from the Confederacy. So far, it hasn’t been nearly as bloody, and let’s hope that endures. But it’s presented its own set of problems.
The obvious reason why the 2008 election provoked that reaction is racial. That year, the United States elected an African-American president. He is characterized by his detractors as many things that he isn’t, including some that I wish he were (a socialist, for example). He’s actually a moderate Democrat much in the Bill Clinton mold, but to hear his foes on the right talk, he’s the second coming of Che Guevara.
Understanding why Barack Obama provokes this reaction is important. It’s not so much that the president is a black man as the fact that a black man could be elected president, and what that means about how the country is changing. We’re past the time when substantial numbers of white people sincerely believed in racial stereotypes, and Obama’s intelligence and ability are obvious. But when I was a boy, a black man of his abilities (or any abilities) could not possibly have been elected president. Today, he can and was. What that means is that the United States is not the same place into which I was born. It has changed — much for the better, in my opinion, but the Confederacy disagrees.
As discussed in the previous two sections, the Confederacy is an authoritarian subculture within the culture of the United States and opposed to its basic ideals. (I’m calling it that because “the South” is misleading for reasons that will shortly become clear. I’m referring to a cultural reality in using that term, not to the historical Confederate States which, of course, no longer exist, and did not include all of cultural Confederacy when they did. Maryland and Kentucky are, or at least were at one time, both part of the cultural Confederacy although neither state seceded. What’s more, Virginia and Florida, which were part of the historical Confederacy, seem to have left the cultural Confederacy.) It is a holdover, a last relic of the feudal/agrarian pattern that once prevailed in civilized societies everywhere. Founded on the growing of cash crops by forced labor, it is a culture that is antithetical to anything that could be called “freedom,” “democracy,” or “equality,” and those three concepts are central tenets of the defining values of the United States. (Which is not, of course, to suggest that the United States has a perfect record of living up to them; such is clearly not the case. But the Union believes in them. The Confederacy does not.) In its politics (consistently a one-party state, formerly Democratic, today Republican), in its religion (overwhelmingly Evangelical Christian), in its economics (brutally anti-labor and characterized by extreme social stratification), the Confederacy remains at odds with everything America is supposed to stand for.
That’s been the case for literal centuries. But there’s one new fact about the Confederacy that is provoking a surge in activism today, like a desperate attempt to hold back the tide of change, and to destroy the United States as most people think of it before it’s too late to do so.
The Confederacy is dying. And it knows it.
Urbanization, Mobility and the Internet: The Triple Kiss of Death
Three things are destroying the Confederate subculture. These are the increasing urbanization of the South, the migration into it of people who grew up outside of it, and the vast increase in idea exchange provided by the Internet.
In 1860, the urbanization of the South (measured as the percentage of the people who live in urban areas) was under ten percent. Even as late as 1950, it was still under 50%. It has always lagged behind the national urbanization percentage, and still does, but as of the 2010 census, the South was over 75% urban — barely behind the Midwest. A generation of Southerners have grown up in an environment where the values and attitudes of the Confederacy make no sense and cannot be defended. Young white Southerners very naturally don’t buy into those values and attitudes. They have become Americans, not Confederates, adopting the values of the Union (which are themselves evolving, but that’s nothing new). In addition to urbanization, much of the South has finally industrialized, which means the realities confronting people are those of capitalism, not feudalism, and so are the political issues that matter. With industrialization has come prosperity for much (although not all) of the South, and with prosperity has come a set of foreign attitudes.
At the same time, the ethnic mix of the Southern population is changing and becoming more diverse. In 1860, virtually everyone who lived in the South was a white person of British or German ancestry, a slave or free person of African ancestry, or a Native American, and almost all of them were born in the South and grew up in the South. That’s no longer true. In 1980, an estimated 20 percent of the Southern population overall was born elsewhere, and that trend has accelerated. This varies widely by state. More than half of Floridians were born outside of Florida, while less than ten percent of residents of Louisiana and Mississippi were born outside those states. When someone moves to the South from outside the Confederacy, these days it’s usually for economic reasons, and the outsider brings modern values and attitudes along with the luggage. The percentage of Hispanics and people of Asian ancestry living in the South is also on the way up. None of these people buy into the Confederacy, either. (Distorting the political picture is that most immigrants are non-citizens and so not eligible to vote. However, they still interact with young white Southerners and this results in cultural change.)
Finally, the Internet brings foreign ideas into the South even faster than modern mobility is bringing new people. While this also permits the entrenched Confederates to build informational lacunas and echo chambers, any Southerner with a shred of curiosity can find information about all kinds of things that, in earlier times, would have been less accessible. This presents a challenge to the cultural values and religious beliefs that form the corpus of the Confederacy.
These changes are reflected in national elections. In 2008, Obama won the states of Virginia, North Carolina, and Florida. He won Virginia and Florida again in 2012. He won Maryland both years, but Maryland ceased to be part of the Confederacy a long time ago. Virginia and Florida represent the leading edge of the change. It is inconceivable that a state remaining part of the cultural Confederacy could vote for a black president, and so it’s reasonable to assert that both of these states have now left the Confederacy and are, in the meaning used in this series of posts, no longer Southern. The Carolinas and Georgia will follow. Texas will take longer, but that will happen, too, as Texas continues to urbanize and as its large Hispanic population acquires citizenship. Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana will be the final stronghold of the Confederacy, most likely. Their assimilation could take as long as another lifetime, but by themselves, they can’t sustain the Confederacy against foreign pressure.
None of this is unknown to Confederates. Like the election of Barack Obama, other signs point to the Confederacy’s decline. And it’s fighting back. As in the 1860s, the inevitability of defeat does not deter the quixotic attempt to win, or protect America from the damage they may do in trying.
The Last Gamble
The Confederacy is dying, but it’s not quite dead yet. The hold that it has over the Republican Party at the national level allows it to exert influence over public policy — not enough to reshape the national government, let alone the national culture, to its own values, but enough to paralyze the government and prevent progress towards a more advanced, humane, and responsible Union.
Marxian analysis is again useful here. The United States, an advanced capitalist country, should be having a debate between capitalism and socialism. The question of whether we should have an industrial economy, with all of the government involvement that always must go along with that, should have been settled long ago. In one sense, it was — we do have such an economy, and ought now to be engaged in trying to humanize it and debating whether that economy and the wealth it produces properly belongs to an elite class of rich capitalists or to the people in general. But because of the Confederacy, we can’t have that debate yet. Instead, we must deal with a faction that remains committed to values and an approach to government appropriate to a nation of farmers, not one of industrialists, wildly out of touch with modern reality, and consequently nihilistic and destructive.
At this juncture, the Confederates — who are the driving force behind the Tea Party movement and, increasingly, the dominant core of the Republican Party — aren’t interested in enacting a governing agenda. Their agenda is to destroy, not to govern. What they want is to wipe the United States out of existence. In fact, this isn’t even secret. References to “starving the beast” and “drowning the government in a bathtub” show what the goal is. The glee with which Republicans in Congress have brought the United States to the brink of default and caused government shutdowns further reveals the Confederate agenda. These people know very well that the United States is a foreign country that is conquering the South culturally, and that this process has been aided by the federal government at times, from the forcible desegregation of the schools to the encouragement of modern-day capetbagging. Their ancestors tried to fight the United States militarily and lost; today’s generation is trying to demolish the country from within the government instead. The United States is the enemy to them, every bit as much as it was in the 1860s.
And as in the 1860s, the only way to deal with this situation is by acknowledging it. The Confederates regard the United States as their enemy, and so, as an American, I must regard them as my enemy, too. We must all do that. Whatever their legal status, the presence of almost the entire Republican membership of Congress — certainly most, if not all, of those from the South — should be regarded as morally illegitimate. There can be no compromise. They must be defeated. It’s that simple. It’s that cut and dried.
The Confederacy is dying, and that reality will be reflected in the next few elections. In the meantime, we must hold to a minimum the damage that the beast can do in its death throes. It’s too late to prevent this latest phase of the American Civil War.
All we can do is to ensure that, once again, the Union wins it.