Thursday, April 5, 2007

Confederate "Heritage" Month, April 5: The Lost Cause as a living ideology

The Lost Cause ideology is not just about history, arguably not even primarily about history. It began in the post-Civil War South as an ideology by which conservative whites explained secession in a way that minimized blame for the seceders themselves and laid a basis of a reconciliation of North and South - or, more accurately, of white Northerners and white Southerners. But it mainly functions today as a way of thinking about current politics and, in particular, of matters related to race.

I'm very aware of the dangers of regional explanations of American politics. Yet, at the same time, it can hardly be ignored that the Demcratic Party from the 1870s into the 1960s benefitted from a "solid South", i.e., a bloc of Southern states that voted Democratic even in cases where the policies of the national Republican Party might have been more in line with the prevailing conservative thinking among Southern whites.

It's also hard to avoid noticing that today's Republican Party is now dependent on a new kind of Solid South. One calculation I saw after the 2006 election said that the Republicans in Congress now had a higher percentage of their Congressional seats from old Confederate states than the Democrats ever had during their own solid-South decades.

But just as it's easy to talk in generalizations about regional politics - the coasts, the Midwest, the South - it's also easy to start mistaking the generalizations for facts. One example I often use is that my native state of Mississippi is unquestionably conservative in its general voting and counts as a safe "red" (Republican) state in Presidential elections. It's Governor and both Senators are Republicans, and grimlyconservative/authoritarian Republicans, at that. But of the state's four Congressional seats, two of the four are held by Democrats (though as
Laura Hipp reported at her blog yesterday, neither of them qualifies as the most liberal members of Congress.) And within the state, the legislature still has a large number of Democrats, so being a Democrat is not the political kiss of death everywhere in the state, by any means. And since some of the most hardcore Democrats I know are Mississippians, it's hard to me to think of it simply as a red state.

Having said all that, I also don't think we can understand the particular style and authoritarian bent of today's Republican Party without taking into account the extent to which the particular brand of conservatism associated with white Southern segregationists has become dominant in that party. Very dominant.

Gene Lyons talked about the Arkansas brand of sleaze-slinging in politics, which the Whitewater pseudoscandal and Newt Gingrinch's Congressional "revolution" made standard operating procedure for the national Republican Party, in
Fools for Scandal (1996):

During the 1990 Arkansas gubernatorial primaries, for example, lurid tales of lust and fornication were widely circulated about three of the four serious candidates—both Republicans, and, of course, Governor Bill Clinton. Only Clinton's Democratic opponent, an earnest good-government type perceived to have no chance, escaped suspicion. There was talk of whores, drunken orgies at duck-hunting clubs, illegitimate children, hush money, even suicides. One Arkansas politician was rumored to have had carnal knowledge of a convicted murderess inside her jail cell. Interracial sex, of course, is a topic of perennial interest. Indeed, it takes some effort to think of an Arkansas politician of note about whom scurrilous rumors haven't circulated.

For most Arkansas voters, evaluating this avalanche of smut has always been simple: your candidate is innocent, his or her opponents are probably guilty. The fact that political fault lines here tend to coincide with religious differences - hard-shell denominations to the right, "mainstream" churches to the left - makes it easy to caricature one's enemies as pious hypocrites. Otherwise, it would be tempting to suspect that many Arkansans harbor the secret belief that any politician—or TV evangelist, for that matter - who didn't have some rooster in him couldn't be much of a man.
I discuss in the post linked above some of the particular channels through which that process occurred in the Whitewater scandal.

Something that intrigues me is to what extent we could say that the generations of lore among Southern whites about the glorious Lost Cause of the Confederacy has influenced conservatives' thinking about the Vietnam War and now the Iraq War. Part of the Lost Cause mythology is how the plucky Southerners fought on bravely even though they knew that their cause was ultimately doomed. There are clearly parallels between that Civil War pseudohistory and sentimentalism and some of the arguments made about the two more recent wars.

Matt Yglesias illustrates how tricky it can be to talk about regional political trends in a meaningful way in
The Great Divider American Prospect 04/04/07 issue (currently behind subscription but the Prospect makes its articles available later), where he writes:

A better place to look for the causes of [partisan] polarization might be the regional realignment of American politics in the wake of the Civil Rights Act, the subject of Earl and Merle Black's Divided America, which looks at how "national political power is built up from local, state, regional, and sectional bases of support." Perhaps contemporary partisan polarization isn't so hard to explain - why shouldn't Republicans like Republican presidents while Democrats detest them?

The mysterious thing about America is that this wasn't always so. The reason - or at least a big part of the reason - is that, famously, partisanship used to have only a weak correlation with ideology. America produced the polarized politics that is the natural state of two-party systems only after conservative white southerners entered the Republican Party in droves, northern progressives abandoned it, racial minorities solidly lined up with the Democrats, and traditionalist white Catholics became fully assimilated and began voting like traditionalist white Protestants. (my emphasis)
He then goes on to explain that a region-base analysis of voting trends, or a red-state/blue-state version, can miss critical demographic factors about voting:

There's obviously something to that, but it misses a crucial point: Large, racially diverse cities in all regions of the country vote Democratic. What makes the Northeast noteworthy is that white, rural states - such as Vermont, Maine, and increasingly New Hampshire - do so as well.
So, while recognizing the particular Southern role in today's Republican is critical to understanding what's going on, it only goes so far. The priority of racial factors for white voters in the South, in which Lost Cause thinking clearly plays some role, is significant. And the old, corrupt, often-lawless segregationist way of governance bears some striking resemblances to the incompotence, corruption and disregard of law married with a worn-on-the-sleeves religious piety we see in the Cheney-Bush administration.

The singer-songwriter Kate Campbell has a song called "Petrified House", which is both a story about a sad, bitter old lady from a gentile Southern family whose days of gentility are past, and a metaphor for a way of thinking we often see in today's Republican Party. The character in the song lives with a mythologized memory of past glories, alone in her mansion downtown:

She believes somehow that nothing has changed
Even though Sherman left Georgia in flames
Cotton's still King and the South didn't fall
As long as wisteria climbs up the wall
The character gets lets sympathetic as the song proceeds, with the last verse telling us:

She won't read the paper and won't watch the news
She thinks it's all lies made up by New York Jews
Her daddy said no matter what the laws say
Down here we've always done things our own way
Around here we do things our own way: doesn't that sound like Dick Cheney's attitude toward government? Dark Lord Cheney didn't derive that from an intensive study of the political philosophy of John C. Calhoun, I'm guessing. But the neosegregationist attitude of today's Republican Party provides a welcome home for that way of thinking.

And when we think of the most notorious and damaging of doing "things our own way", the Cheney-Bush torture policy, and the various ways Republicans in Congress and the airwaves defend it - is it essentially any different from the way white Southerners once tolerated and defended the torture and murder rituals known as lynching?

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