January 21, 2005

Southern Conservatism And Fusionism

Stygius has much, much more on the subject of how the Democrats should build their message, noting that "a top-down imposition of a 'This Is Us' would prove ultimately exclusive." The post goes on to talk about building a more inclusive party in the South—and not through nifty linguistic "code words" imposed from on high.

Anyways, I'm not sure whether I agree or disagree with all this just yet, but it made me want to expand the point below about conservative fusionism, by looking at the evolution of southern conservatism a little more closely. What follows is a very incomplete history, partly based on old research, but most of it sketched out rather quickly. (In other words, only semi-scholarly.) I sort of wish I could tuck it below the fold because it's long-winded, not entirely focused, and certainly won't interest everyone, but what can you do. UPDATE: Ah, good tricks. Click link for full post.

Right, then. The story of southern conservatism traces back, predictably enough, to the Civil War. After the fighting ended, conservatives in the South, finding themselves in a land ravaged by battle and humiliated by Reconstruction, sought solace in the myth of the Lost Cause. The idea was simple enough: those rootless, industrial Yankees had sacked a noble civilization, whose people were genteel, loving and socially stable. One needs merely to leaf through the pages of The Confederate Veteran, a journal of the late 19th century dedicated to preserving the memory of the war:
In the eyes of Southern people all Confederate veterans are heroes. It is you who preserve the traditions and memories of the old-time South—the sunny South, with its beautiful lands and its happy people; the South of chivalrous men and gentle women; the South that will go down in history as the land of plenty and the home of heroes. This beautiful, plentiful, happy South engendered a spirit of chivalry and gallantry for which its men were noted far and near.
After the war, with all that grandeur in ruins, the only solution, really, was to go out and revive the glory of the Old South. Wealthy industrialists, plantation owners, and Confederate veterans all came together to form the political coalition known as the Redeemers, who argued that the best way to resurrect the region was to industrialize, to match the North factory for factory. The New South would preserve the best aspects of the Old South—maintain the etiquette, social hierarchies, and religious piety crucial to civilization—only in modern garb.

Through it all, many Southerners viewed their suffering as a religious trial, a cleansing by fire. After Reconstruction, the South became the most church-going part of the Union, and a number of those churchgoers believed that redemption was imminent, that they need only understand the tragedies of the past to understand God's plan for the future. To be very simplistic about it, this religious worldview set the South in stark contrast with the North. New Englanders such as Emerson and Thoreau put their faith in individualism while castigating the corrupting influence of society. For their part, Southern thinkers preached the corruption of man, and placed their faith in the moral correction of society.

Anyways, eventually the Dixie communal ideal clashed with the heady industrial ethos of the early 20th century. Southern conservatives became ardent critics of the capitalist machine transforming America. They found an eloquent voice here in a famous collection of essays, I'll Take My Stand, written in 1930 by the so-called Agrarians, whose ranks included luminaries such as John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate and Robert Penn Warren.

The Agrarians championed small-farm owners, arguing that the ideal society needs to be rooted in the land. They idealized the plantation model and denigrated capitalism for alienating workers from the land and hence, from their sense of history and community. No one, of course, was suggesting that the market economy should be abolished entirely. The Agrarians simply condemned the fanatical devotion to individualism engendered by capitalism. That ceaseless push for self-improvement led to selfishness and irresponsibility, which in turn led to the breakdown of family, community and civic responsibility.

For this new generation of conservatives, the key to combating all that excessive egocentrism in modern society—without descending into socialist dogma—was religion. Oddly enough, I once found a passage by the theologian Karl Barth that pretty much sums up the Southern conception of the religious community:
Thus the Christian approach surpasses both individualism and collectivism. The church knows and recognizes the “interest” of the individual and of the whole, but it resists them both when they want to have the last word. It subordinates them to the being of the citizen, the being of the civil community before the law, over which neither the individuals, nor the “whole” are to hold sway, but which they are to seek after, to find and to serve—always with a view to limiting and preserving human life.
Moreover, Southern conservatives found the ideal of a Christian community at odds with radical egalitarianism. Social stratification—and this meant class more than race—was necessary to stave off the sort of frenzied mass movements that could topple nations.

Now the usual opinion is that the conservative mania for social order was founded on starkly racist attitudes. Indeed, no one can ignore the question of race in any history of southern conservatism. But even that picture isn't so simple. In practice, some of the most vicious proponents of racism were often the Southern Progressives, who worked to encourage economic development in the region while creating the sort of liberal institutions and regulations necessary to maintain a stable community. Progressive Democrats especially benefited from the disfranchisement of black voters, which allowed politicians to avoid dealing with race issues and instead concentrate on industrial progress and the development of the welfare state.

In practice, though, conservatives supported whatever sort of segregation and disfranchisement policies that maintained social order. Whether this support was due to racism or merely a genuine belief in social stability remains a topic for debate. But I think it remains true, even today, that conservative enthusiasm for a social hierarchy cannot be entirely and honestly divorced from the specter of racism.

The happy alliance between social conservatism, the Baptist church and Confederate recidivism lasted only until the Great Depression, at which point the agrarian critique of capitalism lost much of its appeal. Although plenty of conservative Democrats broke ranks with Roosevelt over the New Deal, the majority of Southerners welcomed the sort of government intrusion that brought with it welfare reform and wage hikes. Agrarian thinkers in their university chairs might have bemoaned the extinction of small farms and agricultural communities, but no one else really seemed to mind. In reality, the New South’s economy had never been wholly agrarian, and the widespread use of sharecroppers had always belied the quaint image of the small farmer working his fields with his bare Southern hands. Agrarian conservatism could only be the ideology of a few wistful intellectuals, and never a mass movement.

It was at this point that the Southern Right needed to evolve in order to survive. Hence, conservatives began to align themselves more closely with the free market conservatism espoused by William F. Buckley, Jr. and the writers of the National Review, which rose to prominence in the 1950s. From an organizational standpoint, the National Review was sheer genius, uniting free market libertarians with cultural traditionalists and anticommunist crusaders. Southern Agrarian intellectuals like Donald Davidson were willing to soften their critique of capitalism in order to join Buckley’s tirade against the dissolute morality of modern society.

The publication of Russell Kirk’s wildly popular The Conservative Mind in 1953 helped formalize the Right's transition from anti-capitalists to full-blooded defenders of the traditional social order. Kirk declared himself an enemy of populism and radical change, arguing that drastic liberal reform from on high was dangerous and ill-suited to the concrete needs of everyday people. Most crucially, Kirk managed to help steer southern conservatives away from their natural anti-capitalist tendencies and got them to focus on social stability instead. The Southern right quickly fell into line.

Not that the alliance was easy. Buckley may have found no contradiction between the unrestrained market and social orthodoxy, but Southern conservatives have not always been able to reconcile the two concepts. The "Lost Cause" rallying cry has been slow to fade, and Southern intellectuals have often seen the doctrine of free-market conservatism as a direct attack against Southern culture. In the 1990s, many Southerners threw their support behind paleoconservatives like M.E. Bradford and Pat Buchanan, advocates of isolationism, small business and regional culture.

But in the years since, paleoconservatism has faded as a viable political movement, and with it, the Confederate nationalist strain of Southern conservatism has begun to atrophy. To be sure, the memory of the Civil War and the glorious Old South still lives on—one needs only glance at the flood of Confederacy reenactments and right-wing Southern "history" journals to see this. In 1994, the League of the South was formed as "an activist organization of unreconstructed Southerners pursuing cultural, social, economic and political independence for Dixie."

These are not fringe groups, and conservatives are still motivated by the "Southern ideal". But the phenomenon is dying out, however slowly. In the past decade, massive migration to the South has brought an influx of people who have little interest in Southern culture per se. Conservative strongholds like Georgia and Florida have lately showed an increase in moderate Republicans who care little for principled tax cuts and states' rights, and the number of registered Democrats has increased dramatically in the South over the past few years. The Confederacy is waning, little by little.

It is no surprise, then, that religion has supplanted nationalism as the driving force behind Southern conservatism. The rise of Protestant Fundamentalism in the 1970s induced many Southerners to abandon their historical roots. Whereas the traditional Baptist church arose out of the ashes of the Civil War and served largely to preserve that culture, the now more-prominent Fundamentalist churches preach transcendental truths independent of time and place. As Sam Hill, "the dean of Southern religion historians", has argued, the rise of Fundamentalism is steadily eroding the mythic foundations of traditional Southern culture.

Anyhow, this post has gone on for long enough—This weekend I'll try to write up a second part: "Where is Southern Conservatism Today?" And I haven't really dived into the gritty details of how the GOP, along with conservative intellectuals, managed to unite the various strands of southern conservatism. That too is an interesting story for another time. Here's a good partial examination, by Ramesh Ponnuru.

Continue reading "Southern Conservatism And Fusionism"
-- Brad Plumer 3:50 AM || ||