Southernism Triumphs in the National Dialogue

In the summer of 1863, Robert E. Lee led an ill-advised incursion into Pennsylvania. His army was defeated at Gettysburg, and thence afterward Lee beat a fighting retreat until the South lost the Civil War. One hundred and forty-five years later, the Southor what has become the South-Southwesthas won another kind of Civil War. It has transformed the sensibility of the country. It is setting the agenda for our political, social and religious moresin Pennsylvania and everywhere else.

This thought, which has been recurring to me regularly over the years as I've watched the Southernization of our national politics at the hands of the GOP and its evangelical base, surfaced again when I read a New York Times story today. The article was about an "American Idol" contestantapparently quite talentedwho was eliminated after she sang the title song from "Jesus Christ Superstar." When it debuted 38 years ago, the rock opera was considered controversial for its rather arch portrayal of a doubt-wracked, very human Jesus, but the music was so good and the lyrics so clever that it quickly became a huge hit. In the delicate balance of forces that have always defined American tastesnativism and yahooism versus eagerness for the new and openness to innovationart, or at least high craft, it seemed, had triumphed. But our national common denominator of taste is so altered today that the blasphemous dimension of "Jesus Christ Superstar" now trumps the artistic part. And somehow, no one is surprised. Our reaction is more like, "Why would she risk singing a song like that?"

In part this is a triumph of demographics. As John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge observed in their 2004 book, "The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America," the nation's population center has been "moving south and west at a rate of three feet an hour, five miles a year." Another author, Anatol Lieven, in his 2005 book "America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism," describes how the "radical nationalism" that has so dominated the nation's discourse since 9/11 traces its origins to the demographic makeup and mores of the South and much of the West and Southern Midwestin other words, what we know today as Red State America. This region was heavily settled by Scots-Irish immigrantsthe same ethnic mix King James I sent to Northern Ireland to clear out the native Celtic Catholics. After succeeding at that, they then settled the American Frontier, suffering Indian raids and fighting for their lives every step of the way. And the Southern frontiersmen never got over their hatred of the East Coast elites and a belief in the morality and nobility of defying them. Their champion was the Indian-fighter Andrew Jackson. The outcome was that a substantial portion of the new nation developed, over many generations, a rather savage, unsophisticated set of mores. Traditionally, it has been balanced by a more diplomatic, communitarian Yankee sensibility from the Northeast and upper Midwest. But that latter sensibility has been losing ground in population numbersand cultural weight.

The coarsened sensibility that this now-dominant Southernism and frontierism has brought to our national dialogue is unmistakable. We must endure "lapel-pin politics" that elevates the shallowest sort of faux jingoism over who's got a better plan for Iraq and Afghanistan. We have re-imported creationism into our political dialogue (in the form of "intelligent design"). Hillary Clinton panders shamelessly to Roman Catholics, who have allied with Southern Protestant evangelicals on questions of morality, with anti-abortionism serving as the main bridge. Barack Obama seems to be so leery of being identified as an urban Northern liberal that he's running away from the most obvious explanation of his association with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and former Weatherman Bill Ayers: after Obama graduated from college he became an inner-city organizer in Chicago, and they were natural allies for someone in a situation like that. We routinely demonize organizations like the United Nations that we desperately need and which are critical to missions like nation-building in Afghanistan. On foreign policy, the realism and internationalism of the Eastern elitist tradition once kept the Southern-frontier warrior culture and Wilsonian messianism in check. Now the latter two, in toxic combination, have taken over our national dialogue, and the Easterners are running for the hills.

In Texas in particular, Lieven writes, we can see "the mingling of the Southern and Western traditions" that made its first appearance during Jackson's presidency, and which today so defines our current politics, culture, and foreign policy. Indeed, George W. Bush himself may embody this national trend best. In Bush there seems little trace left of the Eastern WASP sensibility into which he was born and educated, and which explains so much of his father's far more moderate presidency. The younger Bush went to Andover, Yale and Harvard, but he rebelled against the ethos he learned there. The transformation is complete, right down to the Texas accent that no one else in his family seems to have. Bush is a Jacksonian pod person.

None of this is quite as simple as the triumph of the South, of course. "I'm suspicious of that argument," says Gaines M. Foster of Louisiana State University, author of "Ghosts of the Confederacy: Defeat, the Lost Cause, and the Emergence of the New South, 1865-1913." "The Civil War was essentially about preserving slavery and acquiring independence. And the South lost both of those things. And gave them up." Beyond that, the Old South is gone with the wind in other ways, having suffered a hybridization from Northern and Midwestern influences. "At least one of four people in the South were not born here. Even 'Southern' is now a fuzzy term," Foster told me. And as Mike Huckabee demonstrated when he failed to spread his appeal beyond his Southern base, there is such a thing as too Southern. Polls show that at least as many Americans think Barack Obama shares their values as John McCain.

Still, something deep and basic has changed in our country. After watching the recent, excellent (despite some historical inaccuracies) series "John Adams" on HBO, I dipped back into the Adams-Jefferson letters. Two things occurred to me: one, party politics was just as vicious back then, in its earliest days, as it is today. Nothing new there. What does seem foreign to us today is the dedication to free thought and, even more, free moral choice that so dominated the correspondence between those two great minds. When Jefferson, in his letter of May 5, 1817, condemned the "den of the priesthood" and "protestant popedom" represented by Massachusetts' state-supported church, he was speaking for both of themthe North and South poles of the revolution. Yet John McCain, even with the GOP nomination in hand, would never dare repeat his brave but politically foolhardy condemnation of the religious right in 2000 as "agents of intolerance." Why? Because we have become an intolerant nation, and that's what gets you elected.

Another expert on the mores of the South, author Michael Lind, notes this change is also attributable to the rise of the mass media and the eclipsing of the patrician culture that produced both Adams amd Jefferson. "Both the New England Yankee and the old Southern colonel are gone," he says. "It's a battle between folk cultures, and it seems the Jacksonian is the more dominant." It's not a clear-cut victory, but the South has won the day.