Monday, January 2, 2012

Southernization Rising

Texas may be south of the Mason - Dixon line.

But make no mistake:  its natives are Texans first, and Southerners second.

Only then will they grudgingly admit they're also Americans.

When my family moved to the Lone Star State from the Empire State in the late 1970's, times had just begun changing rapidly for this sprawling land.  Here in north Texas, the mammoth Dallas - Fort Worth International Airport had been open only a couple of years, an event which just about everybody credits with sparking the phenomenal growth of this part of the southwest.

My father's company relocated us just when American Airlines moved its corporate headquarters from midtown Manhattan to the hardscrabble prairie just south of what we now call "the Big Airport," an area now swallowed up by freeways, apartment complexes, and hotels.

In a sense, American Airlines, which traces its roots to Fort Worth's historic airfields, was coming home.  But unlike the grand welcome corporations were receiving as they flocked to Texas from "up north," individual families like ours were shocked by the anti-north vitriol we encountered here.

Yankees, Go Home

We were called "Yankees" in decidedly derisive tones.  I wasn't even sure why "Yankee" was a bad thing, or why it applied to us.  I'd been raised to think it was a term used by foreigners to describe our soldiers abroad during two world wars.  Alternatively, my Mom's parents who lived in Maine were called "Yankees," because that's what New Englanders have historically been called.

But why were these Texans calling us Yankees?  I was born in New York City, like my Dad, and my brother was born in a town near the Adirondacks.  Since we weren't from New England, and Texans were Americans, weren't they as much Yankees as we were?

Son, come 'ta find out, them 'er fightin' words here in the South.  "South," with a capital "S."  Whereas when I was a kid, we played Cops-and-Robbers, or Cowboys-and-Indians (however politically-incorrect that was), kids down here were playing North-against-the-South.

Seriously.  The Civil War hadn't yet ended in Texas.

One of the songs kids at our new church here liked to sing was, "Freeze a Yankee! Drive 75, freeze 'em alive! Governor Briscoe promised us that if any d--- Yankee raised a fuss..."

Governor Dolph Briscoe was a rascal of a politician, in the true tradition of scrappy Texas electioneering.  During America's oil crisis of the early 1970's, Briscoe reputedly cheered on his fellow Texans in what was the nation's largest oil-producing state by reminding them how, if they wasted enough fuel by speeding (an overt rebuke of President Gerald Ford's 55 mph mandate), there'd be that much less home heating oil for people trying to survive those brutal Yankee winters.

It was surreal.  And a bit silly, right?  But then, when we'd say so to Texans, they'd sneer that Yankees would find it silly only because we'd won.  Not that we should worry - the South would rise again!

Still with the Civil War rhetoric, the pain of defeat burning on their lips.  Then they'd whoop and holler like congregants at a tent revival meetin'.

The Southernization of America

Fast forward to America's current political quagmire, in which right-wing conservatives have hijacked the Republican Party and are blaming liberal Democrats for Washington gridlock.  According to some political watchers, it's becoming clearer and clearer that what the South lost in 1865 they're tryin' like the Dickens to win today.

They call it "Southernization," or "Southernism," describing the perceived effort over the past three decades by Southern conservatives to transform political ideology in America's Bible Belt into a moral force to be reckoned with across the nation's political stage.

Not that there aren't any conservatives, or Republicans, in the North.  It's just that conservative Yankees never wrapped the Cross of Christ in the American flag quite like Southerners have.

And as the theology quotient in America has been dumbed-down over the years, many evangelicals both in the North and the South seem to be having a hard time distinguishing between what the Bible teaches about taxes, good governance, social justice, and what people like Rush Limbaugh say.

Geography doesn't entirely explain the rise in neo-conservative activism within the Republican Party, of course, but in hindsight, it's enough of a factor to help explain why moderate Republicans want their party back.

Think about it:  several pundits - including his adopted son - say that were Ronald Reagan to run for president this year, he'd probably get his be-hind whupped.  Turns out, his actual record doesn't match the admiration many poorly-educated right-wingers hold for him.  For example, Reagan did lower taxes once, but he later raised them several times, wiping out half of his initial reduction.  He also negotiated with Iran, expanded government employment, granted amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants, and tripled the national debt.

His former budget director, David Stockman, has called what many Republicans say of Reagan today "outright revisionism if not fabrication of history."

Interestingly enough, Reagan served during a particularly robust period of America's epic migration from the North to the South.  Maybe because so many of us were packing and unpacking, we didn't pay as close attention to everything going on in Washington during those years as we think we did.  I still say Reagan was the last great president America's had to date, but he wasn't perfect.  He wasn't the grand hero right-wingers currently imagine him to have been.  He was more of a moderate who understood - even if he didn't like it - that politics runs on compromise.

A Great Political Migration?

Then again, maybe having Reagan, a Californian, as president while the densely-populated, politically powerful North lost millions of "Yankees" to previously low-population, low-influence states like Georgia, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Virginia, and even Texas, had little to do with Southernization.  Maybe today's Southern-leaning politicians are simply trying to ride Reagan's legendary coattails, banking on the voting public's dimming memories of the Great Communicator.  Either way, politics in virtually all of these states has either turned into - or been fortified as - ram-rod, right-wing conservatism.

The majority of people relocating to the South were employed, and being transferred by their employer.  I suspect that many of them were probably moderate Republicans up North, and when they came down here, it didn't take much for them to be co-opted towards stricter and stricter conservative politics in their new home states.  States where welfare, unions, and taxes were viewed with stronger contempt than they were up North.

Meanwhile, as employed suburbanites continued draining down South from the North, they left behind vast metropolitan areas of generally liberal voters, areas which managed to fill back up again with immigrants from overseas and, at least in New York City, Boston, and Chicago, less-conservative young people from the South who wanted the urban vibe of the older inner cities.

After several decades of this voter swapping, along with concerted efforts by groups like the Moral Majority, moderate Republicanism along the lines Reagan and Jack Kemp surreptitiously morphed into today's caustic haranguing of Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry, Eric Cantor, Karl Rove, and the irascible Limbaugh.

Part of the problem, of course, is that people like Limbaugh earn fat salaries by talking up their political bravado and trumpeting aggressive viewpoints that appeal to primal assumptions about how government works.  It's a lot easier to view the political spectrum through black and white lenses that omit the vast seas of grays that comprise day-to-day governance.

While this may mean that superfluous legislation may not get done, it also means that important legislation doesn't get done, either.

Remember the Virtue of Moderate Conservatism

Political extremists claim their work is difficult because staking out positions and ruthlessly defending them is fierce business.  Yet I suspect the inverse is likely the truer reality.  Might the virtue of moderate conservatism lie in its issue-by-issue pragmatism?  After all, politics isn't about administering a set of absolutes as much as it is a balancing of dynamic cultural forces.  Making relevant policy requires hearing more than one side of an idea.  It's not selling-out for the lowest common denominator, but the highest common denominator.  Even if it - gasp! - requires knowing when to cross partisan aisles to preserve the greatest benefit.

Moderate conservatives generally understand that governance by the few - the fringe groups - doesn't really work in a democracy.  For example, saying the United States is a "Christian" nation, like many Southernists do, simply acknowledges history without accommodating raw facts about religious freedom in our country.  Decry the dilution of Christian principles in the moral fabric of our society if you like, but since America is not a theocracy, it's hard to blame the government for that moral decline.

Or expect government to unilaterally reverse it.

Perhaps unfortunately, religion is one of the hallmarks of Southernization.  It's not that the North never had churches, but that the South uses churches as social clubs.  It's been ages since attending church in the North benefited anybody socially or economically.  But here in the South, many people, regardless of their income, pick their church based on who they want to be seen with, or who has the best selection of business professionals with whom they can trade business cards between services.  Even if every church in town is decidedly middle-class, you still are held in higher estimation by the community if you attend church compared to if you don't.  Up North, nobody really cares one way or the other, and if they do, it's usually to your detriment.

Generally, as the South has become more politically powerful, it has allowed its pronounced Judeo-Christian mindset to frame much of its dialog.  Personally, I'm not bothered by that, since I believe Jesus Christ is the Son of God and Savior of His people, and that He is honored when we seek to honor him in all areas of life, including politics.  Yet I can understand why other Americans who don't believe this are getting tired of what can appear to be the Southern thinly-veiled yearning for a theocracy.

Would it be a different story if Southerners weren't so hypocritical when it came to religion and politics?  Slavery, of course, corrupted our country's history, even as many Southerners today still refuse to admit that it was the key reason for America's Civil War.  Although racism wasn't - and isn't today - confined to the South, the massive fraud of institutionalized bigotry many Southerners perpetrated against blacks found an ally in Southern pulpits, where inaccurate assumptions about the Bible's references to slavery were used to justify it.

Hypocritical political activists who claim to be Christians continue to mock morality, such as Republicans like Newt Gingrich who are serial fornicators, and also  Democrats like Bill Clinton and John Edwards.  Indeed, as I point out many times, the divorce rate between churched and unchurched Americans - either Yankees or Southerners - is statistically equal.  Yet Southerners still yell the loudest when, for example, it comes to displaying the Ten Commandments in courtrooms, even though adultery is forbidden by the seventh one.

It's hard to carry the banner for morality when society's basic building block, the family, is crumbling at the same rate regardless of party platform.

Proving a Point, but Drowning in the Process?

I've lived in Texas now for most of my life.  For people just arriving in the Lone Star State, that may be enough to qualify me as a Texan, but for natives, it only means that I've got more sense than people who still live up North.

Actually, I don't mind living in Texas.  Live here isn't perfect, of course, but we have a relatively low cost of living, compared with many other states.  Taxes are not oppressively high, belligerent unions don't run our cities, and I don't feel like a freak for going to church every Sunday.  In these aspects, Southernization wouldn't be the worst thing to invade the North.

At the same time, however, it's entirely possible that just as native Texans bristled at all of the Yankees moving down here decades ago, people finding themselves adversely affected by Southernization will require a considerable amount of time to adjust to the changes right-wing conservatives want.  In fact, just as neo-conservatives have their own agenda, so do liberal Democrats, and some of the designs left-wingers have for our country are what keep our political dialog in what appears to be an unsalvageable juggernaut.

To the extent that moderate conservatism can bridge that which divides our country, and win solutions tilted more to the right than the left, Republicans in both the South and the North should seek out our collective best interests and work towards those, rather than succumbing to partisan bickering which only fosters a deep lack of productivity.

Isn't the worst that can happen with moderate conservatism better than what could happen if Southernization ends up backfiring?

1 comment:

  1. Great post. I have lived in the South all of my life, and I'm still mystified by my fellow Christians who seem to think our government should be a theocracy. One of the biggest controversies we have had in my church occurred when a new pastor came and decided we would no longer have a patriotic service for the 4th of July since it clearly was not about worshiping the Lord. It's been over 10 years, and there are still people who complain every summer because the Call to Worship for that service isn't the Salute to the Armed Forces.


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