Painting Dixie Red
When, Where, Why, and How the South Became Republican
Edited by Glenn Feldman
Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2011
Hardcover. 386 pp. ISBN 9780813036847. $74.95
Reviewed by Allen Carl Guelzo
Gettysburg College, Gettysburg (Pennsylvania)
“How exactly did the South become Republican?” That is the question to which each of the twelve essays in Painting Dixie Red attempts to provide an answer. It is by no means an unimportant question in American politics and modern American history, and for at least two reasons. First, the American South was, for 180 years after the birth of the republic, solidly wedded to the Democratic party—to the party and the principles of Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Woodrow Wilson, Huey Long and Franklin Roosevelt. In practical terms, that meant a political regime built on hostility to banks and corporations, and devoted to agrarianism, social stability, and white racial supremacy. These were also the states, and the principles, which created the short-lived Southern Confederacy in 1861, and which, despite the suppression of the Confederacy, perpetuated a system of racial apartheid in the Southern states until the 1950s. Beginning in the 1960s, however, those same states began to drift away from their allegiance to the Democratic party and align themselves with the Republican party, which had been organized a century before precisely to combat the influence of the South in national politics. Second, this extraordinary electoral volte-face delivers into the hands of Republicans an important regional lever for electing presidents. In 2008, eight of the eleven states which had once formed the Confederacy, voted for a Republican for president, rather than for Barack Obama; all of them voted for George W. Bush in 2004 and 2000; six of them went for Bob Dole rather than Bill Clinton in 1996. The last time the South went in a bloc for a Democratic president was in 1976 (when all of the old Confederate states except Virginia went for Jimmy Carter). Of the 173 electoral votes delivered to John McCain in 2008, 109 of them came from the one-time Confederate states of the South.
There are, at first glance, one of two explanations for this shift: one is, that the old-time racist, religious, agrarian states of the South underwent a stupendous conversion experience, emerging as adopted sons of Republicanism. The other is, that the Republicans never really were on the side of the angels in the first place. As their own historic voter-base in the old northeastern states was wooed to the Democrats by the social-democratic policies of the New Deal, the Republicans struck a Faustian deal with the racist, religious agrarians of the South who hated the New Deal, and so became themselves the new party of racism, religion and agrarianism, while the old South happily continued in those well-worn paths, only flying the Republican flag rather than the Democratic one.
Both of these explanations have to rely on a certain weakness for the miraculous, since there is no particular event, document, meeting, or even moment which can be offered as the occasion when this transferal of affections on the part of 98 million people (approximately 31 percent of the entire U.S. population) actually occurred. This does nothing, however, to dissuade Glenn Feldman, the editor of Painting Dixie Red. In his introduction, Prof. Feldman portrays the South is a perpetual Thermidor, “an ethos, a mileu, a mentalité, a worldview” of “conservative personality and culture.” Hence, “the South did not become Republican so much as the Republican party became southern.” This transformation of the Republican party into a phalanx of what Feldman calls “uber-patriotism,” “laissez-faire,” “nihilism” and “fundamentalism” has come at the prompting of a radicalization of the Republican party by “those who occupy the Far Right,” and they have found a natural partner for their “rightism” in the unmoved “triumphalism” of the racist South. Fundamentally, however, this transition is about race. Southerners are racists, insists Prof. Feldman, and “there can be no question or minimization of that basic premise.”
This suggests a disturbing monocausality at work here, in which “savvy Republican politicians” achieve a fateful denouement with reactionary white Southerners by pandering to Southern evangelicals, by adopting “rabid demagoguery” as a tactic , and by confecting “a combination of racial politics and economic conservatism.” To survive, this thesis must assume (1) that Southern demography has undergone no change whatsoever from the hey-day of the Confederacy or of Jim Crow; hence, Southerners are still the same Southerners they ever were; (2) that Southerners to-day vote in the same uniform patterns for Republicans that they once did for Democrats; (3) that the Democratic party has become something very different from what it was in the days of the old Democratic South, causing Southerners to reject it; and (4) that likewise, the Republican party has become something very different from what it was, in order to be embraced by the South.
But the assumptions themselves are problematic. In the first case, Southern demography has changed enormously since the 1970s, as major businesses and employers decamped from the old “Rustbelt” states of the Northeast for the lower labor and resource costs of the South, bringing with them a vast influx of émigré Northerners who brought Republican politics with them. It is actually more difficult to see change in the Republican party: ever since Reconstruction, it was Republican presidents and Republican senators who criticized Jim Crow and launched various civil rights initiatives (all of which died before the 1950s on the horns of Democratic resistance). Prof. Feldman scores the modern Republican party for becoming “at its core” radically pro-business “to the point of neo-liberalism,” while seeming not to know that the Republicans had always been, from the 1850s onwards, pro-business and the very paladins of 19th-century liberalism. It was precisely the “pro-business” universe of the Republicans which was so hated by pre-Civil War Southern apologists from Calhoun to Fitzhugh, and by latter-day Southern Agrarians, from Allan Tate to Wendell Berry.
Above all, the image of a South gone as solidly Republican as it was once Democratic is an exaggeration of head-scratching proportions. The majority of the Southern states have indeed gone Republican since 1972; but not consistently. Florida, Virginia and North Carolina went for Barack Obama in 2008; Louisiana, Arkansas, Tennessee and Florida went for Bill Clinton in 1996, as did Louisiana, Arkansas, Tennessee and Georgia in 1992. By contrast, the states of the upper mid-west and west have gone Republican far more monotonously than those of the South since 1976; if Prof. Feldman’s thesis is correct, why should a “Southernized” Republican party be so successful in winning states which are not only not Southern, but which weren’t even in existence when the components of Southern identity were laid down?
The curse of every essay collection is its tendency, from the multiplicity of cooks, to lose an element of focus, and this is evident even in Painting Dixie Red. Michael Bowen concedes, at the conclusion of his essay on the “first southern strategy” of the 1940s and 1950s that “the initial postwar Republican foray into the region had nothing to do with race and was “more color-blind that historians have thus far claimed.” Leah M. Wright examines the record of the Nixon administration and finds that Republicans “embraced the civil rights successes of the 1960s, but proposed an alternative economic civil right agenda for the final step in the struggle for black liberation.” This does nothing, though, to slacken Prof. Feldman’s conviction that Republicans have, Darth Vader-like, gone over to the dark side of American, and Southern, politics. If anything, that energy carries Feldman into an angry recklessness, something we see at the very head of his wrap-up essay, where he posts a bogus quotation from Abraham Lincoln which Prof. Feldman, of all people, must surely have been aware was fake. We wander now into the dim land of demonization, where Karl Rove is “the Rasputin of our age,” where Americans dangle “on a precipice” overlooking “an actual kind of American pseudo-fascism” and feed “joyously on a self-destructive diet of hyper-patriotism, jingoistic nationalism, moral chauvinism” and “imperial overreach.”
It may be that Prof. Feldman does not like Republicans; it may be that he and the other six contributors who teach at Southern universities do not like the South, either. But I do not think that even they would argue that the South is a worse place than it was sixty years ago or eighty years ago, when lynchings were a commonplace and the South’s per capita income lagged far behind the rest of the country. And I do not think that Feldman’s contributors can be proud that he chose to round off their book with the recommendation that certain conservative talk-show hosts (none of whom, ironically, are Southerners) be “hospitalized.” This is the language of a rage fully as blind, petty and bigoted as the rage it seeks to denounce, a language which I fear paints its subscribers, not the South or the Republicans, red.
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