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The Necessary South

James Cobb

Historically Speaking, Volume 11, Number 4, September 2010, pp. 5-8 (Article)

Published by The Johns Hopkins University Press DOI: 10.1353/hsp.2010.0014

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September 2010 • Historically Speaking 5

ince the earliest days of the republic the South has served primarily as what Jack P. Greene called “a negative example of what America

had to overcome before it could finally realize its true self.” The struggle to transcend this burden- some regional anomaly would play out over the bet- ter part of two centuries, but by the time it appeared finally to have run its course, some were beginning to com- plain that, in the end, it was the South that had actually overcome, and, in the process, prevented the nation from be- coming all that it could be. Even before 30 million Americans outside the South chose a bona fide representative of a racially transformed and economically vibrant Dixie to lead the country out of its post-Watergate funk in 1976, liber- als were bemoaning the ominous “rise of the Southern Rim” and the insidi- ously conservatizing effects of the “Southernization of America.” That such rhetoric is still in vogue more than a generation later suggests that not all of the resistance to integrating the South into national life has originated in the South itself. For all the evidence that a once-recalcitrant Dixie is, for bet- ter or worse, now one with the rest of the country, many outside the region and even a few within it still cling to a static vision of a defiantly un- changed, indisputably inferior South, which, in turn, provides the negative counterpoint necessary to sus- tain their equally rigid and decidedly idealized vision of America’s “true self.”1

Pointing to critical changes in the South, a veri- table slew of pundits had suggested that the per- ceived differences between region and nation were disappearing long before John Egerton referred in 1973 to the “Americanization of Dixie.” On the other hand, Egerton was one of the first to argue that the South’s loss of distinctiveness had actually been accelerated by the concomitant “Southerniza- tion of America,” observing that “the North, for its part, seems more overtly racist than it had been; shorn of its pretensions of moral innocence, it is ex- hibiting many of the attitudes that once were thought to be the exclusive possession of white Southerners.”2

Egerton used “Southernization” merely as a fig- urative description of what he saw happening in the 1970s, but a host of liberal commentators quickly seized on the term as a literal explanation, in which a sudden, aggressive, nationwide contagion of south- ern white values became primarily responsible for America’s pronounced tilt to the right during the last quarter of the 20th century. “Southernization,”

wrote George Packer, “was an attitude that spread north—suspicion of government, antielitism, racial resentment, a highly personal religiosity.”3

Catering to white Southerners’ resentment of Democratic support for civil rights advances, Barry Goldwater had carried five southern states in 1964,

and by 1966 Richard Nixon was already assuring Pat Buchanan that the GOP’s future lay “right here in the South.” Yet in the “Southernization” version of events it was not until George Wallace, the presumed embodiment of the southern white mentality, had expertly manipulated the race issue in 1968 that the Republican Party was seduced into its infamous, racially coded “southern strategy.” This strategy, in turn, succeeded in forging southern white racial an- tagonism (not unlike the violent sentiments on shocking public display at the time in Chicago or De- troit or Boston) into such a sizable and solid core of Republican support in the South that the GOP was able to win the presidency four out of five times be- tween 1972 and 1988. To be sure, the virtual cer- tainty of strong support from southern whites allowed Republican candidates to concentrate their resources elsewhere. Still, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan claimed at least 90% of the remaining elec- toral votes nationally in 1972, 1980, and 1984, and George H.W. Bush drew nearly 75% in 1988, mean- ing that all of them ran nearly as well outside the South as within it, and thus not a single southern vote had been essential to any of their victories.4

When Republicans seized control of Congress in 1994 (for the first time since 1952), only sixteen of the fifty-six new seats they captured were in the South, but Michael Lind nonetheless saw it as a

“southern coup” because “all but one of the new leaders of the Republican Congress hail from a for- mer state of the Confederacy.” Fearing that, as one reviewer put it, “the greatest industrial nation in world history” might soon be reduced to “a Missis- sippi stretching from coast to coast,” Lind insisted

that “resisting the Southernization of America is a political task principled Southerners and Northerners should be able to agree upon.”5

Echoing Lind, Peter Applebome suggested in 1996 that when it came to racial attitudes, social concerns, and tol- erance of religious, ethnic, and sexual diversity, a “rising” Dixie was generally reshaping “American values, politics and culture” in its own extremely conserva- tive image. Sweeping the South in 2000 and 2004, George W. Bush seemed to be the quintessential poster boy for the dominant, rigidly right-wing “cowboy culture” of the “Southern Rim,” whose sinister ascent Kirkpatrick Sale had chronicled in 1975. Frustrated by the southern sweep that fueled Bush’s first victory, senior editor of Foreign Affairs Mark Strauss noted that he had lost the popular vote nationally by 500,000 votes while winning in the old Confederacy by

3.1 million votes. It was obvious, therefore, that “the North and South can no longer claim to be one na- tion.” Rather, they “should simply follow the exam- ple of the Czech Republic and Slovakia: Shake hands, say it’s been real and go their separate ways.” If this meant that the North wound up seceding this time around, then so be it. Likening the South to “a gangrenous limb that should have been lopped off decades ago,” Strauss (at least half-jokingly, one hopes) supported his indictment with a lengthy list of particulars, including: “the flow of guns into America’s Northern cities stems largely from South- ern states”; and “the tobacco grown by ol’ Dixie kills nearly a half-million Americans each year.”6

In a similar but more succinct reaction to Bush’s reelection in 2004, the frustrated Yankees at bluntly advised “the South” to “take your liberal-bashing, federal-tax-leaching, confederate-flag-waving, holier-than-thou, hypocrit- ical bullshit and shove it up your ass!” It is surely noteworthy that by designating all of the thirty-one states that went for Bush as “southern,” the archi- tects of this fusillade unwittingly affirmed Malcolm X’s famous observation by actually stretching the northern boundaries of the South all the way to the Canadian Border.

Despite this and all the other ways in which it clearly ran counter to both logic and fact, so firmly



Ex-Alabama Governor George Wallace declares that he is running for president, Febru-

ary 8, 1968. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [reproduction num-

ber, LC-DIG-ppmsca-19605].

fixed was the conviction that the white South was responsible for most of what liberals felt had gone awry in America that New York Times columnist Paul Krugman saw absolutely no reason to look else- where for culprits: “[I]t all boils down to five words: ‘Southern whites started voting Republican.’ The backlash against the Civil Rights Movement explains almost everything that’s happened in this country for the past forty-five years.” Political scientist Thomas Schaller was even more adamant when he insisted that “the South proxies for a variety of national pathologies” and called on Democratic leaders to “point to the conservative South as the root of so many problems facing the country.”7

The South’s perceived stranglehold on political affairs finally began to show signs of slackening in 2006 when the Democrats managed to reclaim con- trol of Congress by picking up more than 80% of their new seats outside the region. They obviously hoped to turn their 2006 break- through into a trend in 2008, but their prospects for making inroads within Dixie itself seemed to evap- orate when Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama emerged as the frontrunners for the party’s presi- dential nomination. During the pri- maries, however, Obama generally ran at or slightly better than his poll-based projections among white Democrats in the South while frequently falling short of those numbers in primaries outside the region. Some ana- lysts seemed genuinely hard-pressed to explain re- sistance to Obama among white Democrats above the Mason-Dixon Line, but Newsweek writer Michael Hirsh was clearly not among them. When exit polls from the Pennsylvania primary showed Obama win- ning only 37% of the white vote (as compared to 44% in Texas and 43% in Georgia), with one in six whites admitting that race had influenced their deci- sions, this struck Hirsh as merely further proof that “the South—or . . . the South-Southwest is setting the agenda for our political, social and religious mores—in Pennsylvania and everywhere. This thought . . . 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.” Until recently, Hirsh explained, the “rather savage, unsophisticated set of mores” that once governed the southern frontier had been “bal- anced by a more diplomatic, communitarian Yankee sensibility from the Northeast and upper Midwest. But that latter sensibility has been losing ground in population numbers—and cultural weight.” As a re- sult, a “now-dominant Southernism and fron- tierism” had made “creationism,” “anti-abortionism,”and “faux jingoism” part of “our national dialogue.” In Hirsh’s view, the South was even responsible somehow for Obama rival Hillary Clinton’s shameless pandering “to Roman Catholics, who have allied with Southern Protestant evangeli- cals on questions of morality, with anti-abortionism serving as the main bridge.”8

Sensing that the final weeks of the general elec-

tion campaign might actually come down to a con- test for the hearts and minds of working-class whites in the “Rustbelt,” sociologist John D. Skrentny fret- ted about the “Southernization” of northern blue collar workers, especially those he had seen sporting the Confederate flag insignia in northern Indiana. “We are finding the American South all over the country,” Skrentny complained, and especially in pol- itics, where not only was there “tough talk appealing to nationalism and insecurities about American power” but “strong defenses of Christian values.” Now a virtual pandemic, the powerful Southerniza- tion virus had apparently spread all the way to Alaska, infecting its governor and the GOP vice- presidential nominee, Sarah Palin, who, Skrentny ex- plained, was, culturally at least, simply a “snow-bound Southerner.”9

In some post-election commentaries, the real story was not so much Democrat Barack Obama’s triumph over Republican John McCain as liberal America’s symbolic victory over the racist and reac- tionary white South. New York Times reporter Adam Nossiter’s observation that McCain’s 90% showing among whites in Alabama was “comparable to other Southern states” was, at best, misleading, given that only Louisiana and Mississippi had truly produced anything like Alabama’s lopsided totals. Meanwhile, Nossiter neglected to mention that across the South (the old Confederacy plus Kentucky and Oklahoma) Obama had actually equaled or improved on John Kerry’s 2004 percentages among whites in nine of thirteen states. In fact, when Nossiter pointed out that “less than a third of southern whites voted for Obama compared to 43% of whites nationwide,” he was effectively saying nothing more than that among white Southerners a black Democratic presidential candidate had run as well as or better than any white Democratic candidate since Bill Clinton. Moreover, while there was no disputing Obama’s stronger over- all showing among whites in other parts of the coun- try, had it been solely up to the majority of white voters in seven of the states he carried outside the South (including New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana), his electoral margin over John McCain would have shrunk from 192 to 18.10

Among the states in the region where Obama actually won, Florida’s peculiar demographic profile has long made its Southernness suspect to some ob- servers. Nossiter believed that Obama’s victories in Virginia and North Carolina meant that they, too, had succeeded in “breaking from their Confederate past” largely because both had also “experienced an

influx of better educated and more prosperous vot- ers in recent years.” This interpretation may help to explain strong support for Obama in places like North Carolina’s Research Triangle and elsewhere, but “better educated and more prosperous voters” have also flocked to Cobb County, Georgia, where, although 40% of the current population hails from outside the state, anti-gay rights, anti-gun control, and anti-evolution politics are nonetheless alive and well. In some areas at least, it would seem that the South may have been importing conservatism as well as exporting it.11

“Every time a Southern state starts voting for Democrats,” Chris Kromm complained, “people say, ‘Oh, that’s not the real South.’” Diane Roberts agreed, noting that “[t]he ‘Southern’ parts of the South seem to be shrinking, at least to those who de-

fine ‘Southern’ as white right- wingers who say ‘y’all.’” At this rate, Roberts warned, the South could soon consist only of Ala- bama, Mississippi, Tennessee, and South Carolina—“minus Huntsville (too many rocket scien- tists), Memphis (too many trans- plants), [and] Columbia (too many professors).”12

Efforts to write Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia out of the region seemed to suggest yet again

the enduring perception that the South is defined less by its geography than by a static and monolithic mindset thought to be peculiar to southern whites but often simply ascribed to all Southerners, as if black Southerners did not exist. This was clearly the perspective of Harold Meyerson, who assailed the Republicans in 2006 for becoming “too southern,” as in “too suffused with the knee-jerk militaristic, anti-scientific, dogmatically religious, and culturally, sexually, and racially phobic attitudes of Dixie.” Thomas Schaller illustrated such thinking perfectly when he declared that “southerners hold distinctly conservative values and have long prided themselves . . . for resisting the social transformations unfolding elsewhere across America.” Therefore, Schaller con- cluded matter-of-factly, “The South is different be- cause it’s still full of southerners.” It followed, then, that regardless of a state’s history or location, once the actions of a large number of its people could no longer be characterized as “southern,” neither could the state itself.13

Liberal commentators once saw little hope of vanquishing the fearsome southern dragon that had terrorized the American political kingdom for more than a generation, but with Obama’s victory it seemed that, in the matter of an instant, the South been routed from its commanding position and banished once again to the margins of Amer- ican politics. Obama’s win, as Nossiter put it, meant that “the Southernization of American politics—which reached its apogee in the 1990s when many Congressional leaders and President Bill Clinton were from the South—appears to have ended.” With its white voters “leaving the mainstream so decisively,” he predicted, “the

Historically Speaking • September 20106

In some post-election commentaries, the real story was not so much Democrat Barack Obama’s triumph over Republican John Mc- Cain as liberal America’s symbolic victory over the racist and reactionary white South.

September 2010 • Historically Speaking 7

Deep South and Appalachia will no longer be able to dictate that winning Democrats have Southern accents or adhere to conservative policies on is- sues like welfare and tax policy.”14

In reality, “the Deep South and Appalachia” were not in a position to “dictate” the accent or policy stance of a Democratic presidential candi- date even when Jimmy Carter won the nomina- tion in 1976. Bill Clinton had carried four southern states in both 1992 and 1996, but like the broad-based Republican triumphs of the pre- vious decade, neither of his victories required a single southern vote. Thus, when Nossiter saw the 2008 election sig- naling an end to “the centrality of the South to national politics,” which Schaller eagerly agreed was “absolutely over,” both were rev- eling in the death of something that had existed largely in the minds of those who rejected even the possibility that the conser- vatism enveloping much of the country for the better part of two generations might actually have been a local product rather than a southern import.15

Other observers hoped that the results of the 2008 election might foretell some loosening of the South’s presumed grip not just on the nation’s politics, but on its social and cultural values as well. A few days after the election Iowa minister Matt Mardis-Lecroy asked, “Does the end of the South’s dominance of our politics . . . herald a similar end to southern domination of our religious life? . . . . I hope so.” In 2002 when Joshua Zeitz reached what he saw as the “inescapable” conclusion that “South- ern culture has become American culture,” he sin- gled out the more than 8 million southern whites who had poured into northern industrial cities be- tween 1940 and 1970, presumably bringing with them the scourge of evangelical Protestantism (not to mention racism, reactionary politics, and “red- neck” tastes) that had then begun to spread across the entire nation in the 1970s.16

It is easy enough to see why transplanted white Southerners would gravitate to the familiar forms of worship of their youth, but explaining why their new northern and western neighbors would follow them is a bit tougher. After all, southern whites who sought a better life in cities outside the region were not exactly welcomed with open arms by the locals who condemned them as “worse than the colored” and “a sore to the city and a plague to themselves.” Just how so thoroughly marginalized a bunch as these pitilessly denigrated, down-and-out “hillbillies” managed suddenly to persuade so many of those who had once mocked and scorned them to em- brace their culture and values remains largely a mys- tery. Indeed, for all their capacity for mischief, white southern migrants of this era would seem to be the unlikeliest of cultural imperialists. Save for the pros- elytizing inherent in evangelical Christianity, there is

precious little evidence of southern white migrants making much effort to “southernize” anyone. After all, as Michael O’Brien has pointed out, it is hardly as if southern whites just showed up “on the doorstep of American culture” and said, “I’m here. Move over. Imitate me.” “If their culture is expansive,” O’Brien observed, “it is little they planned and something most of them have not noticed. This is not the stuff of which hegemony is made.”17

Surely postwar southern transplants humming Hank Williams’s songs could not explain why well over half the music’s fans now lived outside the

South any more than southern expats sporting Richard Petty’s “43” or Dale Earnhardt’s “3” on their caps and T-shirts could begin to account for why 60% of the fan base of what had once seemed the most emphatically southern sport on Earth cur- rently resided outside the South. The now genuinely national footprints of both NASCAR and country music also raise the question of how long any cul- tural form can still be legitimately identified as “southern” when it has so clearly been embraced by a much larger segment of American society. This contradiction was more apparent to some than oth- ers, of course. In “NASCAR and the ‘Southerniza- tion’ of America,” Joshua Newman and Michael Giardina contend that despite its popularity across the country, NASCAR is still more than anything a powerful signifier of “the South,” with its traditions of “White Privilege, White supremacy, and patriar- chal hegemony.” It is obvious, therefore, that in “George W. Bush’s ‘southernized America’ . . . under the auspices of a Bush-inspired, post-9/11, anti-af- firmative action backlash, a hyper-White, neo-Con- federate NASCAR gives license to the resurgent regimes of the most vigilant factions of the ethno- centric American White Right.”18

Here, swaddled securely in the jargon of the ac- ademic Left (where such blatant stereotyping of any other culture would be righteously denounced), is compelling evidence that the impulse to uphold America’s claim to exceptional virtues by southerniz- ing its vices knows no ideological boundaries. Recall as well that hate-filled Boston quickly became “the

Little Rock of the North” in the 1970s, while the at- tack on affirmative action in California made it the “Mississippi of the 1990s.” There is also the pre- dictable “this-is-the-kind-of-thing-you-expect-in-Al- abama-or-Mississippi” response to a racially motivated crime or social affront in a northern or western community. For many Americans outside the region, the South will remain forever “frozen in time,” Jacob Levenson observed, noting that the scenes of Birmingham and Selma are still constantly “rehashed on PBS.” Northerners seem to “treasure those black-and-white memories,” Levenson be-

lieves, because “[t]hey serve as symbols of what we’d like to think we’re not.” For, as literary schol- ars Houston A. Baker and Dana D. Nelson explain, “To have a na- tion of ‘good,’ liberal and inno- cent white Americans, there must be an outland where ‘we’ know they live: all the guilty white ya- hoos who just don’t like people of color.” This, in fine, is why, as so- ciologist Larry Griffin put it, “America still needs the South,” not as a fully assimilated, integral element of American life, but in its more familiar and ultimately re- assuring role as a dysfunctional, antithetical “other,” capable of providing what C. Vann Wood- ward called “a floor under na- tional self-esteem.”19

Finding that Massachusetts has some of the same problems as Mississippi obviously does not make Mississippi’s any less regrettable. Yet anyone who has not slept through the last forty years and still insists that the South’s shortcomings are mani- festly different in substance, and now largely even in degree, from those of the rest of the nation must be possessed of a steely determination not necessarily to see the South only at its worst, but certainly to see America only at its best. For those so inclined, the South continues to serve, in Jim Levenson’s words, as “a convenient box to contain all sorts of prob- lems,” including “race, white poverty . . . guns, abor- tion, gay marriage,” all of which are clearly “national in scope.” Admitting that, of course, would require addressing them as such, but if a concern can be re- gionalized as simply a “southern issue,” as historian Laura Edwards recently pointed out, “there is no need to tamper with the broader political culture.”20

Vann Woodward suggested that Northerners and Southerners had frequently used each other “in the way Americans have historically used Europe— not only to define their identity and to say what they are not, but to escape in fantasy from what they are.” Thus, when suddenly confronted with “race riots, segregated schools, school-bus burning, and central- city disintegration,” Yankees who began to complain about “the effort to southernize the North” were lit- tle different from “the European intellectual” who, “when something objectionable turns up in his country—super markets, student riots, traffic jams, TV commercials—declares that the place is becom-

A scene from the 2004 documentary NASCAR: The IMAX Experience.

Historically Speaking • September 20108

ing Americanized.”21 The longstanding inclination to view the South

as what Howard Zinn called “an abnormal growth on the national body” may well explain the tendency to cite racial bias in Pennsylvania or hostility to gun control in Ohio as evidence that this regional malig- nancy has now metastasized throughout that “na- tional body.” Such a diagnosis, however, ignores a lengthy history of symptoms indicative not of a re- cent affliction but of a preexisting condition, per- haps because it is only as the South’s distractions have grown steadily fewer and ultimately less dis- tracting that we have become more likely to notice, although not necessarily always to acknowledge, ev- idence of how “southern” America has been all along.22

James C. Cobb is Spalding Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Georgia. This essay is drawn from The South and America since World War II, scheduled for publication in November 2010 by Oxford University Press.

1 Jack P. Greene, Pursuits of Happiness: The Social Development of Early Modern British Colonies and the Formation of American Culture (University of North Carolina Press, 1988), 3-4; Kirkpatrick Sale, Power Shift: The Rise of the Southern Rim and Its Challenge to the Eastern Establishment (Random House, 1975); John Egerton, Americanization of Dixie: Southernization of America (Harper’s Mag- azine Press, 1974).

2 Egerton, Americanization of Dixie, 19.

3 George Packer, “The Decade Nobody Knows,” New York Times Book Review, June 10, 2001.

4 Kathleen Parker, “Them Dang Southerners,”, August 5, 2009, parker/2009/08/05/them_dang_southerners.

5 Michael Lind, “The Southern Coup,” New Republic, June 19, 1995, 29.

6 Peter Applebome, Dixie Rising: How the South Is Shaping American Values, Politics, and Culture (Crown, 1996); Mark Strauss, “Let’s Ditch Dixie: The Case for Northern Secession,”, March 14, 2001, /al/.

7 Applebome, Dixie Rising; Strauss, “Let’s Ditch Dixie.”

8 Michael Hirsh, “How the South Won (This) Civil War: South- ernism is taking over our national dialogue. Maybe it’s time for the North to secede from the Union,”, Web ex- clusive, April 25, 2008,

9 John D. Skrentny, “The White Working Class: Just Who Are These Voters?”, October 1, 2008, z1n1skrentn.html.

10 “For South, a Waning Hold on National Politics,” New York Times, November 11, 2008.

11 Ibid.

12 “The South Just Isn’t What It Was,” St. Petersburg Times, Janu- ary 25, 2009.

13 Harold Myerson, “GOP’s Southern Exposure,” Washington Post, December 7, 2006; Thomas F. Schaller, Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win without the South (Simon & Schuster, 2008), 4, 115.

14 “For South, a Waning Hold.”

15 Ibid.


ization-revisited.html. (as accessed in November 2008); Joshua Zeitz, “Dixie’s Victory,” American Heritage, August/September 2002.

17 Ronald D. Eller, Uneven Ground: Appalachia since 1945 (Univer- sity Press of Kentucky, 2008), 25; Michael O’Brien, “The Ap- prehension of the South in Modern Culture,” Southern Cultures 4 (Winter 1998): 11

18 Joshua I. Newman and Michael D. Giardina, “NASCAR and the ‘Southernization’ of America: Spectatorship, Subjectivity, and the Confederation of Identity,” Cultural Studies, Critical Methodologies 8 (2008): 479, 483.

19 Matthew D. Lassiter and Joseph Crespino, eds., The Myth of Southern Exceptionalism (Oxford University Press, 2009), 9; Jacob Levenson, “Divining Dixie: Is It Another Country? Or a Place To Stow National Problems? A Yankee Journalist Gets Lost and Found in the South,” Columbia Journalism Review, March/April 2004; Houston A. Baker, Jr., and Dana D. Nelson, “Preface: Violence, the Body and ‘The South,’” American Litera- ture 73 (2001): 235; Larry J. Griffin, “Southern Distinctiveness Yet Again or Why America Still Needs the South,” Southern Cul- tures 6 (Fall 2000): 57-58, 68; and C. Vann Woodward, “From the First Reconstruction to the Second,” in Willie Morris, ed., The South Today: 100 Years after Appomattox (Harper & Row, 1965), 14.

20 Levenson, “Divining Dixie”; Laura F. Edwards, “Southern History as U.S. History,” Journal of Southern History 75 (2009): 564.

21 C. Vann Woodward, American Counterpoint: Slavery and Racism in the North-South Dialogue (Little, Brown, 1971), 6; Woodward, “Southern Styles: A Typology,” unpublished manuscript, Box 73, Folder 130, C. Vann Woodward Papers, Sterling Memorial Li- brary, Yale University, New Haven, Conn.

22 Howard Zinn, The Southern Mystique (Knopf, 1964), 218.