On American Political Identity

In a recent column in the Washington Post, Harold Meyerson – one of the most prominent voices for labor and civil rights in mainstream American discourse – lets fly with both barrels on the issue of political identity:

…the Southern problem, it turns out, is really the Republicans’. They’ve become too Southern — too suffused with the knee-jerk militaristic, anti-scientific, dogmatically religious, and culturally, sexually and racially phobic attitudes of Dixie — to win friends and influence elections outside the South.

There was a time – there have been many times, in fact – when this sort of rhetoric was not uncommon in American discourse. But I only know this because I am a student of history – it has been quite some time since prominent voices were willing to so forthrightly speak of America’s “southern problem.” Meyerson, however, is not content to simply diagnose the specific policy manifestations of the Southern problem – he finishes his column by cutting right to the core:

So: A Southern low-wage labor system is cruising along until it seeks to expand outside its region and meets fierce opposition from higher-paid workers in the North. Does that suggest any earlier episode in American history? The past, as William Faulkner once wrote of the South, isn’t even past. And now the persistence of Southern identity has become a bigger problem for Republicans than it is for Democrats.

This is, I think it is fair to say, stunning. But it’s also encouraging. The more honest we can be about what the real issues are in our political discourse, the better.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, most of the commentary in response to Meyerson’s column – even among liberals who generally agree with the meta-message – tags him as painting with far too broad a brush. The Mahablog, however, seems to get it, and puts the column in the larger context of American identity.

The important thing to understand here is that essentialization is what a successful national politics is all about – and isn’t always a bad thing. Given the wide variation in day-to-day life among the citizens of any country nearly as large as the United States, it’s literally impossible to articulate a politics that addresses what even a plurality of citizens would independently identify as those issues most important to their lives. So mass political movements operate by using heuristics that they can count on voters unpacking in ways that make sense to them.

The Southern Strategy is an example of a particularly noxious set of heuristics; the terror-wrangling of the last few years is another. Until a month ago, these were quite successful heuristics (and one still works in Tennessee); but is there really any doubt that the “knee-jerk militaristic, anti-scientific, dogmatically religious, and culturally, sexually and racially phobic” shoe fits? And that it’s no longer so flattering a fashion?

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One Response to On American Political Identity

  1. Manfred says:

    Hmm. You know I am usually reluctant to jump on the south as being the great poster boy for everything “backward” with America.

    But Meyerson’s quote touches on two things (maybe more) that are true across the U.S., but ESPECIALLY in the south: 1) the persistence of a set of productive relations that are inappropriate for an advanced industrialized nation and 2) a curious relationship with politicized violence.

    The two are related: the “folksy” guns and revenge stories of Appalachia and the Delta are the products of first the great divide between poor whites and the whites of plantations, mountains vs. flatlands; the cruelty central to slavery and to blacks’ only partial emancipation; then the great turmoil of the old mining companies (and later their withdrawal); and now the violence that lingers in a region that churns out America’s soldiers and must reintegrate their shattered psyches into society when they return from Afghanistan and Iraq.

    Right wing Christianity, with its unconditional support for Republican military adventures abroad and the death penalty at home (and tacit support, sometimes, of anti-abortion and anti-gay extremists) and its near-complete denial of the necessity of social justice is like a glue here.

    In a landscape where chicken plants and massive factory-like farms alienate some (increasingly, immigrants) and where a tenuous McMansion dream bobbing on a swell of alienation leaves its lucky few uneasy, the religious right answers with a hard, unforgiving edge and with veiled violence. It embraces, in a way, the south’s conditions.

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