On the Rise of the (Deep) Southern Oligarchy

The Southern oligarchy has been taking a beating in the blogosphere this week, and it seems I’m partly to blame.

Sara Robinson, editor of AlterNet’s Visions section, put out this post on the Southern aristocracy’s nefarious influence on current American politics and society last week, which was cross-posted at Salon this past weekend, where it currently has over 3000 Facebook “likes.”

Drawing on Michael Lind’s Made in Texas, David Hackett Fisher’s Albion’s Seed and my own American Nations, Robinson argues that – on account of the rise of Dixie in national politics — the United States is increasingly being run like an old Southern slave plantation.

“The rich are different now,” she writes,

because the elites who spent four centuries sucking the South dry and turning it into an economic and political backwater have now vanquished the more forward-thinking, democratic Northern elites. Their attitudes towards freedom, authority, community, government, and the social contract aren’t just confined to the country clubs of the Gulf Coast; they can now be found on the ground from Hollywood and Silicon Valley to Wall Street. And because of that quiet coup, the entire US is now turning into the global equivalent of a Deep South state.

Those familiar with American Nations – or at least with my recent feature in this magazine– won’t be surprised to learn that I agree with the central thrust of Robinson’s argument. The radicalization of the Republican Party in recent years has a lot to do with it having been taken over by Deep Southerners like Trent Lott and Newt Gingrich, Dick Armey and George W. Bush, Haley Barbour and Jim DeMint. The central policy goals of Tea Party Republicanism mirror those of the Deep Southern elite: rollback federal power, environmental, labor, and consumer protection laws, and taxes on capital and the wealthy. It’s a program one never would have seen in the days when the GOP was run by Yankee – read “Greater New Englander” – figures like Teddy Roosevelt or George Bush the senior.

That said, Robinson’s effort to shorthand American regionalism as a struggle between two elites – those of Yankeedom and Dixie — led to a few errors which the wonk in me can’t help but point out.

First, it’s not entirely true that, “for most of our history, American economics, culture and politics have been dominated by a New England-based Yankee aristocracy…rooted in Puritan communitarian values, educated at the Ivies and marinated in an ethic of noblesse oblige…” That Yankee elite held sway over our fractured federation during the presidency of John Adams and in the period from the Civil War to the early post-World War II era, but aristocrats from the Chesapeake country generally ran the show in the Early Republic, and Woodrow Wilson, Harry Truman, Eisenhower, L.B.J., Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan were neither Yankees nor Deep Southerners. (Wilson, whom Robinson casts as a wonky Yankee intellectual, was raised in Appalachian Virginia and introduced racial segregation to federal agencies.)

Secondly, there’s a big difference between the Deep South – which indeed champions those “plantation” vales – and “the South” as the term is usually understood. Fact is there are three southern regional cultures, each with their own founding ideals, elite characteristics, and founding values. (I encourage readers to consult this map of the regional cultures today.)

When it comes to noblesse oblige, it’s hard to outmatch George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and the other Enlightenment-influenced aristocrats of the Chesapeake region (a.k.a. Tidewater), a regional culture whose origins, ethnography, and founding ideals were distinct from that of the Deep South.

As for the “upland South” — better understood as part of a Greater Appalachia stretching from south-Central Pennsylvania to the Hill Country of Texas and the Missouri Ozarks – it was a region hostile to the aristocracy and plantation system of the Deep South and the “common good” reasoning underpinning Greater New England’s understanding of what “freedom” and “liberty” really meant. Indeed, a central thrust of Lind’s argument in Made in Texas is that there is a regional basis to Texan politics, with the progressive strain (personified by L.B.J and Ralph Yarborough) having come from what I would call its “Greater Appalachian” section.

The “north” is similarly divided. While dominated by Greater New England (or “Yankeedom”), it also includes a swath of territory that is not at all supportive of Utopian government missions. The Quaker-founded, multiethnic Midlands (again, see that map) are the great swing region of our national politics precisely because they reject both “plantation” politics and the Yankee faith in public institutions.

So, yes, American politics has been under the increasing influence of the elite of a southern region, but it’s a deep southern one.

Colin Woodard

Colin Woodard is State and National Affairs Writer at the Portland Press Herald / Maine Sunday Telegram and author of American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America.