Note: Let me begin by saying my recent lack of posting is inexcusable! But here's my excuse: my wife and I just moved back into downtown Washington D.C., and I've been living out of cardboard boxes for the last week. Now, back to your regularly scheduled BTM programming...
There was a poll over at Daily Kos yesterday showing continued strong public support for a public health insurance option. The poll breaks the stats out by region (Northeast, Midwest, West, and South). Three of the four regions are very supportive of the public option. I will let you guess which one is not supportive. Hint: The region rhymes with "mouth," is listed in the title of this post, and many claim it "will rise again."
In the poll, the South is about evenly split between favoring and opposing the public option, but Southerners say they are more likely to support a politician who opposes the public option than one who supports it. The South playing the outlier in the health care reform debate goes largely unnoticed because the South is consistently so unprogressive on so many issues that we take it for granted. Liberals who take notice of something like this will often simply launch into old-fashioned South bashing.
I'm not interested in bashing the South. I grew up in and love the South. When I was a kid I tried to come up with a theory proving that south was inherently, unexplainably better than north. (The theory hinged on my understanding that in both the Korean and Vietnam Wars, it was the southerners of those countries who were the good guys and the northerners who were the bad guys.) And though I now reside in Union territory, I still "wanna live with my feet in Dixie," as one of my favorite songs puts it.
But I would like people to really stop and think about why the South is so damned "conservative." This is something that ought to be discussed. And I'm not talking about "family values." I'm talking about the actual heart of politics: power--who has it, and what they do with it.
I don't claim to understand every reason the South is so far to the right of the rest of the country. But I'm pretty confident about one reason, and I think it's probably the main reason.
People divided against themselves are easily conquered, and the South's history is a story of a great division running through the middle of society. It's not just slavery that I'm talking about; it's the culture that the slavery system perpetuated. Even when that system was technically ended, the Southern status quo depended on maintaining that division. For generations, Blacks and Whites were taught, in a thousand different ways both intentionally and not, to fear and resent one another.
I've written before about how people clinging to great power and wealth at the expense of others must turn one group of the public against another over and over again. This is one of the never-ending tasks of conservative political strategy, and it can sometimes be difficult to manufacture resentments that will divide people. But in the South, that work was done a long time ago, and it is still paying off (literally) for conservatives.
The South's poverty, low unionization rates, unequal income distribution, low "social capital," low Human Development Index scores, and strong support for conservative Republican candidates can all be tied back to the slavery system and its social legacy. After a recent trip down South, where my wife talked politics with some family and friends, she said to me, "Politics is so 'us against them" down there." She's right. Whether "they" are black people, atheists, Muslims, the coastal cultural elite, or "the illegals," politics in the South pits one group of working people against another. That has been the Republican recipe for power for a generation and the heart of their so-called "Southern Strategy." The goal has been to divert people's energy away from genuine reforms to the system and into division and social issues that have zero effect on rich people's money (prayer in school, flag lapel pins, the Ten Commandments hung in this or that court house).
Am I saying that the South generally opposes a public health insurance option because of slavery's legacy? Yes. The kind of conservatism made possible by social division in the South makes the region an outlier on almost every political question.
If there's a happy ending here, I think it is simply that the "us against them" conservatism of the South is dying the same long, slow death that slavery's legacy is dying. The deep divisions between Blacks and Whites, which first served the slave masters and then served the Southern capitalists and conservatives, cannot last forever. Conservatives will always create new divisions to exploit (see "the illegals"), but as I said earlier, it's not always easy for them. The force that compels people of all colors and creeds to come together to improve their lives--whether it's bargaining for a living wage at work, creating a public health insurance option to compete with local private insurance monopolies, or cleaning up the river so their kids can swim in it--is a strong one, and it can't be held back forever. Virginia and North Carolina recently gave their votes to a progressive Democrat and African-American for president. That is the result of great changes that have already taken place down South, but I think it's also sign that deeper, more lasting changes are possible.