Opinion > The South: The Present Past

| April 11, 2015

An English Perspective on US Regional Politics and Demographics

Economist 2

The Economist

For something that ended 150 years ago on April 9th, America’s civil war is strangely newsworthy. Last month the Supreme Court heard a case that asked whether Texas should allow the Sons of Confederate Veterans to put a Confederate flag on their car licence-plates, and two white students were expelled from the University of Oklahoma for singing a song about lynching taught to them by a fraternity founded in the antebellum South.

Many Americans remain fascinated by the conflict. In 2002 the Library of Congress estimated that 70,000 books had been published about it, more than one a day since the war ended. This year at Appomattox courthouse in Virginia 1,000 volunteers will dress up to re-enact the surrender there of General Robert E. Lee.

Events to mark the anniversary will take place around the country. At Andersonville in Georgia, the site of a Confederate prison camp, a funeral will be held later in the year for the 13,000 Union soldiers who died there of starvation and disease. “With battlefield sites there is some glory for both sides,” says Stephanie Steinhorst, who works for the National Parks Service in Andersonville. “But there’s not much glory in a prison camp.”

Yet the war is more than an excuse for dressing up. It created a divide that has yet to disappear. For all the economic dynamism of the South, which over the past few decades has almost caught up with the rest of the country economically (see article), it remains a region apart, from the bedroom to the ballot box. If you know whether a state was part of the Confederacy, it is possible to make a reasonably accurate guess about where it stands on a range of seemingly unconnected matters, from party politics to gay marriage.

In the autumn of 2014, when control of the Senate was decided in the mid-term elections, one of the best ways to predict the outcome was to look up the results of the presidential election of 1860. Then the North backed Abraham Lincoln, the Republican, who would end slavery and fight to preserve the Union. The South voted for John Breckinridge, a pro-slavery Southern Democrat. In 2014 all but one of the 11 states that had been members of the Confederacy chose a senator (Florida being the exception.) Nearly all voted once again for the same party—only this time it was the Republicans.

Economist

Old times there are not forgotten

Today, only five states have no minimum-wage laws; all were Confederate 150 years ago. Of the ten states that lock up the highest proportion of their citizens, seven were Confederate. A further two that make the top ten—Oklahoma and Arizona—were created since 1865 and settled in the late 19th century by southerners escaping the depression that followed defeat. In only 12 states do most residents think abortion should be illegal in all or most cases. Five were in the Confederacy.

That a war that cost over 600,000 lives should leave scars is unsurprising. The equivalent death toll today, adjusting for population growth, would be 6m. Michael Barone, author of a book on how migration shaped America, writes that his great-grandfather explained his vote for the Republicans in 1944 by saying, “The Confederates burned our barn.” What is strange is that the line that divided the Union from the Confederacy should still be so visible (see maps), even though the South has long since been transformed by civil rights and air conditioning.

Does race explain the persistence of difference? This may have been true in the 1960s and 1970s, when the Republicans energetically wooed southern white Democrats who were outraged by Lyndon Johnson’s civil-rights laws. But it no longer fits. The most segregated schools are now in the north-east. Mixed-race marriages are growing faster in some southern states than anywhere else in America. Violent mistrust between black citizens and white police officers is more a northern problem than a southern one.

Religion is a better explanation of southern exceptionalism. The civil war divided most of America’s Protestant sects, says Mark Noll of the University of Notre Dame. Both the Presbyterian and Methodist churches split into northern branches, which opposed slavery, and southern branches, which did not. Even after slavery ended, theological divisions persisted. In the north, which saw mass immigration from all over the world in the decades after the war, Protestant churches had to find some accommodation with Jews, Catholics and, eventually, non-believers.

In the South the share of those born outside America (which was low to begin with) actually fell after the civil war. New migrants moved west or north but rarely south. Because of this, southern churches could hold more traditional views without challenge. Those tented revival meetings that were such a feature of southern Protestantism were not intended to win converts so much as to purify and strengthen beliefs that were already there.

The Southern Baptist movement, which is strongly associated with the “values voters” who favour the Republicans, has its origins in support for slavery. Southern Baptists have long since updated their views on race, as the many black Southern Baptist pastors attest, but the movement’s social conservatism endures. And southerners are unusually observant: Utah is the only non-southern state where church attendance is as high as in Dixie.

When piety is grafted on to a small-government political philosophy—57% of southerners think the government does “too much” and only 37% think it should do more, according to Gallup—it explains much of why the South remains different. The link between the war and the appeal of the Reagan revolution is harder to make, but it is not implausible that antipathy towards the federal government may be connected to the loss of a quarter of all white male southerners aged 16 to 45, who were maimed or killed in a war against it.

If this is right, then there are two possible futures for what was once the Confederacy. The continuing in-migration of large numbers of northerners, including many African-Americans, may transform the rest of the South the way it has already transformed Virginia and Florida, which are both swing states these days. Or the South might continue to expand its cultural and religious reach westwards, as it has into Oklahoma, Arizona and New Mexico. Or both. Apologists for the old South like to point out that the last action of the war, a skirmish in Texas, resulted in a Confederate victory. It’s not over yet.

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