This essay is a re-run of a blog entry of almost a decade ago about the Southernization of American politics. See 538 to see how bad this is becoming today.
There is a map making the rounds of the Internet showing the match-up of the slave states and states open to slavery in pre-Civil War America and the 2004 electoral results of today.
The match-up of the slavery and 'thinking about it' states and today's political map has been noted before. We can make too much of this match-up; the Democrats came close in many of the newly-colored red states and may yet prevail.
Still, the wages of slavery, segregation, and racial politics post-segregation shape too much of our politics in the U.S. of today and it's not clear, at least to me, how we can bring this sorry history to an end.
As I see it, the narrow focus on the role played by moral values and religion in the recent unpleasantness of our national election is misleading. If we are to understand politics in the South and the nation today, the critical point is to acknowledge how the experience of slavery and segregation first shaped and deformed religion and morality and our poisoned ideas about equality and social justice in many parts of the nation, America on a dangerous drift toward permanent racial enmity and suspicion.
Trump channeled this keening resentment without knowing much at all about its historical roots.
This pattern repeated across the South. Evangelical churches surrendered to the white-identity religion of the South and became pro-slavery, preaching a kind of cultural identity separate from the north and the rest of the world.
The effect of the War and Reconstruction did little to alter this religious racism and the politics of a white cultural identity.
John Egerton in his wonderful 1974 book The Americanization of Dixie and the Southernization of America argued that while the South exported this white racism to adjacent states the greater truth is that slavery and segregation created a national identity politics of white backlash throughout the nation.
Recall that the Brown vs. Board of Education case was centrally about Topeka, Kansas and not just about schools in the Deep South. Recall also how the politics of busing fueled so much of the Republican's political success.
George Lipsitz, in his harrowing book, The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit from Identity Politics, shows how so much of the battles over fair housing, equal financing of local schools, busing, taxes, and jobs contain a powerful racial undercurrent of white identity politics. At bottom, this a politics of fear, a fear that there won’t be enough to go around and that middle class and working class whites are determined not to be the ones left at the end of the line with nothing to show for it.
The rich can afford to isolate themselves from most of the turbulence of American society) And behind this fear is this endless and silent refrain of, “Thank God I’m white,” the name of an Irish song that was on a jukebox in a bar I used to drink in, in Washington, D.C.
It is this war to defend the advantages of “whiteness” and not whiteness itself that was callously exploited by Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan as their party invaded the South to drive the nails into the coffin of the Democrats’ Great Society with its future promise of universal health care and a more activist supervision of the economy. (The Democrats, for their part, had pretty much finished off the Great Society with Vietnam.)
The Southern Strategy changed the party of Lincoln into the vanguard of racial politics and traditional values, issues exploited by the corporate rich who rule the Republicans much like the rich slave-owners exploited the same issues to keep the poor whites from joining up with blacks and taking over at election day.
This is less a politics of overt racism than a politics of fear invented for the explicit purpose for preventing a class politics from getting a permanent foothold in the U.S.
It is no surprise then that today many evangelicals and religious fundamentalists practice a religion that carefully ignores the powerful biblical cries against slavery in the Exodus story and the long years of exile in Babylon, and that demands compassion for the alien and the stranger. If ever a people were subject to exile and slavery it has been African Americans.
Moralism coupled with military supremacy and a bellicose patriotism has become the lethal and intolerant civil religion for far too many of us. The mainstream denominations in their national offices are much more active in battling that racism and the resistance to wider equality but locally their pews remain lily-white and often free of gays and lesbians and the poor while their pastors studiously avoid talking about all of this.
I have lived through one of the most astounding transformations of the plight of the African-American in the U.S., a transformation that cannot be denied. White racial identity politics today has morphed into so much else that stands for our “values;” yet it is this fervid and largely unspoken defense of the advantages of ‘whiteness’ that is the one big fault line that stands between the U.S. and what Martin Luther King, Jr. called "The Beloved Community."
In the early 1990s, I was in Berlin on the first anniversary of the taking down of the Wall; there must have been a million people standing along the Unter den Linden out to the Brandenburg Gate. I thought about the German people who had so much to repent for, and who had, as an act of massive repentance, decided to spend a fortune bringing East Germany into the German Republic on a more equal economic and social footing with West Germany and not just a political one.
I got the sense from my many meetings with leaders in the healthcare field there that the Germans were entering this time with their eyes wide open to the dangers of their past of a politics of race and national identity, a politics that if it returned would probably ruin Germany forever. That courageous political repentance occurred when all the major parties of Germany stood together to face the future fearlessly.
What depresses me is that I cannot imagine both parties of the United States finally standing together to begin closing our yawning political chasm and fault line, one into which all of our hopes constantly fall. Instead, and throughout our history, the two major political parties and the minor ones take turns in dragging us back to a politics that is at bottom mostly about white identity, a politics of keeping our eyes wide shut to our past, a past that is, as Faulkner said, not only not dead, it is not even past.