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The Silver Bullet That Will Create A Progressive South Doesn’t Exist



There are a couple comments to Paul’s post about Rick Hills’s “don’t talk about the racist flag” argument that bear citing.

First, from Tyro:

The entirety of post-Civil War history in the USA has been about the idea that letting the south hold on to their “heritage” and looking the other way regarding the consequences, instead of “naming and shaming” would be better for everyone. And after 150 years, the problems persist. Time to find another solution.

And second, from Abagail Nussbaum:

It is surely trivially, obviously true that you will not change hearts and minds by telling people “your culture is bad and you should feel bad.” Especially in a culture that already so coddles white people’s self-image, the possibility of this message being seen as anything other than an attack to be defended against is nonexistent. I have to say, looking at it from the outside, I’ve found the focus on the Confederate flag, understandable as it is, rather self-defeating. It seems to be more about self-gratification and taking out some amount of the terrible anger aroused by this massacre than any actual progress towards ensuring that nothing like it ever happens again.

Having said all that, is there any reason to believe that changing hearts and minds is even on the menu? It would be comforting to think that the one good thing to come out of this horror would be some real change, but I actually think the lesson from it is going to be that the political and social will to make that change doesn’t exist. (I saw someone online make the same point about Sandy Hook – if the murders of first-graders made no difference to the US’s commitment to arming itself to death, nothing ever will.) So why not burn flags and wave bloody shirts in the faces of people who would like to believe that they’re the real victims of a system that benefits them disproportionately? You won’t change their minds, but you might make some of the more open-minded people listening realize just what sort of world they’re living in.

There are a variety of reasons why I don’t like persistent arguments that if there was only some way of declaring a “truce” in the culture war then a natural progressive coalition on economic issues would finally emerge throughout the country. First of all — although, to be clear, I don’t think this is what Hillis means — issues like “silly women and their trivial reproductive rights” have a tendency to get subsumed in the “culture war” issues liberals are urged to abandon.

But Tyro really gets to the heart of the matter. The brutal truth is that most of American political history is an experiment in seeing what will happen if national political elites agree not to offend white supremacist Southern white men. The New Deal coalition agreed to take civil rights off the table from FDR until briefly Truman and then JFK, and the result was after a brief period of supporting (threadbare) national welfare state policies (that largely excluded African-Americans) during a period of particularly acute deprivation, Southern Democrats happily joined with Republicans to thwart economic reforms and pass Taft-Hartley with a veto-proof majority. Republicans took civil rights off the table by 1891, and in the resulting context Albama’s constitution was basically written by timber companies. The Jacksonian party system was essentially organized to take slavery off the table, and during this period the Southern Democrats who dominated the federal government largely had reactionary economic views.

I dunno, maybe at some point we have to consider the possibility that a lot of non-super-affluent white Americans, particularly outside of the northern coasts and upper midwest, have conservative economic views, or at least persistently vote for people with conservative economic policies for reasons that can’t be easily boiled down to culture war distractions. 1.2% of Kansas’s population is African-American,* and yet a majority of its electorate liked draconian spending cuts and tax increases on the poor to fund huge tax cuts for the wealthy so much they voted for more. I’m not saying that we should despair of this ever changing. But by the same token, the idea that “a cross-racial rural coalition rooted in church and guns” will emerge if we can only find the right kind of clever false-consciousness destroying rhetorical strategy is, at this late date, implausible in the extreme.

Does this mean that I think that drawing attention to the ugly history of the Confederate flag will lead to progressive economic outcomes in South Carolina either? No, but the history is true, and I think the burden of proof is always on those who want to deny the truth. And nor am I inclined to tell the multiracial coalition in South Carolina protesting against the Confederate flag that they should stop paying attention to mere white supremacist symbolism and focus on Real Issues.

*xq in comments is correct: I misread the chart.  The correct figure is 6.2%.  Since this is well below the national average I don’t think this materially affects my point, although on this narrow point Idaho or Utah would be better examples.

But the broader point about Kansas, and the reason I cited it, is that I don’t think anyone can reasonably say that the 2014 election came out the way it did because of “culture war” “distractions.”  Economic policy was the focus of Brownback’s first term.  It was the salient issue in the elections.  He signed legislation representing an extreme form of conservative Republicanism, it couldn’t have worked out any worse, and he won anyway.  It’s just very difficult to square this election with the idea that if some issues arbitrarily designated as “culture war” issues are boiled off a natural liberal majority would emerge.


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