The states of the old Confederacy, of the old South, have been for four decades strongholds of GOP politics. Since the 1970s those states have been, with few exceptions (e.g., Virginia), reliably Republican. The GOP depends on Southern voters for national victory. While Republicans tout the forward-looking “conservatism” of Southern senators like Tim Scott of South Carolina, Democrats continuously attempt to chip away at this GOP base, hoping to turn select Southern states blue.
Conservatism in the South now largely mirrors the national Neoconservative vision and its premises of continually expanding rights and equality which have dominated the conservative movement and the GOP in recent years. Interestingly, those positions actually mirror, if somewhat less jarringly, the nostrums of the Left. On Fox News this is the political diet we are continuously fed by pundits like Dinesh D’Souza, Victor Davis Hanson, or Sean Hannity.
Far too many Southerners follow along and accept this vision, and assume it is a seamless expression of their conservative outlook.
But this template overlooks the lack of continuity and discordance between an older conservatism, incorporating traditions of the post-War Between States South, it politics and culture up until roughly the late 1960s, and what is depicted today as “Southern conservatism.”
The task of understanding this confusion and how an older Southern conservatism has indeed been largely transformed has much to do with the fact that good intentions and popular reactions to adverse conditions can sometimes lead to unforeseen results.
How we got here, a comprehension of how we arrived at our present political situation, demands that we understand the lineaments of post-War Between the States history, in particular the choices our ancestors made.
After Appomattox and the other Confederate surrenders, the South, the former Confederate States, experienced first occupation, then Reconstruction. Eventually coming out from under those onerous impositions, in virtual poverty and shorn of most of the political influence that they had prior to the War, most Southerners, naturally, inclined toward the Democratic Party. Indeed, it had been the Democrats, including many in the North, who had either opposed the War on the South, or, at least, advocated more reasonable and, as it were, “softer” policies after the War’s conclusion.
The Republican Party was seen, rightly so, as the party of conquest, of harsh Reconstruction policies, and anti-Southern bigotry. Not that it was in principle necessarily pro-black or favored expansive “civil rights” measures: only when directed at the conquered South were such actions merited, certainly not at home in their Northern bastions.
The South, the states of the former Confederacy, thus became uniformly Democratic strongholds—“the Solid South.” And, growing up in rural North Carolina how many times did I hear my elders declare: “I’d vote for the town drunk if he ran on the Democratic ticket!” Voting straight party became second nature to Southerners; granddad had done so. Indeed, some of us had grandparents even born in the late nineteenth century who knew and heard from their parents about the barbarity and degradations that came after 1865.
Thus, the Democratic Party became a kind of refuge for most Southerners. And Northern Democrats, at least for a goodly part of the century after Appomattox, welcomed them and allowed them to occupy positions of authority. Even under such social liberals as Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, Southern solons in Congress—remember Senators Harry Byrd Sr., Josiah Bailey, Richard Russell, and others, who controlled the US Senate and Senate committees (and thus legislation)—and not to mention the various Southern Congressmen who dominated equally in the House of Representatives—held a considerable amount of power.
Of course, both Northern Democrats and their Southern allies had to find compromise at times. Generally, the Northerners let the South alone in its local governing, as long as Southerners generally supported measures nationally that their brethren advanced. Along with this occasionally troublesome collaboration, Northern Democrats—and Northern folk in general—agreed to let the South celebrate its history and its heroes and its heritage.
As Professor Clyde Wilson and others have described it, the years between the end of the nineteenth century and the election of Lyndon Johnson were a kind of “second era of good feeling” for the South. Southern honor, Southern heroism, Southern history and heritage were celebrated not just in the South, but everywhere in the nation. Summing up the view of most Americans of that period, President Eisenhower spoke admiringly of General Robert E. Lee, and he was in many ways expressing the general view of most Americans of the South back in 1960:
“General Robert E. Lee was, in my estimation, one of the supremely gifted men produced by our Nation. He believed unswervingly in the Constitutional validity of his cause which until 1865 was still an arguable question in America; he was a poised and inspiring leader, true to the high trust reposed in him by millions of his fellow citizens; he was thoughtful yet demanding of his officers and men, forbearing with captured enemies but ingenious, unrelenting and personally courageous in battle, and never disheartened by a reverse or obstacle. Through all his many trials, he remained selfless almost to a fault and unfailing in his faith in God. Taken altogether, he was noble as a leader and as a man, and unsullied as I read the pages of our history.”
But not just on the lips of our national leaders, but in the public imagination, in the popular media, and in Hollywood, the South, and in particular Southerners in the War for Southern Independence, were treated largely with respect, if not outright admiration. Southerners had fought nobly and honorably, and were depicted as such in works of literature, by movie-makers, and by our political leaders.
Hollywood gave us not only a cinematic treatment of Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone With the Wind,” but numerous other pro-Southern and Confederate-friendly films. Who of a certain age cannot recall such major Hollywood products as “Jesse James” (with Tyrone Power and Henry Fonda) and its sequel, “The Return of Frank James”? Or any of several epics starring Errol Flynn (“Santa Fe Trail” and “Rocky Mountain”) or several of the memorable John Ford-directed masterpieces: “Judge Priest,” “The Sun Shines Bright,” and “The Prisoner of Shark Island,” from 1936 (on the brutal and extra-legal imprisonment of Dr. Samuel Mudd after the Lincoln assassination)? And most actors in Western movies—John Wayne, Randolph Scott, Joel McCrea, Audie Murphy, and others—carried the theme of Southern honor and respect into that popular genre.
In fact, in the classic Western I would suggest that there exists a sub-genre which I would call “the Southern Western,” essentially using the War and its aftermath as a plot basis for dozens of films…a trend that has continued in a small way into more recent times with the continued fascination with Jesse James and the Border conflicts (e.g., “The Long Riders,” 1980; “Ride With the Devil,” 1999; “American Outlaws,” 2001; and “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” 2007.)
The great “Civil War Centennial” of 1961-1965, with its commemorations and celebrations, marked the end of the “great bargain” between North and South, a final salute to the South as a noble adversary in “the late Unpleasantness.“
Dramatic changes in American culture and the way many Americans saw themselves in the 1960s and 1970s, would alter Southerners’ attachment to the old Democratic Party and perhaps just as significantly, radically transform the Northern branch of the party into something incompatible with the views of most Southern folk.
But even as late as the 1960s John F. Kennedy had a successful “Southern Strategy” which enabled him to win election in 1960 (with Southern votes), despite his later deviations and the turn-around of President Lyndon Johnson.
But in many ways that was the “last hurrah” for the “solid Democratic South.” The rise of Goldwater Republicanism, Kevin Phillips’ “Southern Strategy” (outlined most notably in his 1969 book, The Emerging Republican Majority), and the emergence of the avowedly conservative Ronald Reagan in 1976 and 1980, signaled the final demise of the second era of good feeling. Phillips worked closely with President Richard Nixon, and outlined his plan to win the South (and Middle America) for a newly-christened “conservative” and victorious GOP. And by the ‘70s, and more like a tidal-wave in the 198os, conservative Southerners turned Franklin Roosevelt’s picture to the wall and became Republicans (at least in their voting habits). The solid Democratic South would continue to be “solid,” but not Democrat.
Increasingly, in the years even before the election of George W. Bush in 2000, signs of unease and doubt arose among a few more thoughtful Southerners. Yes, the GOP paid initial lip-service to traditional values and commonly-held views which most Southerners shared. But in action many leaders of the Republican Party, including a new crop of home-grown Southern GOP politicos (think here of Senators Graham and Scott of the thoroughly “red” state of South Carolina), had traveled much further to the definable political and social Left, further than many Southern folk realized, even as many blindly followed along.
“I’d vote for the town drunk if he ran on the…Republican…ticket!” And how many times do we hear: “I HAVE to vote for the GOP candidate, even if he is terrible, since the Democrat is even worse”?)
It should have been apparent when Graham urged the removal of Confederate symbols from the South Carolina Capitol (“The flag had to come down. And thank God it has!”), or when he (and other Southern GOP leaders) essentially endorsed same sex marriage. But Graham is just the tip of the iceberg of political chameleons who have inveigled far too many Southern conservatives.
Influenced profoundly by the remnants of a zealous Trotskyite globalism and its radical commitment to an expansive concept of “equal civil rights” (same sex marriage, transgenderism, etc. are now increasingly acceptable among conservative elites), and by a constant diet of Neoconservative commentary spouted by Fox News, Newsmax, and so-called “conservative” talk radio, incorporating that template, in large part Southern Republicanism and establishment Southern “conservatives” have become indistinguishable from their Northern brethren.
How many times each day do we hear representatives of what Old Right scholar Paul Gottfried calls “Con Inc.”—Establishment Conservatism—praise the legacy of radical Frederick Douglass or the “vision” of Communist-inspired Martin Luther King Jr.? A Mark Levin and Brian Kilmeade on Fox, Rich Lowry at National Review, Michael Anton and cohorts at the Claremont Institute, Larry Arnn at Hillsdale College—you take your pick: they all condemn the historic South, its traditions and heritage. They all accept a warmed-over and refashioned post-Marxist globalism and expansive view of “rights,” even if they also support Donald Trump.
It’s a vision that has no room for Confederate tradition and symbols. It’s a vision that has led almost all Southern Republican solons in Congress to vote to do away with names of American military installations and forts if they bear the names of Confederate generals (or slaveholders).
It is, in fact, a Neo-Reconstruction, this time led by our supposed defenders who came to power when the old Democrat Party went bad. But, as we now find, the Leopard has not changed its spots. Despite all the pious campaign promises for this and for that, despite the soothing words of assurance and the pledges to defend what is left of our traditions and heritage, slowly at first and now more rapidly, our reputed defenders have, when not poisoning progressively our minds and outlook, delivered us over to those very enemies, those very forces that seek our elimination and extermination.
I never tire of quoting the great Southern writer, Robert Lewis Dabney’s superb description of “establishment conservatives,” written 140 years ago, but absolutely applicable today.
Here is what he wrote:
“This is a party [established conservativism] which never conserves anything. Its history has been that it demurs to each aggression of the progressive party, and aims to save its credit by a respectable amount of growling, but always acquiesces at last in the innovation. What was the resisted novelty of yesterday is to-day one of the accepted principles of conservatism; it is now conservative only in affecting to resist the next innovation, which will to-morrow be forced upon its timidity, and will be succeeded by some third revolution, to be denounced and then adopted in its turn. American conservatism is merely the shadow that follows Radicalism as it moves forward towards perdition. It remains behind it, but never retards it, and always advances near its leader. This pretended salt hath utterly lost its savor: wherewith shall it he salted? Its impotency is not hard, indeed, to explain. It is worthless because it is the conservatism of expediency only, and not of sturdy principle. It intends to risk nothing serious, for the sake of the truth, and has no idea of being guilty of the folly of martyrdom. It always—when about to enter a protest—very blandly informs the wild beast whose path it essays to stop, that its ‘bark is worse than its bite,’ and that it only means to save its manners by enacting its decent rôle of resistance. The only practical purpose which it now subserves in American politics is to give enough exercise to Radicalism to keep it ‘in wind,’ and to prevent its becoming pursy and lazy from having nothing to whip.”
How true, how prescient, how totally and equally valid today in 2021.
Until Southerners conscious of their heritage and traditions comprehend what has and is occurring, until they—we—become far more discerning and willing to stand forth and demand an accounting, the same rot, the same inevitable hemorrhaging, the same putrefaction of the South we love, the South we remember, the South now rapidly slipping away, will continue. The efforts of such enterprises as The Abbeville Institute, Clyde Wilson’s Reckonin.com, journals such as Chronicles Magazine are laudable and to be strongly encouraged, but they are still far from being well known.
Every Southerner aware of who he is—“remembering who we are,” to use the late Mel Bradford’s phrase”—should become a true missionary for a re-conversion of “our people” before that becomes an impossibility in the Behemoth State we now inhabit.
The pro-Southern poet Robert Lee Frost, in his poem “The Black Cottage,” sums up both our hope and our task:
“For, dear me, why abandon a belief
Merely because it ceases to be true.
Cling to it long enough, and not a doubt
It will turn true again, for so it goes.
Most of the change we think we see in life
Is due to truths being in and out of favour.
As I sit here, and oftentimes, I wish
I could be monarch of a desert land
I could devote and dedicate forever
To the truths we keep coming back and back to.”
That must be our task, our role: to keep alive our heritage, our past, our memory, to rededicate ourselves “to the truths we keep coming back and back to.”