In my song, I discussed the dualities of being from a region that is known for great music and literature and art and something called “Southern hospitality,” but is also known for Jim Crow laws, slavery, racism and the Ku Klux Klan. I talked about being fiercely proud of the good parts of my heritage and mortified and ashamed of the bad parts, the ones that too often define how other people perceive us.
Most thought and writing concerning the South and its history, including my own, references the Southern tradition, singular. While “tradition” in this sense generally always means the conservative tradition, it is a bit of a misnomer; at least, it simplifies the subject to a degree which can hamper proper delineation of Left and Right. In reality, the intelligent Southerner today who is not sui generis has essentially two traditions from which he can choose without losing much Southern or traditionalist credibility.
The great centuries-long battle for the preservation of the Southern worldview is normally framed as the South vs. the North, Southern whites vs. Southern blacks, or maybe the South vs. the Western World. I assert that the true conflict is better framed as Southern liberalism vs. Southern conservatism, or more properly labelled Southern Leftism vs. Southern Rightism, in which outside forces in nearly every instance support the former. This frame is more historically illuminating and also discourages the mistaken belief, common to Right-leaning Southerners, that the South itself is not susceptible to the ever tempting and false promises of Leftism.
The Southern liberal tradition can be traced from Thomas Jefferson and John Taylor on through Hinton Helper, Cassius Clay, Andrew Johnson, the New South, Harper Lee, LBJ, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton; today ably represented by such as Rod Dreher, Patterson Hood and Lindsay Graham. The driving impulse behind Southern liberals has always been to reform Southern society (to varying degrees) along Progressivist lines, usually by using mainstream American society as a guiding light. These are generally lite-Leftists; they recognize much of the craziness inherent to high-test Leftism as well as much of the good inherent to Rightism. They are idealistic and intelligent but refrain from radicalism. Generally their stated motivation is to “save the South from itself,” which in practice means to destroy the very things that make the South Southern.
They primarily err in that their chosen reforms of Southern society inevitably chip away at the foundation which gives the South its benevolent and noble qualities. (Sometimes this acknowledged goodness is unspoken, but is evidenced by the fact that many Southern liberals never move out of the South, or do and end up returning.) The few Southern radicals are generally driven by an excessive urge to stand out from their somewhat homogenous surroundings – to gain the detached haughty aura of the iconoclast.
The Southern liberal tradition occupies a strange position on the American political spectrum. They are nearly always a minority within the South, but consistently win because they have the undying support of mainstream American society. Southern liberals act as a sort of proxy forward guard for the campaign to Americanize the South. Sans the Southern liberal tradition, USG would likely have had to utilize much more autocratic methods in its governance of the South if it hoped to effect any cultural reforms at all.
Where perhaps Southern liberals do their most harm is when they normalize inherently anti-Southern beliefs for their fellow Southerners, which confuses the heretofore beneficial prejudicial impulse. This has reached its apex in recent times, as it’s becoming increasingly acceptable for plebeian and proletarian Southerners to support racial equality, women’s rights, and (to a lesser degree) homosexual normality, among other Progressive pillars. This has the effect of lowering the line of demarcation which separates lower-class prejudicial impulses from the middle-class tendency to fall in with the mainstream, ensuring the downward spiral of Rightist marginalization.
On the other hand, there is the Southern conservative tradition. It has always been the dominant force within Southern society itself. As with all conservative impulses, it is mostly prejudicial – but the prejudices by which it is characterized have generally been beneficial, because they were sourced from the dominant characteristics of the Old South civilization. Since the Revolutionary period, Southern conservatives were generally composed of the aristocrats and the proletariat, the former due to vested interest in the status quo, the latter due to aforementioned prejudice. The intellectual tradition of Southern Rightism was most ably set down by the antebellum “Reactionary Enlightenment” figures, then more or less continued by the Southern Agrarians, Richard Weaver, ME Bradford, and Clyde Wilson. Political representatives include John C. Calhoun, Jefferson Davis, Wade Hampton III, and George Wallace.
The conflict between the Southern Right and Left has passed through fairly distinct phases, which it is necessary to outline here in order to assist with the occasionally difficult identification of the different elements. These phases also demonstrate my assertion that to attempt to reform only “bad” aspects of Southern culture inevitably leads to unintended and wholesale transformation of Southern society towards the distasteful American mainstream.
From the Revolutionary War to the Civil War, the point of contention was, of course, slavery. Southern liberals found the system either immoral or inefficient, and generally expressed a desire for gradual emancipation and/or slave repatriation to Africa. However, they failed to provide anything like a concrete plan for the attainment of these goals, and almost without exception found the Garrisonian abolitionists fanatical and unsavory. Late antebellum was the sole period in which the Southern Rightist element almost wholly dictated Southern policy and thought, and the liberal element was duly marginalized. The Reactionary Enlightenment was the purest expression of Southern Rightist thought ever put forth; it, of course, being relegated to seeming obsolescence by Civil War defeat.
From the Civil War until World War Two, the conflict shifted to industrialism vs. agrarianism, and populism vs. aristocratical elitism. Southern liberals now possessed the material and political support of Northern demagogues and capitalists, and the New South slowly ground down opposition to its Progressive vision for Southern society. It is worth noting that almost every Southern liberal of the antebellum period would have reckoned this development as an almost unqualified evil. Class warfare, hitherto unknown, was introduced; Southern cities became home to the newly empowered bourgeois element, and lost no time in developing a capitalist character unknown to the Old South.
Between World War Two and the 1970s, the conflict again shifted, now to the question of racial equality and integration; again, an agenda that would have horrified and dismayed the Southern liberals of the previous period. Contrary to popular belief, Southern conservatives were able to mount only token resistance to the Civil Rights movement, as integration came about quietly and smoothly throughout most of the South. In some ways, this second Reconstruction was the final chance for the Southern conservatives to utilize widespread popular support to regain control over Southern society; but in reality, this avenue had been doomed a hundred years prior.
Today, the battle between Southern Leftism and Rightism has reached a strange sort of stalemate. The conservative element is almost wholly restricted to the small rural communities which dot the countryside; few urban areas in the geographical South maintain any recognizable Southerness. While this element has lost nearly all power to influence the direction of the greater South, it has also developed defenses which inhibit gross Progressivization to a great degree. These defenses are often the very things which prevent greater influence over the direction of society, but that is another topic which needs further exploration.
The convolution which has characterized Southern history must be reckoned in the proper light if we hope to use history to inform our views for the present and plans for the future. It is all too easy for today’s Rightist Southerners to blame the North, the US Government, blacks, the Jews, or the greater direction of the Occident for our present predicament, but in reality the crux of the battle has always been in our hands. We’ve lost battle after battle against ourselves, and without an accurate and unflinching analysis of our own faults there is little doubt that this pattern will perpetuate into oblivion.