Still think the North won the Civil War? Then how do you explain the slow-but-sure Southernization of America? While we were busy patting ourselves on the back for being the most wealthy and free nation in the world, the most extreme elements of the Old South took over the GOP and began rolling back all the progress we’ve made in the past two centuries and reasserting its will.
And of course, the Old South’s “values and beliefs” all exist to serve a slave economy that fattens the few while starving the many. In Harold Meyerson’s brilliant piece on the Southernization of America for the American Prospect, he explains why we’re still stuck fighting the Civil War.
The South’s current drive to impose on the rest of the nation its opposition to worker and minority rights—through the vehicle of a Southernized Republican Party—resembles nothing so much as the efforts of antebellum Southern political leaders to blunt the North’s opposition to the slave labor system.
The Old South may not be able to bring back the days of unpaid slave labor, but the GOP’s doing the next best thing by shredding our safety net, slashing our wages, and taking aggressive measures to keep us from voting them out of power.
Now as then, white Southern elites and their powerful allies among non-Southern business interests seek to expand to the rest of the nation the South’s subjugation of workers and its suppression of the voting rights of those who might oppose their policies.
And really, there’s nothing new about the unholy alliance between the old Southern elite and the Northern bankers, tycoons, and captains of industry. After all, they all profit from their slave labor-based economic development model. What is new — as Mayerson points out — is the current wave of non-Southern political leaders cloaking themselves in the mantle of Southern values.
What’s new is the spread of historically white Southern values to Northern Republican politicians—the latest development in the 50-year Southernization (and nearly complete racial whitening) of the Republican Party.
A look at the following maps shows a series of trends, public policy failures, and poor outcomes that are radiating out from the Old Confederacy. It seems like the more power the GOP holds in a given state, the worse off people are likely to be.
- Red and Blue States in the 2012 Election.
- Percent of adults who graduated high school.
- Poverty rates
- People who identify as evangelical Christians.
- Rates of Gun Deaths by State.
- Teen Birth rates.
- Medicaid Expansion 2015, by State.
- Rates of Accidental Child Injuries that Result in Death.
- Voter ID Laws by State.
- Average Life Expectancies by State.
- Rate of Incarceration by State.
- State Minimum Wages in 2015.
But first, let’s take a look at the map of slave vs. free states and territories from just before the Civil War.
The Southernization of America Began as “We” Moved West.
Take a look at this map of free vs. slave states and territories in 1861, when the Civil War began. As you can see, the pattern of “red” states vs. “blue” states looks quite familiar to the modern eye…the Southernization of America began as “we” (meaning people of white European descent) began moving West. Although the Northwest Ordinance banned slavery in the Northwest in 1787, the Southern elites saw anything below or near the Mason-Dixon Line as fair game. Congress took care to maintain an equal balance of slave and free states as we grew. This gave rise to the constant Senate gridlock that plagues us to this very day.
Then, as now, the South’s economy relied on cheap commodities (cotton, tobacco, and, more recently, coal…though unions made coal jobs pay better), cheap labor, and low taxes. Meanwhile, the North — whose terrain, weather, and crops proved less well-suited to slavery — had evolved a more diverse and vibrant economy.
Our history classes teach us all about how the North “won” the Civil war and how Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves. What we don’t learn is that the American dream was built on the backs of black slaves whose labor powered America’s rise to riches, the bones of the Native Americans whose lives, culture and land we stole, and the blood of both. As explained by Cornell History Professor Edward E. Baptist in Salon, slave labor gave the South a huge leg up in the world’s booming cotton markets. Plus, the slave trade itself was a huge industry:
From 1783 at the end of the American Revolution to 1861, the number of slaves in the United States increased five times over, and all this expansion produced a powerful nation. For white enslavers were able to force enslaved African-American migrants to pick cotton faster and more efficiently than free people.
Thanks to slaves and Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin, the South’s elites grew wealthy and powerful even as the region as a whole grew poorer. Then the South’s ruling classes lost their slaves, and have been desperately trying to find new slaves ever since.
Make no mistake: As Alternet‘s Michael Lind explains…When right-wingers fight federal programs in the name of “freedom,” they mean “freedom” for their elites to exploit people and shared resources, not actual “freedom.” Face it: the U.S. government’s programs and regulations throw a wrench into the South’s vile “economic development” model. How? by giving workers more power and protection, while making them a little less desperate.
The traditional Southern regional economic strategy, then, depends on the control by Southern employers of a huge pool of low-wage workers with little or no bargaining power in their dealings with their local bosses or the foreign (that is, extra-Southern) investors and corporations who are invited in to exploit their labor.
The high level of skills and high visibility of our first African-American slaves were ideal for exploitation by the Old South. And of course, this system relies on our nation’s deep-seated racism to help achieve its goals. But when push comes to shove, the elites don’t really care as much about the color of their slaves’ skin as you’d think.
Continues on the next page: Map #1. The Southernization of America: Red and Blue States in the 2012 Election.