In recent years several scholars, most notably Matthew D. Lassiter and Joseph Crespino in their thought-provoking edited collection titled The Myth of Southern Exceptionalism (2009), have challenged the notion—at least in the twentieth century—that there has existed an exceptional South that has stood against a national American narrative. Rather than seeing the South as something fundamentally different from the rest of the United States, these historians argue that the perceived differences are simply of degree and not of kind. By the second half of the twentieth century, according to this framework, the myth of southern exceptionalism simply lacks explanatory power when attempting to understand both southern and American history.
Glenn Feldman would like his edited volume to push back against these attacks on “the well-established and . . . empirical concept of [End Page 782] southern distinctiveness” by highlighting the relationship between the South and the federal government (p. 1). It is in this complex relationship, according to Feldman, that southern exceptionalism is on full display, for “no other region has profited more—or more consistently over time—from federal projects, programs, tax expenditures, and public spending. . . . Certainly there is considerable paradox in the coexistence of the southern states’ long and continuing dependence on the federal treasury with the region’s persistent resentment of all things federal and Washington” (pp. 1–2). With chapters on topics as diverse as Tom Watson’s opposition to World War I, the Tennessee Valley Authority in Alabama, prison reform in Arkansas, and the modern Tea Party movement, Feldman hopes to convince readers that the South has been and remains exceptional in many ways.
The main drawback of this book is the intellectual gymnastics Feldman must perform in order to fit these essays into his interpretive agenda. With few exceptions, the contributors to this volume deftly explore and analyze the relationship between the South and the federal government with little regard for Feldman’s determination to preserve the idea of southern exceptionalism. In some cases, the essays seem to point in the opposite direction. For example, Allan B. McBride’s illuminating chapter on the Tea Party reveals no statistically significant difference between support for the Tea Party in the South versus outside the South. Among Tea Party proponents from all regions of the country, the approval/disapproval rating for President Barack Obama is quite similar. On cultural issues such as abortion rights and preference for an unfettered economy, McBride concludes that “the South’s differences from the non-South are a matter of degree” (p. 319). Yet Feldman is not content to allow those conclusions to speak for themselves. In the introduction he states that “because blacks are not factored out of what are discussed as ‘southern’ data, southern numbers on matters of Obama, government regulation, and the free market may be unduly ‘liberalized’ compared to what they would be had the data polled only southern whites” (p. 14). Feldman’s suggestion that African Americans be excluded from [End Page 783] the category of “southerner” simply because their inclusion fails to support a preconceived notion of southern exceptionalism seems at best misguided and at worst intellectually dishonest.
Beyond Feldman’s attempt to reinterpret his authors’ material, however, the essays contained in this volume are quite revealing about the relationship between the South and the federal government. Jason Morgan Ward traces a continuation of the antistatist rhetoric of Georgia governor Eugene Talmadge’s attempts to discredit the New Deal through segregationist language in the 1950s and 1960s, anti–Great Society sentiment in the 1960s and 1970s, and opposition to President Obama today. Two sweeping chapters explore several decades of Mississippi politics. Rebecca Miller Davis argues that Democrats had been losing the Magnolia State for twenty years before President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, while Chris Danielson shows that the process of constructing a Republican majority in the state continued well into the 1980s. Martin T. Olliff’s contribution explores the implementation of the Federal Road Aid Acts...