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  • The Necessary South
  • James Cobb (bio)

Since the earliest days of the republic the South has served primarily as what Jack P. Greene called "a negative example of what America had to overcome before it could finally realize its true self." The struggle to transcend this burdensome regional anomaly would play out over the better part of two centuries, but by the time it appeared finally to have run its course, some were beginning to complain that, in the end, it was the South that had actually overcome, and, in the process, prevented the nation from becoming all that it could be. Even before 30 million Americans outside the South chose a bona fide representative of a racially transformed and economically vibrant Dixie to lead the country out of its post-Watergate funk in 1976, liberals were bemoaning the ominous "rise of the Southern Rim" and the insidiously conservatizing effects of the "Southernization of America." That such rhetoric is still in vogue more than a generation later suggests that not all of the resistance to integrating the South into national life has originated in the South itself. For all the evidence that a once-recalcitrant Dixie is, for better or worse, now one with the rest of the country, many outside the region and even a few within it still cling to a static vision of a defiantly unchanged, indisputably inferior South, which, in turn, provides the negative counterpoint necessary to sustain their equally rigid and decidedly idealized vision of America's "true self."1

Pointing to critical changes in the South, a veritable slew of pundits had suggested that the perceived differences between region and nation were disappearing long before John Egerton referred in 1973 to the "Americanization of Dixie." On the other hand, Egerton was one of the first to argue that the South's loss of distinctiveness had actually been accelerated by the concomitant "Southernization of America," observing that "the North, for its part, seems more overtly racist than it had been; shorn of its pretensions of moral innocence, it is exhibiting many of the attitudes that once were thought to be the exclusive possession of white Southerners."2

Egerton used "Southernization" merely as a figurative description of what he saw happening in the 1970s, but a host of liberal commentators quickly seized on the term as a literal explanation, in which a sudden, aggressive, nationwide contagion of southern white values became primarily responsible for America's pronounced tilt to the right during the last quarter of the 20th century. "Southernization," wrote George Packer, "was an attitude that spread north—suspicion of government, antielitism, racial resentment, a highly personal religiosity."3

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Ex-Alabama Governor George Wallace declares that he is running for president, February 8, 1968.

Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [reproduction number, LC-DIG-ppmsca-19605].

Catering to white Southerners' resentment of Democratic support for civil rights advances, Barry Goldwater had carried five southern states in 1964, and by 1966 Richard Nixon was already assuring Pat Buchanan that the GOP's future lay "right here in the South." Yet in the "Southernization" version of events it was not until George Wallace, the presumed embodiment of the southern white mentality, had expertly manipulated the race issue in 1968 that the Republican Party was seduced into its infamous, racially coded "southern strategy." This strategy, in turn, succeeded in forging southern white racial antagonism (not unlike the violent sentiments on shocking public display at the time in Chicago or Detroit or Boston) into such a sizable and solid core of Republican support in the South that the GOP was able to win the presidency four out of five times between 1972 and 1988. To be sure, the virtual certainty of strong support from southern whites allowed Republican candidates to concentrate their resources elsewhere. Still, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan claimed at least 90% of the remaining electoral votes nationally in 1972, 1980, and 1984, and George H.W. Bush drew nearly 75% in 1988, meaning that all of them ran nearly as well outside the South as within it, and thus not a single southern vote had been essential to...