- The Great Melding: War, the Dixiecrat Rebellion, and the Southern Model for America’s New Conservatism by Glenn Feldman
Concern for disparities in income and power tend to be cyclical in American political life, even if such inequity remains constant. In the current era, when discourse about the “top 1 per cent” produces voter backlash and distinctions of race, religion, and national origin have renewed salience, history offers lessons on how our democracy both allows and encourages a politics that is distinctly undemocratic. Voter acquiescence to conservative economic and political oligarchy is a necessary condition for the persistence of such stark inequity in a democracy, and this political fact is by no means new.
In his historical analysis of twentieth-century Southern politics, focusing most directly on Alabama as prototype, Glenn Feldman offers a comprehensive accounting of how political manipulation and popular reaction in the South of 1942 to 1952 laid the groundwork for a new conservatism that eventually manifested in Reagan’s election in 1980. Feldman demonstrates that white reaction against the economic and racial liberalism of the New Deal, which activated lingering anxiety over federal intervention during Reconstruction, made the 1948 Dixiecrat rebellion and defection of Southern Democrats to the Republican Party inevitable.
Within the cultural logic of Jim Crow, poor whites saw themselves as having racial affinity with white elites rather than class affinity with blacks, allowing poor whites to develop reverence for the economic fundamentalism on which the accumulation of white [End Page 103] wealth was predicated. Racial alliance with white elites required poor whites to embrace free-market principles and deride federal programs, even though poor whites were victims of the free market and stood to benefit from New Deal-era government initiatives.
Feldman characterizes this mid-century convergence of Jim Crow and economic orthodoxy as the First Great Melding; the addition to the mix of religious fundamentalism produced a second. A Third Great Melding entailed the alliance of old money and new, the landed gentry with the industrial New South, forming an anti-labor, anti-tax, anti-statist fortress that disdained regulation and spending on social services and education. These alliances drew their legitimacy from poor whites, who accepted this social order as natural and transformed it into a political mandate.
Southern racism is central to this thesis, as is the lingering animosity toward federal intervention in Southern affairs; a remnant of Lost Cause and Reconstruction lore. Maintaining the social, economic, and political structure of the mid-century South required what Feldman calls “Sophistic Pruning” and “smoke and mirror politics.” By denouncing racial extremism and violence, white Southern elites sought to persuade Northern critics that the South was attending to its own problems and that Northern intervention was unnecessary. For Feldman, this was a deliberate and calculated strategy designed to preserve the white supremacy that undergirded not only Southern social custom, but also white wealth in the region.
These are big and heavy arguments, and Feldman applies them not only to American politics writ large but also to a meticulous analysis of Alabama politics in the years preceding and following World War II, his pivotal decade in the conservative realignment. The scholarship is grounded in deep archival research and is painstakingly documented. At times, however, the level of detail and the expansive cast of characters, who are drawn from Alabama and other Southern states, make this a dizzying read. Readers also will notice that the argument carries a polemical tone.
Even so, the analysis of Alabama politics will be valuable to scholars of the twentieth-century American South. Moreover, Feldman’s extrapolation of the argument to American conservatism more generally makes this study useful to a broad academic audience concerned with the evolution of American politics.