Please stop blaming the South for the government shutdown (op ed)

As the government shutdown drags on, journalists everywhere, on the left and the right, have raised the level of their rhetoric in search of what they believe to be the appropriate scapegoat for their wrath. This past week, the American South has been in their sights.

The Washington Post’s Colbert King offered a sardonic editorial in which he used the metaphor of the Confederacy to describe today’s Tea Party.

Over at Salon, Stephen Richter of The Globalist wrote that the shutdown is a reminder that the Civil War never ended. Richter argues that “the South is once again rebelling against modernizing shifts in American society” and makes the analogy that “Southerners and white conservatives everywhere” fear that offering healthcare to Americans is akin to “freeing the slaves.” Of course, the article would not have been complete without illustrations of the Confederate battle flag.

Well, thanks for nothing.

Karen Cox

Karen Cox

The quagmire in Washington, DC, cannot be explained by simply tossing it into the lap of the South, since just as many states outside of this region are being represented in Congress by members of the Tea Party caucus. When Ari Berman writes in The Nation that the GOP has a “white southern Republican problem,” by noting the high numbers of southerners in the Tea Party caucus, he fails to address the reality that the shutdown would have been impossible if only GOP conservatives from the South were involved. The fact is that this southern faction has co-conspirators across the country.

Not only do these comparisons perpetuate the idea of a monolithic South, it keeps alive regional divisiveness (to say nothing of continued stereotyping), as the comments section of these articles attest. It also ignores the changing demographics of the region, which over the last few decades has included a considerable migration of people from North to South.

More importantly, this Neo-Confederate rhetoric does nothing more than embolden Tea Party leaders and their acolytes, while at the same time undermine the efforts of southern progressives. All the anti-South commentary, illustrated with battle flags, damages any inroads that are being made through grassroots efforts like those of the Moral Monday protesters here in North Carolina, who are doing their damnedest to hold the GOP’s feet to the fire.

The real power struggle is not inside the Beltway, but in individual states. North Carolina, for example, has just three representatives in the Tea Party caucus, but at the state level it is teaming with them. True, they have gerrymandered districts to ensure their power, but southern progressives in the state are not taking it lying down.

Texas Democratic lawmaker Wendy Davis, who is running for governor. (Photo by Kevin Sutherland, aka Apollo2011)

Texas Democratic lawmaker Wendy Davis, who is running for governor. (Photo by Kevin Sutherland, aka Apollo2011)

Republican Senator Ted Cruz may be a Tea Party darling from Texas, but Democratic State Senator Wendy Davis is offering a change to politics as usual with her candidacy for governor of the state. And in Georgia, Democrat Michelle Nunn is off to a strong start to replace Republican Saxby Chambliss in the U.S. Senate.

The point here is that progressives nationally need to support southern progressives. It makes no good political sense to dismiss an entire region as a “lost cause” behind the drumbeat of Civil War rhetoric.

What’s happening in Washington is not a result of the return of the Confederacy. It might make good hay to allude to the South as the “Old South,” or to suggest that it lacks the diversity (and by suggestion, education) to accept “modernizing shifts,” or insinuate that all southerners are conservative. But this kind of commentary only serves to inspire southern conservatives, while placing yet another obstacle in the path of those seeking change.

Yes, conservatives appear to have a stranglehold on the region, but throughout the South there are strong progressive voices that need to be heard. So here’s a novel idea: rather than bolstering conservatism in the South by pointing fingers to its Confederate past and discouraging progressive voters, which is what the Tea Party wants, how about shining more light on candidates and grassroots efforts and give progressivism a fighting chance?

Karen L. Cox is Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, where she teaches courses on southern history and culture. She is the author of Dreaming of Dixie: How the South Was Created in American Popular Culture (UNC Press, 2011) and blogs at Pop South.

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