Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Why Isn't the Deep South the Most Liberal Region in the U.S.?

By far the biggest story in Birmingham these days is the University of Alabama's quest for a national championship in college football. The Crimson Tide meets the University of Texas on Thursday night in Pasadena, California, in the BCS national championship game.

How big is the story in Birmingham? Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson could be caught living, breathing, and having lunch together at a downtown eatery--and I'm not sure it would make page one. After all, Coach Nick Saban might have a bout of acid indigestion that would require wall-to-wall coverage.

Having grown up in the Midwest, I'm not a fan of either Alabama or its cross-state rival, Auburn University. But I am a sports fan--as evidenced by my previous life as a sportswriter--so I keep up with the big-game coverage. And a major side story in Alabama's blessed season caused me to ponder this question: Why isn't the South a bastion of liberalism in the United States?

That might seem like a ridiculous question to ask about a region that has become known for its staunch conservatism and blood-red political leanings. But consider an undercurrent that ran through almost every story about Alabama running back Mark Ingram and the recent announcement that he had received the 2009 Heisman Trophy as the best player in college football.

The University of Alabama is a bona fide football factory, one of the nation's most storied programs, but Mark Ingram was the first Crimson Tider to win the sport's best-known individual award. Almost every story written about Ingram and the trophy noted that UA fans long have taken a peculiar pride in the fact that no Tide player ever had won the Heisman. After all, iconic coach Paul "Bear" Bryant had preached the value of team play, of submerging the self for the betterment of the larger whole.

It's pretty much undisputed that college football is more popular in the South than in any other region of the country. And across the South, fans applaud the Bryant credo of putting team before self.

College football is not the only activity where Southerners believe strongly in communal activity, where putting the group ahead of the individual is valued.

Surveys consistently show that support for the military and organized religion are particularly strong in the South. And what is at the heart of religious activities and military duties? A willingness to put individual goals and desires second to the greater good.

At the heart of most major religions is the so-called "Golden Rule," the notion that you are to treat your brother or sister as you would like to be treated. In other words, a truly religious individual is called to think seriously about how his actions affect others.

As for the military, men and women in uniform have similar attire and hairstyles for a reason. It's a sign that you must check your individuality at the door.

Which of our political philosophies emphasizes communities over individuals, the greater good over selfish desires? Why, it's liberalism, of course.

So why do white Southerners--the ones who proclaim their love of church, the military, and college football (not necessarily in that order)--consistently vote conservative? You know about conservatism, that doctrine that extols the virtues of the "rugged individual."

Southerners surely don't vote conservative because they care about the needs of investors, managers, bankers, and corporate titans--the "rugged individuals" who benefit most from conservative policies.

We can only conclude that white Southerners, the ones drawn to communal, team-first activities, vote against their own interests and beliefs because of fears about race. The Republican Party, home to modern conservatism, has expertly played the race-based fear card for 40-plus years now.

Southerners are hardly alone in falling for it. Great swatches of the Midwest, Southwest, and Mountain West also have succumbed to it.

Here's the ironic thing: Southerners tend to proclaim their patriotism more than folks from other regions. And the most patriotic action many Southerners could take would be to vote in a liberal or progressive fashion. After all, progressive thinking leads to strong college-football teams, and it would lead to a healthier, stronger, more united America--the very thing Southerners seem to want.

Here's the sad thing: A liberal/progressive revolution needs to sweep this country. And the South, based on the "we, not me" activities it clearly adores, is the perfect place to launch it. But we let our race-based fears hold us back.

As you watch two major Southern universities battle for the national championship of college football on Thursday night, you might keep this thought in mind: Inside the heart of most Southern conservatives--at least the ones who love football, church, and the military--is a liberal, dying to get out. And our country would be a much better place if Southerners would take their passion for "we first" activities and apply it to politics.


Colton said...

Great Post! I agree. It is puzzling how supportive so many southerners are of politicians and policies that work against their self-interests. We just need to get better at communicating progressive positions and principles/values.

Dwight said...

Very well-said until the assessment of southern conservatism as race-based. It's based more on an overall feeling of uneasiness and cultural decadence, buttressed effectively by fear-mongering Republican campaigns. To call it simply racial is more indicative of oversimplified thinking that pervades conservatism. Also, you are correct that passionate support for college football is indicative of communal priorities, but only insofar as a specific team. Conservatives do not believe their "team" includes even all of America, much less the world. Their team consists only of "real" Americans. Race does tie in to that feeling, but race doesn't itself create it.

Your overall point that the "rugged individualism" is no deep conviction of southern conservatives is spot-on.

Mister Bad Example said...

I know! I know!

This certainly isn't the only reason, but it's better than most. And it isn't just the South.

Unknown said...

I also live in the south and I don't know it's a we vs I mentality. I think it might be us over them thinking. Also following without questioning is there.

Robert von Tobel said...

Great article. I recall that early on it was "The Solid South" meaning Democratic, until Lyndon Johnson "ended" segregation, even knowing as he did so that he was handing the South over to the Republicans. So of course racism is the reason the South is now solid Republican! It's overdue to bring them back from that self destructive alliance, but how?

Anonymous said...

Good article until it concludes that race is the problem. The South does believe in "rugged individualism" in that Southerners don't want any politicians from DC, northerners or others who don't understand the south, telling the South how they should live. The less government interference the better, is their thinking. (Can't say they're wrong for feeling that way.) They want to be left alone to do things their way and they see the Republican party as doing that. It comes from the old Republican adage of less government/Reagan's "let's get govt off the back of the people". Never mind that that never actually happened under the Republicans. But that's what they believe.
This is not to say that some still vote from a racist viewpoint; but that's not the main issue at all.

Bob Kincaid said...

An excellent observation. I would add to the hypothesis the thoughts of Joe Bageant. His "Deer Hunting With Jesus" is a profoundly incisive examination of the same sorts of issues raised here.

Robby Scott Hill said...

Race isn't the only problem, but it's in the top five. CNN details how it all began with Richard Nixon's "racial strategy" in the 1972 Republican campaign in the Southern states. You know, the one that Karl Rove, George W. Bush & Pat Buchanan all worked on