The South Vs. Obama

The votes against Obama’s stimulus package came from a Southern confederacy of Republicans and conservative Democrats. Their message to America? Drop dead.

Phil Sandlin / AP Photo

On Wednesday, January 28, 2009, President Barack Obama’s $819 billion stimulus plan passed the House of Representatives, despite the solid opposition of the Confederates.

By the Confederates I mean the Republican Party and their allies among Southern conservative Democrats. The battle in Washington is not between liberals and conservatives; it is between the Union and the South.

The Republican Party that voted unanimously against the stimulus bill is, in essence, the party of the former Confederacy. In the House of Representatives, there is not a single Republican representative from New England. In the U.S. Senate, there is not a single Republican from the Pacific Coast.

The battle in Washington is not between liberals and conservatives; it is between the Union and the South.

The Republican congressional delegation is disproportionately Southern. Half of the four congressional leaders of the Republican Party are Southerners: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Kentucky) and House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (Virginia). (Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl is from Arizona and House Minority Leader John Boehner is a relic of the dying Midwestern wing of the GOP). The chairman of the Republican National Committee, Mike Duncan, is from Kentucky. Half of the candidates for the RNC chairmanship are Southerners: Duncan himself, Katon Dawson, chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party, and Chip Saltsman, former chairman of the Republican Party of Tennessee. (The other three are Michael Steele of Maryland, Ken Blackwell of Ohio and, Saul Anuzis of Michigan.) If you think most GOP spokesmen on TV seem to speak with a drawl, you’re not imagining things.

In addition, a majority of the 11 House Democrats who voted against the stimulus bill are Southerners or from states that border the South: Bobby Bright and Parker Griffith, both of Alabama; Gene Taylor, of Mississippi; Heath Shuler, of North Carolina; Jim Cooper, of Tennessee; Allen Boyd, Jr., of Florida; Frank M. Kratovil, of Maryland; and Brad Ellsworth, of Indiana. (The other three are Walt Minnick of Idaho, John Peterson and Paul Kanjorski of Pennsylvania.) Congressman Boyd, a prominent Blue Dog Democrat, was the only Democrat to support President Bush’s bill to partly privatize Social Security, which he co-sponsored. Appropriately, his 2nd Congressional District in the Florida Panhandle near Georgia and Alabama includes Dixie and Calhoun counties.

Do you see a pattern here?

The vote about the stimulus package was not about economics. It was about nullification. It was the bipartisan Confederacy sending a message to the rest of America, stricken by the greatest crisis since the Depression. That message? DROP DEAD.

Those who think that the Democrats could have won over more Republicans by making more concessions do not understand the neo-Confederate/Dixiecrat mentality. There was no one to bargain with on the other side. The Republiconfederate “alternative”—a joke of a bill consisting almost entirely of tax cuts—would not be taken seriously by any mainstream conservative economist. It was pure provocation.

The rest of the country needs to understand. This is not the nation-minded Republican Party of Lincoln and McKinley, Eisenhower and Dole. Nor is it the party of Herbert Hoover who, if he were alive, would be denounced by the Southern Right as the flawed but public-spirited Progressive he was. No, this is the party that was hijacked after the civil-rights revolution by former Democrats on the Southern far right. Its spiritual ancestors are the old states’ rights Southern conservative Democrats, like John C. Calhoun and Jefferson Davis and Strom Thurmond and Orval Faubus. The slogan of the segregationist Democrats—“massive resistance”—characterizes today’s Southern conservative resistance to necessary federal economic action, just as it inspired yesterday’s Southern conservative resistance to equal rights for black Americans.

The new Republican Party is a strange version of the old Democratic Party. It's the Dixiecrat wing without any other wings. The morphing of the Grand Old Party into a Southern-dominated faction goes back half a century to the so-called Southern Strategy to win a slice of the Southern vote in the Electoral College. Under George W. Bush, it would have seemed that this strategy reached its climax. But after the utter repudiation of Bush's presidency and the experiment with conservative Republican Party rule, the congressional Republicans left in the rubble are turning even more to the right—and the South.

Next time a Southern Republican or Blue Dog Democrat frets about big government, remind him or her of the Confederate Constitution, a bizarre document that sheds light on the mentality of today’s Southern conservatives. Southern opposition to capable national government is nothing new. In the Confederate Constitution, provisions modeled on those of the US Constitution that empowered the federal government of the Confederate States of America were followed by clauses frantically limiting the very powers that had just been bestowed.

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According to Section 8 of the Confederate Constitution, the Confederate Constitution shall have power: To lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts, and excises for revenue, necessary to pay the debts, provide for the common defense, and carry on the Government of the Confederate States; but no bounties shall be granted from the Treasury; nor shall any duties or taxes on importations from foreign nations be laid to promote or foster any branch of industry; and all duties, imposts, and excises shall be uniform throughout the Confederate States.

This is the only constitution in history, to my knowledge, which banned the government from promoting and fostering branches of national industry. But it gets better. Here’s Section 8 (3), giving the Confederate Congress the power: (3) To regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian tribes; but neither this, nor any other clause contained in the Constitution, shall ever be construed to delegate the power to Congress to appropriate money for any internal improvement intended to facilitate commerce; except for the purpose of furnishing lights, beacons, and buoys, and other aids to navigation upon the coasts, and the improvement of harbors and the removing of obstructions in river navigation; in all which cases such duties shall be laid on the navigation facilitated thereby as may be necessary to pay the costs and expenses thereof.

Imagine that. The Confederates, in their constitution, tried to ban all government infrastructure spending to facilitate commerce, but then had second thoughts and included lights, beacons, buoys, and harbors—but nothing else, really, we mean it! The political descendants of these people are the ones who today want to bind the Confederate—excuse me, I mean the US Congress to rigid and inflexible “pay-go” rules no matter what the circumstances and, like the Confederates, want to make transportation rely on user fees like tolls on interstate highways rather than pay for public goods out of taxes.

It is because I am a Southerner and the descendant of Southerners that I recognize the suicidal nature of this pathological regional political culture. I like Southern manners, food, music, and literature—but I hate the reactionary strain of my native region’s politics (there is an enlightened, minority strain in Southern politics, from the Kentuckians Clay and Lincoln to LBJ, the Gores and Bill Clinton). The greatest victims of Southern conservatism have always been the majority of Southerners of all races.

The Republican/Blue Dog approach to political economy was tried in my part of the country for generations, and the result was economic backwardness and military defeat. The antebellum South was hostile to government promotion of industry and investment in public transportation—and, ultimately, the Union, relying on the factories and railroads of the North, crushed it. Unable to compete on the basis of public investment and public education, the South in the 21st century, like a broken-down banana republic, now uses anti-union laws and low taxes to lure corporate investment in low-wage factories.

So let’s be clear. The battle over the stimulus is not a gentle debate among thoughtful libertarians and well-intentioned progressives, with reasonable points made on both sides. It is nullification. It is sabotage. It is the latest episode in the Southern conservative strategy of massive resistance to necessary government and national progress. It will not be the last.

UPDATE: This article originally misstated the Republican congressional delegation as the Southern congressional delegation.

Michael Lind, the Whitehead Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation, is the author of Made in Texas: George W. Bush and the Southern Takeover of American Politics.