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"Toothless Rednecks" (Part Two): Hard History and Flawed Democracy in the South

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For anyone puzzled by the headline for this post, this is the second segment of my three-part discussion about the tone of public discourse in campaigning for votes in places like Alabama and Mississippi.

My target in the first post was the irritating, gratuitous disparagement of certain people and cultures to score cheap points personally and politically. Terms like "toothless," "ignorant," "racist" and "redneck" were tossed around without compunction during last week's Deep South presidential primaries.

My first point in that discussion was to ask media professionals and other opinion leaders to lift their standards for analysis and commentary; but, just as importantly, I also wanted to describe the region, warts and all, and explain why it is different from the rest of America.

For readers who don't know me, I am a native Southerner who has spent my adult life teaching about and practicing politics at the local, state, and national levels. I specialize in race, Southern politics, and American democracy. A national book reviewer wrote that I can be "brutally candid" in dealing with Southern politics; and that is my objective in this three-part series. I'll talk about some redeeming aspects of the South in a later discussion; and I hope to get around to the rest of the country eventually.

Now, I want to elaborate about the South's "hard history" and "flawed democracy."

What do I mean by "Hard History"?

I'll explain this very briefly, with respectful credit to esteemed historian Arnold Toynbee (as quoted by C. Vann Woodward in The Burden of Southern History (1960). In writing about the British Diamond Jubilee of 1897, Toynbee noted his thoughts as an eight-year-old, sitting atop his uncle's shoulders, watching the celebration of their world supremacy:

Well, here we are on top of the world, and we have arrived at this peak to stay there forever. There is, of course, a thing called history, but history is something unpleasant that happens to other people. We are comfortably outside all that, I am sure. If I had been a small boy in New York in 1897 I should have felt the same. Of course, if I had been a small boy in 1897 in the Southern part of the United States, I should not have felt the same; I should have known from my parents that history had happened to my people in my part of the world.

Other people celebrate history, but Southerners have lived history. And history has been very hard in this region, ravaging all Southerners, black and white.

Why do I say that the South is a flawed democracy?

I'll rely on another intellectual giant, V.O. Key, Jr., to make this argument, as he did in Southern Politics in State and Nation (1949):

When all the exceptions are considered, when all the justifications are made, and when all the invidious comparisons are drawn, those of the South and those who love the South are left with the cold, hard fact that the South as a whole has developed no system or practice of political organization and leadership adequate to cope with its problems.

Key also accurately stated at mid-century the daunting civic challenge for Southern political leaders:

Obviously, the conversion of the South into a democracy in the sense that the mass of people vote and have a hand in their governance poses one of the most staggering tasks for statesmanship in the western world. The suffrage problems of the South can claim a closer kinship with those of India, of South Africa, or of the Dutch East Indies than with those of, say, Minnesota. Political leadership in the State of New York or California or Ohio simmers down to matters of the rankest simplicity alongside those that must be dealt with in Georgia or Mississippi or Alabama.

I have added, in another publication, my own thesis about the "race game" of Southern history:

Ever since their colonial beginnings, the white leaders and people of this region have engaged in perverse, contorted politics designed to provide themselves the blessings of democracy at the expense of black Southerners. Gaming the system for racial advantage was not the singular, continuous, consuming passion for most Southerners; but slavery had warped the Southern political system from the start, and race forever lurked in the background of Southern political life.

The South has changed greatly in the past few decades. The perverse systems of institutionalized slavery and legalized segregation are gone. But stubborn legacies remain; and a modified race game endures today.

A new game in Southern politics.

I will write more about the South's new race game at another time. But, for now, I'll summarize the new arrangement as a continuing game of racial politics -- now played by both blacks and whites in more sophisticated manner without traditional perversities -- in a regional system still struggling with historic black-white disparities and tensions.

This new order represents a modernized, measured mixture of hard history, flawed democracy, progressive practicality, and, most importantly, biracial accommodation. It is not pretty civics; but it is better than anything ever tried in this part of the country.

Go ahead and sneer, or snicker, if you like. However, to close with an editorial comment, many white and black Southerners are working hard for a better future; and they might have more success down here if froggish analysts and pundits would quit calling them ugly all the time.