Conclusion: Primary Facts
We consider our racial world-views as a challenge to our very identities as good, moral people. Thus, we perceive any attempt to connect us to the system of racism as an unsettling and unfair moral offense. The smallest amount of racial stress is intolerable – the mere suggestion that being white has a meaning often triggers a range of defensive responses…Though white fragility is triggered by discomfort and anxiety, it is born of superiority and entitlement. – Robin DiAngelo
American reality is dictated by what they’re trying to avoid. – James Baldwin
I mentioned in Part One of this series that Woodrow Wilson was the first Southern President since the Civil war. But during the past half century, the country has had more presidents from the former Confederacy than from the former Union.
As I noted earlier, most antebellum Presidents had been slaveholders. Indeed, 34 of the 47 men depicted in John Trumbull’s famous “Declaration of Independence” painting were human traffickers. Southern politicians took advantage of the infamous “three-fifths clause” in the Constitution, which determined how enslaved people would be counted when determining a state’s total population. This number determined a state’s number of seats in Congress; and it gave Southern states a third more representatives and a third more presidential electoral votes than if slaves had not been counted. As a result, most of those slaveholding Presidents were elected only because of these inflated numbers.
This means that if we were to divide presidential history into periods (1789-1860, 1860-1972 and 1972-2021), then the South takes two out of three.
It has become for the Republicans what it had previously been for the Democrats, the core of a national, racist coalition. In the early 1980s a lawyer in Reagan’s Justice Department wrote memos passionately opposing aggressive enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. It took three decades for that lawyer – Chief Justice John Roberts – to lead a Supreme Court majority that struck down the major enforcement provision of the act.
That decision ensured Trumpus’ election, and even since his defeat, it has helped enable the current wave of voter suppression bills in over forty states. Philip Dray writes:
When election officials in Florida, Georgia, or North Carolina force voters in minority districts to wait for hours in line before casting a ballot and send “poll monitors” to intimidate voters, they are reviving methods used by their forebears a century and a half ago. Accounts of racial profiling and state violence toward blacks, the presumption of black criminality, and white panic at the appearance of black people in “white spaces” would be largely familiar to Americans of the 1870s and 1880s, when newspapers carried almost daily stories of black citizens denied their rights, frequently in the form of white vigilantism.
But we can also see how Southern priorities have impacted the Democrats. We all remember the “Solid South” of Democrats that lasted roughly from 1890 to 1970 and that is now nearly as solidly Republican. I’m talking, however, about the lamentable trends that were on full public display in recent Democratic primaries. These numbers are from 2016, but they were similar in 2020:
The count of pledged delegates (not counting conservative super delegates) through April 27th showed Hillary Clinton with 1,644 (including 761 from the former Confederate states) and Bernie Sanders with 1,316 (352 from those states). Without including them, Sanders was actually leading by 964 to 883. Of course, it’s silly and unrealistic to theoretically eliminate the Southern votes, but these numbers do show their overwhelming influence.
Clearly, Sanders all-but conceded most Southern primaries because they occurred too early. Certainly, Clinton’s victories had much to do with the high percentages of African-Americans in those states who supported the Clinton brand. But does this really explain her 44 – 10 delegate margin in Alabama? I tried but couldn’t find any voting patterns by white democrats (who remain the great majority) in these primaries, but I doubt if those voters supported Sanders either. We could just as easily say that it was conservative, white, Southern Democrats who gave Clinton (and, four years later, Biden) her victory margins.
And what about this pattern of having almost all the Southern primaries early? David V. Johnson argues that the South has had too large a say too early in the primaries – and that this is no accident:
The effect of the Southern-leaning calendar is far more profound than the straight delegate numbers, because of what psychologists and political scientists call the bandwagon effect — the proven tendency individuals have to follow the beliefs and behaviors of what is seen as popular. The more the voting public appears to favor Clinton, the more voters will tend to do so in the future…This effect is likely even more pronounced due to the influence of superdelegates…This year’s Southern-fried scheduling is profoundly undemocratic.
As the primary season continued and Sanders’ name recognition increased, that bandwagon effect decreased. When Kentucky finally voted on May 17, Clinton won exactly one more delegate than Sanders did (28-27). We might well ask what if the entire south had waited until that date, and why the Democratic National Committee annually determines such a time sequence that inevitably gives its most conservative candidate early momentum.
Clinton won the nomination because she swept the Southern states – none of which the Democrats had any hope of winning in November. Stated differently, the typical strategy that moderate Democrats use to triumph in the primaries almost guarantees their loss (or at least extremely close votes) in November.
What few analysts could see (because it was too obvious) was that, due to this Solid South, and gerrymandering elsewhere, the Republicans could have put up any clown (and they did!) and still claim at least 45% of the Electoral College vote. Add in electronic thievery and that’s all they needed.
This bears repeating: Clinton swept the Old South in the primaries, but received none of their votes in the Electoral College. Partially because of voter suppression made possible by the Supreme Court majority (most of whom were appointed after elections determined by the same Southern Strategy) and partially because of old-fashioned racism and misogyny, these states all went to Trumpus. In 2020, these patterns persisted, with the exceptions of Georgia and Virginia.
Let’s be clear about this issue. Corrupt voting patterns and voter suppression are as American as bad food. But legalized voter suppression – segregating those who are allowed to vote from those who are prevented from doing so – is a Southern legacy, stemming from three hundred years of slavery and Jim Crow. And the DNC’s willingness to engage in voter suppression in the primaries also proved to be useless against the acknowledged masters of the art, the Republicans, in the general election.
Clinton’s negative numbers were as low as Trumpus’. Most Americans, right or left, voted for the lesser of two evils, and millions of young voters who had so enthusiastically supported Sanders stayed home. Consequently, countless progressive candidates, from the Senate to the local dogcatcher, also lost for lack of interest and low turnout. In this climate, even if Clinton had prevailed, she’d have had no mandate and no Democratic Senate. The American Empire – with its heritage of Southern militarism – would have endured undisturbed and unquestioned. And the obstructionist Republican Congress would have been happy to destroy even the mildest of liberal legislation, just as they had for the previous eight years, and blame the mess on her and Obama.
In July of 2021, Biden faces the same problems, for the same reasons.
On January 6th of this year insurrectionists carried the Confederate battle flag (and Trumpus flags, and Nazi flags) into the Capitol, and there was no mistaking its meaning. The lineage from Confederates to this mob was clear. Both were willing to destroy the union. Both used racialized violence to deflect their own fear of losing privilege. And both were shamelessly manipulated by cynical politicians.
It fit a pattern going back to the 1876 election, where Republicans traded away Reconstruction in return for a presidential victory. That compromise guaranteed that the Confederate leadership would suffer no consequences for having waged and lost a war to destroy the Union. This year, there was no compromise. Many members of the mob will serve jail time, but the politicians who enabled, inspired and sent them forth will not. In each case, white supremacy went unchallenged.
For nearly two centuries, ever since the times of Andrew Jackson – or should we begin with Washington and Jefferson? – almost all racist demagogues (political or religious) have arisen from the same Southern and Western areas that staunchly defended Indian removal, Chinese exclusion, imperial war, Jim Crow segregation and 4,000 lynchings. Cynical as most of these men undoubtedly were, at least they could lay some claim to being men of the (white) people and could speak their language without seeming utterly mendacious. The fact that so many could fall for Trumpus’ New York version of the Con Man remains a mystery to liberals who cannot understand the depths of grievance these people seem to experience, nor the TV celebrity culture that birthed him, nor the historical patterns that had long preceded him.
And he might well have faded away in January but for his months-long prediction that Democrats would steal the election. It was, however, a form of political genius to revive the memory of the Lost Cause, an idea that sits so deeply engrained in the Southern consciousness that it is like an archetype, always available to be activated. And so it has been by these people, except that now it has a new subject – the “stolen election”. This new lost cause is connected in many minds (and right-wing media) with the idea of a new civil war. Historian David Blight says:
We really have arrived at, it appears, two irreconcilable Americas with their own information systems, their own facts, their own story, their own narrative…In search of a story – in search of a history, in search of a leader, in search of anything they can attach to – lost causes tend to become these great mythologies whose great conspiracy theories tend to explain everything.
The new civil war isn’t new; it’s been happening at least since the 1950s, even if people experience it mostly on the economic and cultural levels. And it has a very specific purpose. As Americans fret over transexual bathrooms, medical cannabis and minor tweaks to the tax codes, the Empire abides and Covid vaccine profits mint 10 new Pharma billionaires.
The narrative of the stolen 2020 election is, of course, baseless. But we should understand that in addition to its propaganda value, it serves another purpose that may have longer lasting effect. As I showed in my analyses of the last two elections (and going back at least as far as 2000) of course there was massive corruption, and it was perpetrated primarily through Republican control of electronic voting machines in over half of the states.
Every time a Democrat denies that there were no irregularities, he or she is adding, consciously or not, to a massive coverup of actual crimes that the nation must address eventually.
Once again, in 2021, two Democratic senators (Arizona’s Kirsten Sinema and West Virginia’s Joe Manchin) are blocking all progressive legislation, from ending the Filibuster to protecting voter rights to making Washington, DC the 51st state. Ironically, the state of West Virginia was formed by anti-slavery whites who seceded from Virginia, and many ex-Confederates settled Arizona. Even among the Democrats, the South/West alliance is in control.
What are the deeper lessons here? One aspect of the myth of American innocence is the narrative of an America that put aside its differences, resolved its racial problems, unified after the Civil War and then turned its face outward to become the savior of the world (or: join the other white European empires in their frenzy to divide up the Third World for capitalism). From the mythological perspective, Trumpus’ inauguration, unpopular as it was, began the next installment of our four-year cycle in which the political establishment and most middle-class Americans come together in the great ceremony of re-affirming America’s divinely inspired purpose.
Yes, yes, I know there are differences. Tell that to a child in Palestine. Neither a Trumpus nor a Biden presidency would care to change these aspects of our national myth. Indeed, it would solidify them further and lay the groundwork for further imperial atrocities, further divisions between rich and poor and irreversible environmental decline.
But it may well destroy – perhaps forever – the notion that our political system has the built-in capacity to re-invigorate itself, to inspire millions of new, young voters to work for real change, and to encourage them to see their idealism reflected back at them by their elders.
Does facing the truth make us any freer? At this point I have little to offer but an invitation to drop our innocence. The truth is that such dark conclusions are of value only if they inspire us – make us willing – to re-write, or reframe, our history. And this requires the ability to think mythologically. Perhaps our national story – not the official story of freedom and opportunity, but the actual one, the one that acknowledges that the South really did win the Civil War – is losing its hold on us.
But because the new story has not been written yet, we are all living in liminal times, an initiatory period that produces more of the same anxiety that drives white rage. The bad news is that this condition will certainly give us more mass shootings, more brutal cops, more drone attacks and more Trumpus’s, and that more innocents will suffer.
Thinking mythologically allows us only one privilege: to entertain the possibility – just as Southerners did in 1876 – that the new story may well be in its birth stages. Thinking mythologically requires us to hold irreconcilable opposites in our minds. As Wendell Berry writes,
Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.
Meanwhile, as Malcolm X said,
As long as you are south of the Canadian border, you are South.