• Glenn Feldman, ed., Painting Dixie Red: Where, When, and Why the South Became Republican, Tallahassee, Fla.: University Press of Florida, 2011, 360 pages, $74.95.
If you’re in the middle of a lengthy project, one of the worst things that can happen is to have the thrust of your work overtaken by events, rendering it outdated if not obsolete. That may be the realization that came to historian Glenn Feldman, editor of Painting Dixie Red, as the result of political developments between 2008 — when he began putting together this collection of essays — and the fall of 2011, when the University Press of Florida published it.
Feldman and his contributors — primarily academic historians — wanted to tell a story of continuity. While acknowledging “the massive influx of Yankees into the burgeoning Sunbelt cities” and “despite the transition from cotton belt to skyscraper,” and “the fact that the South is now Republican,” these essays argue that “the South has still never really changed” (emphasis in original).
And what hasn’t “really changed”? The region’s endemic racism. “The South’s partisan realignment from Democratic to Republican is about race,” Feldman writes. “The southern outlook is more than just a ‘white backlash’ to civil rights; it is an ethos, a mentalite, a worldview.”
The Republicanism of the South is “radical in the extreme: uber-patriotism to the point of talking about the use of nuclear weapons and defending torture; laissez-faire and pro-business to the point of neoliberalism, Austrian economics, the Chicago school, and the implied nihilism of F.A. Hayek, Ayn Rand, and Milton Friedman; and fundamentalism not only religious and economic.”
The premise of the book is that Republicanism = small-government conservatism = racism, and that the South became the perfect petri dish to incubate that filthy virus.
Rather than try to dissect all the nonsense in Feldman’s thesis — let alone the cluelessness expressed in the essays that follow — it’s important to acknowledge that several thoughtful books with a strong left-leaning perspective about the rise of Republicans (in the South and beyond) have appeared in recent decades.
For starters, Jacob Weisberg’s In Defense of Government, E.J. Dionne Jr.’s Why Americans Hate Politics, and Thomas B. and Mary D. Edsall’s Chain Reaction offer intelligent and nuanced if ultimately wrong-headed views of the interaction between race, culture, economics, and politics. These books were published nearly 20 years ago, and they offer a more useful and contemporary perspective than almost anything you’ll find in Painting Dixie Red.
What really mucked up Feldman’s story of continuity was the rise of Tea Party politics in the South and elsewhere. Feldman makes a brief, snarky comment about Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul in the introduction, but nowhere else is the Tea Party mentioned — which is kind of important, because several Tea Party heroes hardly fit the white-hooded stereotype Feldman, et al., insist dominate the Republican South: Black U.S. Reps. Allen West (Fla.) and Tim Scott (S.C.), Cuban-American U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), Indian-American Gov. Nikki Haley (S.C.), and, of course, another Indian-American, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who recently won his second term running virtually unopposed in a state that was a Democratic stronghold a decade ago.
Remember: Tim Scott defeated Strom Thurmond’s son in the GOP congressional primary. If that didn’t blow up this book’s thesis, nothing much could.
Other sins of omission abound. There’s no mention of the reform-minded, business-oriented (dare I say?) post-racial Republican governors and legislators of the 1980s who laid the groundwork for the party’s Southern leaders of today. Without Lamar Alexander, Jim Martin, Carroll Campbell, Connie Mack, and — yes — Newt Gingrich, such contemporary figures as Jindal, Bob McDonnell, George W. and Jeb Bush, and Haley Barbour may never have risen to positions of regional and national leadership.
George W. Bush appears several times, but primarily as president rather than governor of Texas. You get the point.
Yes, there’s a romanticism of the South that has no equal in other regions of our nation. The legacies of slavery, segregation, and civil rights are deeply intertwined in that story. But there’s much more to the South than those tales of sin and redemption. And until left-wing academics awaken to this reality, they’ll find themselves increasingly isolated on their campuses, irrelevant except for the fact that they’re tenured.