In this month’s edition of Politico magazine, author and contributing editor Michael Lind conducts a provocative little thought experiment: What if the South were not part of the United States?
Throughout his snooty diatribe, Lind blames the South for creating the wrong kind of American exceptionalism, and isolates the Southern states as the main contributor to U.S. struggles with economic inequality, violence and racism.
“Minus the South, the rest of the U.S. probably would be more like Canada or Australia or Britain or New Zealand — more secular, more socially liberal, more moderate in the tone of its politics and somewhat more generous in social policy,” Lind wrote. “And it would not be as centralized as France or as socially democratic as Sweden.”
But let’s take Lind’s thesis a little further. What if the South had achieved its independence after the Civil War?
Having grown up throughout the South, I’ve seen many reminders of Southern pride and what I assumed to be tongue-in-cheek efforts to suggest things might be better off if the South had won the Civil War.
I recall a song by Hank Williams Jr. frequently played in the barrooms of Auburn, Alabama, “If the South Would Have Won, We’d Have Had It Made.” These days you’d get shipped off to sensitivity training if you played that in certain public settings.
Williams’ song probably wasn’t meant to be taken that seriously. Its gist was, we’d honor Elvis Presley and Patsy Cline, have a judicial system that reflects that of Texas and have a more self-sufficient economy.
That and other pro-South gestures — at least in the New South — often seem a bit of a novelty act. No one in their right mind really is for revisiting Jim Crow or slavery. Yet that’s what you will be tagged with if you dare wear a T-shirt with a cheesy slogan like “American by birth, Southern by the grace of God” any place north of Richmond, Virginia.
For starters, since the Civil War, the U.S. was caught up in a couple of pretty major world-changing events — World Wars I and II, for example. Without the Southern states being part of the Union, it’s hard to imagine how the U.S. could have had an impact any of those conflicts. If Adolf Hitler hadn’t been defeated, we’d be dealing with fascism as a political philosophy, which to me makes any problems associated with so-called Southern exceptionalism pretty minor by comparison.
Furthermore, there would have been no Marshall Plan put forth by the U.S. to make possible some of these socialist basket-case democracies many on the left are in love with as models for a proper society.
On the other side of that equation, the South would eventually have had to come to grips with slavery and racism or face being isolated from the rest of the world. Just on those grounds alone, it was morally the right thing for Abraham Lincoln to preserve the Union as we know it today.
Where the U.S., even with all of its shortcomings, is far ahead of Western Europe, Australia, Canada and a few other countries is in its economic might. It’s not even a close contest in terms of nominal gross domestic product. Sure, there are other economies larger than ours, but if you look at it in per-capita terms, nowhere else in the world comes close.
That’s arguably because we don’t have as many socialized elements in our society. We’re not reliant upon government from womb to tomb and cradle to grave. And the ideals added to the U.S. political system from Southern culture are a very big reason we haven’t adopted that form of governance.
If you take away the unfair potential racial branding of Southern exceptionalism Lind decries, it’s not unlike exceptionalism in any other part of America. We saw New York City exceptionalism on display in the aftermath of 9/11. We see evidence of West Coast exceptionalism in nearly every facet of our popular culture.
After the Civil War, the American South really struggled economically. Mobile was no exception. That caused Southerners to have a chip on their shoulders — an attitude of “we’re going to do things our way, some of it for the better and some of it for the worse.” Overcoming the worse, which is the racist past, is something we’ve been dealing with over the last 50 years.
Another aspect is the notion that religion should play a role in society. Although religion is shunned by progressive elements of our political class, adherence to religion is what has reinforced family values in Southern society.
That’s not to say it’s uniquely Southern, but politicians who don’t shy away from the faith tend to do better in Southern states. It’s why Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, self-described evangelical Christians, won Alabama’s last two Republican presidential primaries.
Southerners shouldn’t be ashamed of the exceptional way they do things they enjoy — hunting, college football, NASCAR, vacationing in Gatlinburg or Gulf Shores.
People tend to hate what they don’t understand, and that’s apparently what is going on here.