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The Irony of the Solid South: Democrats, Republicans, and Race, 1865-1944. By Glenn Feldman. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2013.

irony of the solid southAs a work of history, this book is mostly fine scholarship. It is long, detailed, and thoroughly documented. Unfortunately, the author does not stop with writing history but adds personal, highly biased, and condescending political opinions about the current voting tendencies of “plain-folk Christians” (308) of the South. His thesis is that multiple ironies can be seen in white southern voters maintaining allegiance to an ideology (conservatism) since 1944 rather than to a party (Democrat). Although his case is nuanced, the gist of it is that white southerners have always suffered from a “cultural pathology” (309) in which they lump racial, religious, and economic issues together and vote as a bloc for whichever party is the most conservative on them; the fact that they still vote as bloc today, albeit now as Republicans, proves that they are still just as racist, theologically misguided, and otherwise backward as their forefathers.

One of several troubling accusations the author makes is that white southern Christian conservatives today practice “the New Racism” (407), which is really just the same old racism in a new package. His evidence is mainly that they despise Barak Obama. He conveniently ignores the fact that most of these voters would gladly support a conservative black president, such as a Herman Cain or a Ben Carson.

On economics and religion, the author displays intellectual arrogance and biblical ignorance by claiming that the GOP’s fiscal conservatism is “embarrassingly difficult to reconcile with the New Testament message of Jesus Christ.” (308) He goes on to lament how “unquestionably maddening” (309) it is to watch poor white southerners vote against their own material interests in every federal election. He thus implies that a fiscally responsible federal government is un-Christian, but growing the national debt and unfunded liabilities to unsustainable levels is morally right, since, after all, a lot of that money goes to help the poor.

The author takes cheap shots at those with whom he disagrees, describing, for instance, the Tea Party as “Frankensteinian,” (236) calling Texas Congressman Ron Paul a hypocrite for his stance on Social Security, and labeling Christian historian, David Barton, a “quack” for heading up “the United States-as-a-Christian Nation School” and allegedly making statements of “praise for slavery.” (330) These are half-truths at best and gross distortions and mischaracterizations at worst.

The material presented in the first 290 pages, which covers the years 1865-1944, does not support the conclusions reached in the last 21 pages (the Epilogue) about the reasons for the current voting behavior of white southern conservative Christians. That, along with the frankly insulting tone the author takes in describing this group, detracts from the quality of what otherwise would have been an excellent history book.

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4 replies to this post
  1. I’m so sick of these people talking about The South. I couldn’t care less what somebody like Feldman has to say…I can’t even pretend to care anymore.

    Why can’t we just go our separate ways? I am a Southerner…full stop. I say this without malice but, the rest doesn’t matter to me any more than Canada or Egypt. The idea that people in Mississippi and Massachusetts have any say in one another’s lives is mind boggling to me. My great hope is that as the Federal government becomes more blatantly a National government…the whole thing will bust up.

  2. Online, we see this fallacy clear across the political spectrum– “If I thought X– which I don’t– I would have to think Y. He thinks X, and therefore he must think Y.” It happens, I think, because our easy familiarity with the conclusions of rival viewpoints does not give us insight into the logic supporting them. After all, if we understood the supporting logic, we might not be so polarized in our opposition to the conclusions. The review above supplies an example of this.

    “He thus implies that a fiscally responsible federal government is un-Christian, but growing the national debt and unfunded liabilities to unsustainable levels is morally right, since, after all, a lot of that money goes to help the poor.”

    Not necessarily. If Feldman thinks that Jesus-approvable policies toward the poor require more federal resources– does he in fact think this, or does he just think that the present resources should be reallocated from other things to help the poor?– he could believe that steeper progressive taxation could supply them with no adverse economic consequences. Or if he is more concerned with the vulnerability of the poor to recessions, he could believe that borrowing to support social services when the multiplier is 1.5 or more could stabilize demand in the interest both workers and profit-takers at low or no net cost to the Treasury. Insofar as models based on these assumptions have predicted the data better than models on other assumptions, such beliefs are reasonably well-supported by empirical research. Now the reviewer may find all three of these alternate scenarios– reallocation, progressive taxation, countercyclical borrowing– unwise, but it does not follow from this that Feldman would not prefer them as most liberals do. For that reason, Feldman’s thought that the federal government should help the poor more does not imply that he thinks the poor should be helped through “growing the national debt and unfunded liabilities to unsustainable levels.”

    I like this reviewer, share his distaste for patronizing references to the South, and suspect that Feldman has indeed made them. But the moral flaws we may detect in liberal views is not the cause of those views. They have a view of cause and effect relations in the economy with which conservatives disagree.

  3. Indeed, the compulsion of this study is odious: to pound everyone into the neoliberal mold. And generalize, while “Southerners” are as polyglot today as they have always been.

    Meanwhile the most fair-minded liberals have to admit that something about the rural South holds whatever is still good about America, even if they don’t like the culture personally for themselves.

  4. “He goes on to lament how “unquestionably maddening” (309) it is to watch poor white southerners vote against their own material interests in every federal election. ”

    Yeah, what a bunch of saps! Refusing to vote on the basis of selfishness, but instead on morals and values. Left wing condescension seems to have no limits at all.

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