Yesterday I wrote about Brad Paisley’s Accidental Racist, his musical response to accusations of racism he faced for flying the rebel flag on his chest. Its message? The past is the past. Let’s get over it and move on.
But the song is worth further dissection because I think it reveals a great deal about why the GOP’s racist Southern Strategy was successful, and why it’s going to be tough for them to simply re-brand that strategy away in order to meet the challenge of demographic change.
For the uninitiated, the Southern Strategy was built on the ruins of the failed 1964 presidential campaign of Republican Barry Goldwater. Goldwater lost by a landslide to Lyndon Johnson, but not before exposing the power of Southern anti-black racism.
In the 1950s, poor white Southerners were the third most liberal voters on issues of government intervention for full-employment, education, and affordable health care. They were also overwhelmingly Democratic. Goldwater ran against their Party and popular sentiment, promising, among other things, to turn Social Security into a voluntary program and to eliminate farm subsidies. But, because he ran against black Civil Rights, he had surprisingly strong support from white Southern voters, even in states where the programs he promised to destroy were the most popular.
Goldwater’s campaign showed Republicans that they could overcome their image among white Southern Democrats as the party of Lincoln, and moreover as the party of rich, effete Northern industrialists, by appealing to racism.
The resentment the GOP tapped and that Brad Paisley’s song has accidentally distilled is best expressed in these lyrics,
They called it Reconstruction, fixed the buildings, dried some tears
We’re still siftin’ through the rubble after a hundred-fifty years
The song makes a couple of references to slavery, but at its heart, it’s really about the wounds of the Civil War and Reconstruction. Here, Reconstruction isn’t presented to us as an effort to lift the South out of slavery. Instead, it’s reduced to fixing (white people’s) buildings and drying (white people’s) tears. And so, he says, we find ourselves still sifting through the rubble of the war after one hundred-fifty years.
That’s the reactionary white Southern view of our racial history which, sadly, has managed to make itself the dominant story of the white South in spite of a long tradition of anti-racist white resistance. Brad Paisley would do well to tap that tradition. It might well prevent future “accidents.”
The reactionary version of history doesn’t begin with hundreds of years of slavery. It doesn’t acknowledge that the project of building the old South was financed through the sale of black people; that the wealth of the South was created through the labor of black slaves. Nor that black women were routinely raped by their white owners, and black families were torn apart on the regular when owners needed money or just wanted to reorganize. It forgets that the South was ruled by oligarchs who cared little or nothing about ordinary Southerners, whatever their color.
Instead it begins at the point when white supremacy in the South is first challenged. Why? Because the end of slavery degraded the value of whiteness. Until then, most poor whites were able to escape wage labor. So they may not have had much in the way of material goods, but they had their pride. White pride. And this bit of ideological jujitsu that justified slavery and has never been wholly addressed in our culture – the idea that racial equity must come at the price of one’s pride of identity – is the reason that a real national conversation about race is next to impossible and GOP re-branding is going to be a rough ride.
So let’s get this bit of history straight. Before the Civil War, the North was richer overall, but most of the wealthiest Americans lived in the South. There, the gap between rich and poor was too great. Too little was being invested in the public. Beyond the plantations, Southern infrastructure was in a sorry state. And this because slavery made plantation owners into politically unchallengeable oligarchs.
Reconstruction attempted to address this by imposing democratic, biracial government on the South, while also repairing the damage created by the war. Sure there were problems with Reconstruction. It didn’t go far enough. Carpetbaggers ran rampant. The process of reconciliation could be heavy handed and humiliating. But Reconstruction didn’t fail because of any of these problems. It failed because of a massive backlash against biracial governance led by a coalition made up of the Ku Klux Klan, plantation elites, and local officials.
Voter suppression in the form of racial cleansing, lynchings, and no small amount of tarring and feathering deterred black Republicans (virtually the only Republicans left in some districts) from the polls. By 1876, these efforts were successful enough to force the GOP to compromise with white supremacists, pulling federal troops out of the South in order to get the Southern electoral votes necessary for Republican Rutherford B. Hayes to win the presidency in spite of losing the popular vote.
Once the troops left, the Klan engaged in a campaign of terror that ended any hope of biracial governance. And their symbol was the rebel flag. The same rebel flag that created the P.R. problem that Brad Paisley is trying to address with Accidental Racist. As I’m guessing the GOP will soon learn, until we are able to put that flag and all it represents to rest, we’ll continue to be victims of that history.