How to Help the South Become more Progressive: Some Tips from a Real Live Southerner

lincolnWe live in challenging times.  Our federal government is about as useful as one of those herbal baldness cures sold on Nigerian websites.  That situation is unlikely to change any time soon.  Meanwhile, the hate merchants on both the left and the right (you know who they are) continue to rake in obscene profits by telling people what they want to hear, not what they need to hear.

 Then there is the wholesale flight from reason into paranoid conspiracy theories, a plague that afflicts both ends of the political spectrum.  Hence the conservatives who think Obama was born in Kenya and the liberals who believe George W, Bush masterminded 9/11.  And, while some scoff at global warming, others would die before getting their kids vaccinated.  Then there are the religious fundamentalists who think all Muslims are terrorists, not to mention the atheist fundamentalists who claim that Hitler was a Christian.

 If advanced aliens ever do discover our planet, then they will probably write us off as hopelessly unevolved.  Or maybe they will just wipe us out and let a more enlightened species take over the planet – mold, for example.  (I realize that mold probably doesn’t qualify as a “species,” but allow me some room for poetic license).

 This problem of our nation’s political stalemate has been explored by a host of people with more education and training than I will ever have.  However, there’s nothing like a view from the trenches to add a fresh perspective to what has become a gloomy and protracted struggle.  So please indulge me for the time being.

 I have lived in the south for all of my 48 years, except for a 10-month stint in New Jersey; why it’s nickname is the “Garden State” is anyone’s guess.  I understand Dixie about as well as anyone can.  More important, I don’t consider myself to be better than the other children of the region, unlike those who spread xenophobia in the name of promoting tolerance.

 I was taught in Georgia public schools, went to college in that same state, and understand what the term “scattered, smothered, and covered” means.  And I don’t refer to the excellent album by Hootie and the Blowfish.

 I voted for President Obama twice and campaigned for him in North Carolina.  I have little regard for Sarah Palin and none for Michelle Bachman.  I believe in God and Capitalism, go to church, and have taught Sunday school many times.  I own guns.  I also believe in stricter laws governing their use.

 I favor letting consenting adults marry, regardless of how their plumbing is arranged.  I oppose the death penalty.  This is not because I think it’s inherently wrong, but because our legal system seems to have trouble separating the guilty from the merely poor.  And, once you kill innocent people, it’s hard to make it up the them.

Despite holding these views, I have never been lynched, had a cross burned on my lawn, or been called a godless Socialist.

 I understand just how much southerners have to gain from the programs most of them oppose; Obamacare, for example.  Unfortunately, my people have a tendency to work against their own best interests.  This must change before they can enjoy benefits many Americans take for granted, like higher wages, better schools, and an improved standard of living.  But that will never happen until progressives figure out how to talk to the folks below the Mason-Dixon line.  With that in mind, here are some ways that Democrats can make real inroads in the South.

 Warning: these are real-world solutions, ones that will require people to accept facts they would rather not face.  Implementing them will require open-mindedness and pragmatism on their parts, just as it will from southerners.

 Step One: Admit that You Don’t Know Today’s South

 The biggest stumbling block to achieving enlightenment is admitting that your currents notions are wrong.  So here’s the lowdown on the state of 21st century Dixie:


  • Most southerners are not racists.  In the modern South, African-Americans have little fear of being lynched or enslaved.  Blacks occupy significant roles in business, government, and educational settings.  Many southerners have openly disavowed the racist policies of the past and seek to make amends for them.
  • Are there exceptions to this rule?  Of course.  The point is that those incidents are exceptions and not the rule.  For example, if an African-American is stopped by a racist lunkhead with a badge, then the incident makes national news – and rightfully so.  However, the fact that thousands of blacks may drive that same stretch of road every day without being harassed is left unmentioned.  The additional fact that further investigation often leads either to the officer being disciplined, or to the original account of the event being discredited, also goes unreported.
  • The fact that so many non-southerners are quick to believe the worst about the region says more about their own prejudices than those of its residents.  Bigotry based on geography or accent is as wrong-headed as any other kind.  Yet many of these xenophobes would rather point a finger than look in the mirror.  In other words, they’re hypocrites.

 Step Two: Admit your Real Nature

 Stupidity, hatred, and violence are the common heritage of humanity; we all have blood on our hands, collectively speaking.  Each of us is capable of listening to our worst instincts.  This applies as much to atheists as it does to Christians.  It describes people whose ancestors hail from Europe and those who descended from Native groups.  Every human being who has ever walked the earth is a killer by nature, you and I included.  We differ only in the degree to which we suppress that instinct.

 One area in which this is often ignored is in popular accounts of America’s civil war.  Was slavery a chief cause of that conflict?  Yes.  Was slaveholding horribly, inexcusably evil?  Yes.  Were the Southern states on the wrong side of history?  Again, yes.

 Were the northern soldiers that crushed the revolt fighting for the liberation of the slaves?  No.  In fact, one reason President Lincoln delayed issuing the Emancipation Proclamation was his fear that Northerners would abandon their support for the war.  Many of them did.  They had no desire to shed their blood for what they openly referred to as “nigger freedom.”

 Another unsavory fact is that most of the northern military leaders were avowed racists.  A prime example is William Tecumseh Sherman, who headed out West after the war to slaughter American Indians.  He was an SOB.  But so was Robert E. Lee, so was Stonewall Jackson, and so are all of us, no matter what state we live in.  Like the Good Book says, “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”  Keep that in mind the next time you put down someone who speaks with a drawl.

 Step Three: Don’t Argue about Who the “True Mountain Climbers” are

 Once upon a time there was a group of people who were united in a single goal: to climb the mountain that blocked the way from their village to the rest of the world.  So they called a public meeting to discuss the best way to accomplish their shared purpose.

 At first everything was going well.  There was an active exchange of ideas and a broad consensus about how to conquer the summit that stood in their way.  But after a time a division emerged among them.  Some favored taking a route that would lead them directly over the highest part of the peak.  Other preferred a path that would take them along its edges.  Tempers grew heated as discussion turned to dissension and finally to outright division.  The coalition splintered into warring factions, each convinced that it alone had the right idea.  As for the other groups, they were dismissed as heretics or compromisers.  Any hope of climbing the mountain was lost in the sea of bickering voices.

 This story is of course a parable intended to illustrate certain truths.  In this case, the villagers represent progress-minded people who would rather fight among themselves than unite in common purpose.  Some of the issues they quarrel about incessantly include the following:


  • What is the best way to ensure that every child is planned and wanted?  Assuming we all agree that abortion is never the best option, how do we reduce the number that occur to the smallest possible amount?
  • How can we best accomplish the goal of allowing same-sex couples the benefits of marriage?  Is legislative action the best tactic?  Or should we try to build a public consensus on a state-by-state basis?
  • What is the most realistic plan for helping more Americans have access to quality, affordable health care?  Is a one-payer structure the optimal route to this purpose?  Or is it better to have an alliance of government agencies, private businesses, and charitable organizations?

 These are all bones of contention, not only within the Progressive camp but also between those who lean left and equally well-intentioned people on the right.  The South is filled with good folks who are perfectly willing to listen to other points of view, so long as their own opinions receive a fair hearing.

 Let me put this in plain language:

Most people who identify as pro-life are not out to oppress women or deny them health care.  They sincerely believe that the procedure is murder, and they are motivated by a desire to protect the weak and vulnerable.

  • Most of those who oppose gay marriage don’t want to round up homosexuals and send them to death camps.  They have moral objections to same-sex activity that are founded on millennia of moral teachings, ones which have only come into question in the last few years.  Sticking your finger in their eyes and screaming at them will not win them to your way of thinking.
  • Most people who are against President Obama’s healthcare reforms don’t want the poor and sick to crawl under a rock and die.  In fact, many of them support private efforts that provide medical services to thousands.  Acting like bastards towards these people may give you a smug feeling of moral superiority, but it won’t advance the cause which you claim is your sole motivation.

A Lesson from Lincoln

I didn’t write this post to lay out a detailed plan for winning the south to the progressive cause.  My goal is merely to focus on the elements that such a strategy must include in order to be successful.  Without them, efforts towards this aim are doomed to failure.  That isn’t “my” truth, it’s just true.

I conclude with a scene from my favorite motion picture, Steven Spielberg’s outstanding 2012 film Lincoln.  Out of respect for copyrights i will paraphrase the events I describe:

President Lincoln is debating with arch-abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens about the best way to end slavery and rebuild the South after the Civil War.  Stevens, ever the uncompromising zealot, takes Lincoln to task for his willingness to time the pace of reforms to the current state of public thinking.  He alludes to a “moral compass” that guides him unerringly towards what is right, a compass which he says is lacking in most other Americans.

Lincoln’s reply is a splendid example of realism and common sense.  It goes something like this:

“I know compasses.  I used them when I was working as a surveyor.  They will guide you flawlessly towards true north every time.  But they can’t advise you about the hills, forests, or bogs you may encounter along the way.  If, in your fever to accomplish your goal, you rush ahead ignoring reality only to drown in a swamp, then what’s the point of knowing true north?”

Lincoln was a wise man.  I think we can all learn something from his insights.  Whether we have the courage to apply them remains to be seen.





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