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This essay was prepared in March 2015, prior to the 2016 election season that eventually resulted in Donald Trump’s victory. However, the far rightwing’s capture of the presidency makes this essay’s main arguments even more important. The far right, racism, militarism, inequality, and poverty are all centered in the South. The majority of African Americans, the main protagonist of progressive politics in this country, live in the South. And the South has more electoral votes, battleground state votes, population, and congresspersons than any other region. The South is changing rapidly, giving rise to more progressive demographic groups–especially Black and Latino migrations, LGBTQs and urbanites–and a growing Democratic vote. These trends can only be maximized if the importance of the South is understood as a strategic necessity and the chance to win state by state, is acknowledged and acted upon. Hard as the fight is and will be, downplaying the Southern struggle is a losing political strategy and forfeits the moral high ground on the biggest issues facing the country.
The importance of the fight for the South is a matter of considerable controversy. Whatever the rhetoric it’s safe to say that most progressives outside of the South have put little time, energy or money into this struggle since the height of the southern Civil Rights movement. Many have outright given up on the South, considering it either a reactionary lost cause or simply unwinnable.
We beg to disagree, and in this essay will make the case that failure to the fight for the South downplays the centrality of the Black struggle in U.S. politics, strategically surrenders the upper hand to the far right and the Republican Party and cripples the fight against poverty. The South is a dynamically changing region and the fight for it is absolutely crucial to defeating the far right and winning a progressive future.
Specifically, we argue that as regards building the progressive movement into a powerful force in this country, the South is crucial.
(1) Defeating the right and building a strong progressive movement in this country needs the leadership, experience and energy of African Americans, a growing majority of whom who live in the South.
(2) Targeting the Southern racist rightwing in its own backyard, on issues of race, poverty, militarism, climate change and democracy, is a crucial part of a broad movement to defeat the right nationally in public opinion, on policy and in elections. To fail to do is a losing political strategy and forfeits the moral high ground on the biggest issues in the country. Organizing the South is also vital to building the progressive movement and an independent progressive wing of the Democratic Party that is key to defeating the far right and corporate power. Defeating the far right and winning a jobs, peace, justice and sustainability agenda will be difficult if not impossible if the South is left to Republicans (or rightwing Democrats).
Electoral action to win political power in the South is a strategic, not an optional, component of any strategy to defeat the right. As regards to elections and political power, we argue:
(1) A critical mass of Southern states can and must be won if we are to block or defeat the right in presidential elections. Three of the five or so critical battleground states are in the South: Florida, Virginia and North Carolina. Southern blue and battleground states plus Washington D.C. hold 38 percent of the electoral votes needed to win.
(2) Winning an anti-rightwing congressional majority depends on winning in the South, as the South has a bigger congressional delegation than any other region and Southern congresspersons also hold key leadership posts within the Republican Party’s congressional hierarchies.
(3) There are tremendous opportunities to build progressive political power and governance at the local level in the South as 105 counties have a Black majority. (Only one county outside of the South has a Black majority.)
All of these points will sharpen in the coming decades, as the South is projected to continue to experience greater population gains as compared to the rest of the country. That population gain is rooted in the ongoing transformation of the Southern economy which is driven by changes in the global economy. Well aware of this, the far right has launched a withering campaign of voter suppression, racist gerrymandering and straight anti-democratic legislative maneuvers to combat it. The South is becoming ever more important economically and politically, not less.
While some might dismiss the South, focusing strategically on the Northeast and Pacific Coast as central to a progressive program and the Midwest as the main political battleground, the South’s dynamic growth, historical legacy of Black struggle and powerful political weight make it a critical battlefield.
The nuance is that the South cannot be won as a bloc, but only state by state and county by county. In fact, winning the South in large part means understanding that it is not a monolithic entity and winning it piece by piece: i.e. politically deconstructing the South.
I. Background and dynamics
What is the South?
Defining any region of the country is always a bit arbitrary, as regions are defined by history that is constantly changing and always involves complex intersections.
At first blush one might define the South as the former Confederacy. With the outbreak of the Civil War, a bloody line in the sand was drawn between the Confederacy and the Union. It is often forgotten that Texas and Florida were part of the original core of hard line secession states along with South Carolina, Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia and Alabama. When Lincoln called for the armed recapture of Fort Sumter, Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee and North Carolina joined the Confederacy.
However, a number of slave states and territories did not join the Confederacy: Washington D.C., Delaware, Maryland, Missouri and Kentucky. West Virginia split from Virginia in opposition to secession.
A lot of water has passed under the bridge since the Civil War, and the South has been transformed in important ways. Gone are some of the most powerful hallmarks of the South, especially slavery, the plantation economy, sharecropping, whites-only voting and Jim Crow. All this makes defining the South even more difficult.
Today the U.S. Census defines the South as the eleven states of the former Confederacy plus the former border states of Delaware, Kentucky, Oklahoma, West Virginia, and Washington D.C.
This essay will adopt that definition but excludes Delaware since it never had many slaves, never had a significant plantation economy, never seriously considered seceding, never formally adopted Jim Crow and never had a significant Black population. (Figure 1) Since the U.S. census is the primary source of data there may be times when our data sets include Delaware.
Figure 1 The South, The Southwest, Border States and Rust Belt.
Against stereotyping: Variation and transformation of the South
The South has always been extremely diverse internally, with areas dominated by plantations and slavery or sharecropping (often called the Tidewater, the low country, the Delta or Black Belt), areas dominated by white small farmers (often including small scale slavery and sharecropping, sometimes called the Piedmont) and areas dominated by very poor white folk (often called the mountains, or Appalachia). Belatedly a number of fairly large and medium size cities came into being, mostly in the Piedmont areas though including a few port cities. And in the last forty years different parts of the South, especially the emerging large cities and the Sun Belt, attract significant migration from outside the South, including immigrants.
Long term transformations of the South began slowly following the Civil War. Industrialization began to supplant the plantation turned sharecropper economy and a modern transportation infrastructure was built on rails. The so-called New South of industrial towns like Atlanta, Birmingham and Durham, mostly post-Civil War in origin and located outside the prime plantation areas, exploded into centers of steel, tobacco and textile manufacturing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Mechanization of agriculture began displacing hundreds of thousands of sharecroppers and small farmers. The historic Black Migration to the North starting in 1915 was a response to the push-pull factors of displacement off the land, and the lure of jobs and relative freedom in the industrial economies outside of the South.
The explosive growth of the military industrial complex gave new energy to the Southern transformation in the mid and late 20th centuries. The South is home to approximately 41 percent of U.S. military installations and numerous military-related institutions which extended the already strong Southern militarist traditions.
In the old industrial heartland of America, the 1970s and 1980s marked the era of deindustrialization in which thousands of Northern factories were shuttered and fled off shore and to the non-unionized South. Tourism and a steady stream of retirees moving to better weather have contributed to rapid growth of Southern and Southwestern cities.
Cities such as Miami, Houston and Dallas-Ft. Worth, have been collectively dubbed the “Sun Belt.” Additionally, finance fled the expensive Northern cities and suddenly Charlotte, NC flourished as the second biggest financial center in the country, trailing only New York City.
In the 1950s, long before Silicon Valley, Durham, Chapel Hill and Raleigh, leveraged the University of North Carolina, Duke University and North Carolina State to create the high tech Research Triangle Park, anchored by IBM. Since then the “New Economy,” “Information Revolution” or “Knowledge Economy” has filtered throughout the South with growing strength.
Each state is a different combination of these elements. The toxic mix of slavery, secession, sharecropping, white dictatorship and Jim Crow welded the South into the country’s most politically and economically identifiable region, but now the main trend is diversification. Despite these growing economic and social differences, the legacy of slavery, secession and Jim Crow—racism, conservative Christianity, anti-government sentiment and conservatism on all rights issues—continue to combine to create a rightwing white majority that reinforces Southern particularity, even as the economic and social basis for that uniqueness is undermined.
However these various transformations have been extremely uneven. The South today is a study in economic and political contrasts. Overall, the region remains the poorest in the country with nine of the twelve poorest states. But Virginia and Maryland rank in the top five richest states in the country. The region has a growing majority of African Americans in the country, but Kentucky has but few while Blacks are about 35 percent of the population of Mississippi.
Today it might be helpful to view the South as consisting of three archetypal (and interpenetrating) political/economic/demographic subregions plus two unique states.
One subregion–consisting of Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and South Carolina–is marked by high percentages of Black people (approximately 25-35 percent) and relatively backward economies. This is what has historically been known as the Deep South, minus Georgia.
A second subregion, consisting of Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia, is marked by significant Black populations (approximately 20-25 percent) but also by strong industry, finance, new economic development (high tech) and strong economic and demographic growth, including immigrants. Tennessee and Arkansas are split between their poor white Appalachian regions and their heavily Black areas on the Mississippi River, and seem to be moving in this direction, though with somewhat smaller Black populations (17% and 15%).
Next there are the overwhelmingly white and very poor states of Kentucky and West Virginia. Oklahoma is similar but is not part of Appalachia and is quickly changing. Black and Latino populations are growing and it has always had a large Native American population.
Florida and Texas have become unique states due to their strong roles in the international and national economies, their extreme internal diversity demographically and economically, and their large populations.
The similarities and differences across the region point to the strategic challenges and opportunities it poses to progressives both inside and outside the South.
Political drivers, political trends
The destruction of the historic Southern plantation economy along with its white dictatorship and Jim Crow racism has, ironically, given rise to two contradictory political motions.
No longer a political or social outlier, corporate neo-liberals rather than plantation owners now dominate most of Southern politics. In fact they have encouraged and taken advantage of the longstanding far rightwing Southern populist movement to drive a powerful nationwide rightward motion since 1980. That far right is now mounting a serious challenge to the rightwing capitalists for power in the Republican Party.
While the South has become the center of the racist, militarist right wing that threatens to dominate the country, this “nationalization,” together with the powerful African American presence in the region that has produced many of the glorious progressive traditions of the country, gives rise to openings for Democrats and progressives if they choose to seize the moment.
It is this high stakes political polarization that, above all, makes the struggle for the South so crucial.
The main business wing of the Southern Republican coalition is not just corporate, but the extreme rightwing of corporate forces in the U.S.: big oil and energy, military, low end retail, big Pharma an