A Southerner Reflects on Our Current Political Moment

I am a native of eastern North Carolina who grew up in the midst of tobacco fields, textile mills and the darkness of Jim Crow. I have spent my professional lifetime as a psychiatrist but have remained keenly interested in the social changes that left a large number of my family and friends in the realm of anachronisms. My home town is dying. Progress killed it when a new bypass reduced it to an exit ramp. It is now invisible to most people driving to and from the coast. This is the heart of North Carolina’s Trump country.

Abandon Common Sense All Who Enter

The quote is a paraphrase of the warning above the entrance to Dante’s Inferno. The goal of this brief overview is to apply this psycho-social and cultural principles to an age of rampant cognitive dissonances. Our current political struggle is act one in the drama of increasing polarization and perhaps tribalization in America. This past election splits the electorate (or 55% or so that voted) into nearly equal percentages of people believe that we are already passed through the gateway. The other half are on the verge of leaving Purgatorio and about to enter the Paradiso.

The divisions within the news media seem equally cavernous. The boundary between truth versus fake news and outright lying is semipermeable. Objectivity is the first casualty. Even the viewing public is divided between zealous followers. This sectarian split creates situation in which ethics and sense of fairness in news reporting and governing is now prey to party loyalty and overzealous devotion. We are moving away from “just the facts ma’am” to pandering to belief systems. The highly competitive, 24-hour news cycle feeds the faithful and vilifies the heretics on the other side of the great divide. Winning at all costs is preferable to common truths. We are a “house divided against itself”, but the big question is whether we “cannot survive”. “E pluribus Unum” is crumbling away like a dry pie crust. Do we need a war or some catastrophe to repair the damage?

My job is not to assume the mantle of a Soviet Era psychiatrist and use the power of a diagnosis to label opposing politicians as suffering from a mental illness. I deeply respect the Goldwater rule. This was an ethics restriction issued to psychiatrists that sanctioned the speculative diagnoses for political figures (Barry Goldwater in 1964). This is not a diagnostic case study. It is my best attempt to explore the social forces that lead to a suspension of disbelief by my fellow southerners. I think it has generalized to a much larger segment of our complex, fragmented and perhaps tribal society. But I know southerners first hand by virtue of being a southern white male who grew up in a working, lower middle class, farmer- handyman led family. If anything is grossly biased or incorrect please remember an old southern aphorism: “he tried but he just can’t help it”.

Why Did This Happen?

The Federalist papers argued for unity and a common sense of purpose in order to override state rights in terms of economics and international affairs. Today we see, to be creating a chain of lesser being in which even state’s right is regressing to increasingly smaller units- county, town/city, organization (like the NRA or ACLU), political party, and tribal affiliation. What remains is a fragmented reality in which the individual becomes his own governing body. We have replaced loyalty to North Carolina with loyalty to self –interest and the party line. The pursuit of happiness is perverted into a lust for wealth and power. The winners are blessed, let the rest “eat cake”.

If this transition continues, the Senate and House of Representatives may become the next Fort Sumter. Sen McConnell has lit the fuse. Will the nuclear option further militarize the great divide and ring the death knell for compromise and governance? Will the future be determined party line votes; totalitarianism by simple majority; gerrymandering as “double speak” for the destruction of general welfare and the common good; a rewriting history with the demise of a free press or dissent; dismantling of the constitutional balance of power, a rubber stamp congress, and ruining the desire for a greater America as we run headlong into the quicksand pits in the Washington swamp? Or are we on the verge of a very strange Utopia in which people willfully support a voluntary destruction of their safety net for short term sense of well-being and power?

These versions of myopia also include a belief that facts are what we believe them to be rather than what science and unity or consensus dictate. Unfortunately, we seem to have lost the ability to assess the amount of self-damage that such rigid loyalties might bring. This translates into political self-mutilation in a desire to conform to an ideology that pits my basic needs against the desire to cut the very programs that sustain a modern society. We are currently in a political cold war with no Mutually Assured Destruction to keep a lid on ambition and further division- the acronym MAD seems apt for our times.

Befuddled many of us are groping to understand the balance between vengeance to hold back progress and life in a post-modern nation state. There seems to be a trend towards “getting the ravenous government off our backs; a cleansing that spruces up our unabashed drive for self-promotion, a fundamentalist political religion that preaches rampant individualism and laissez-faire economics. The chorus seems to be chanting: “I am not and nor should I ever be, my brother/sister’s keeper”. This new Renaissance glorifies the “good old days” without acknowledging the remarkable technological and scientific breakthroughs that might launch a new economic surge.

It seems that those who are most alienated and disenfranchised are lining the streets and glorifying the political and socio-economic myths of our sacred industrial past, while others are glorifying the ongoing positivism and urge to purchase any new technology borne of this scientific revolution. Change is the evil that lurks in the hearts of those who vilify or glorify newness. The idea that creating future industries by dismantling the inefficient or unsavory parts of the past practices becomes a malevolent act. The epidemic of amnesia affects everyone. Today is a becoming a massive rear guard defense to slow down “progress”.

At the core of this struggle is how we view and the psychological stress of adapting to change. The attitude that culture change is dissonant at best and malevolent at its worst seems to underlie the responses of many rural and working class southerners. Technology is fine for entertainment and escape but not for automating and modernizing traditional southern industries. Who would vote for someone who vows to oppose or destroy a living wage; federal loans for their children to attend college, caring for the less fortunate around the world, or health care that covers their many pre-existing conditions. On the surface this seems like sheer lunacy, but the ideas offered to explain this regression fill up the sociological, political and historical accounts are equally vexing.

The Rise and Fall of the South shall Rise Again

First of all, the South is a euphemism for rural and other blue and red state voters who pulled off this ignominious defeat of the politically correct establishment — the Democrats and others wearing a scarlet “L” for liberal on their foreheads. The L word is a dirty name in some parts of conservative southern America. But even the

2016 Presidential Election Results by county.
2016 Presidential Election Results by county.

conservative tribe or sect seems fragile as regional differences in politics splinter this coalition. In addition, the fundamentals of regional differences are now being replaced by a socio-economic and political red shift that seems to characterize our current politics. It seems that rednecks in the north, south and other regions of the US are more similar than different- except they speak with different accents. The myth of homogenization is mostly a populist, demagogue’s dream. Is fragmentation sufficient to destroy unification or does it propel the old cry “the south will rise again” and re-assert itself in the noble struggle to reshape society? If so then will the new winners erase the past and recreate their version of history and the future.

But I wonder how many people recall the facts surrounding the American Civil War. Most of us are more familiar with the mythology of the War of Northern Aggression. W J Cash described the tenacity of this mythical history in The Mind of the South. Later studies suggest that the escalation and polarization of socio-political, fire-breathing religious fervor, and regressive pull of these forces led to the civil war. Slavery, state’s rights and a sense of being impoverished second class citizens contrasted with the myth of noble, paternalistic planter class. The issue of slavery split political, social and religious organizations and the election of 1860 touched off the fuse to explode the powder keg. The south was destroyed, but the myth lived on as progress propelled the another myth- progress in education, industry and wealth.

Jim Crow as an oddly placed variant of xenophobia that was no accident. It served as payback for Reconstruction and became one method of sustaining the mythical South. The myth was expanded and further glorified by subsequent generations of southerners who promoted the ideal of a valiant nobility, engaged in chivalrous war against the invading masses of Northern Huns. The noble generation lost but did so with chivalry and glory for the Lost Cause. David lost to Goliath but a vengeful God of wrath was entering history. In this Apocalyptic, the War and Reconstruction was hell. The initial survivors adopted and recapitulated Milton’s Satan:”tis better to rule in hell than serve in heaven.” Over time, no matter how battered the survivors were this remained an issue of honor. They could turn hell into a mythical heaven- at least as long as African Americans were horribly worse off than they were. The infiltration of Northern missionaries, teachers and black enfranchisement was seen as an invasion that threatened their myth of the south. But many would never surrender without a fight. Since 2010, this cycles of elections has been both a retribution and a redemption.

The underlying psycho-sociology of the assault on Southern “culture” by an amalgam of outsiders seems to re-invent itself over and over again. From the early 20th century onward it appeared that the “Cause” of post-civil southern mythology was transformed into a new asymmetrical civil war — the return of a continuum from runaway state’s rights, community and party loyalty, the demise of the yellow dog democrat to a solid republican majority; the superiority of personal and group beliefs over scientific evidence, and a deep distrust of overly educated, liberals who live in ivory towers and lack enough common sense to change a tire. When the 2016 presidential election is viewed through this lens the outcome makes sense.

Although surely one for the ages, the shock and awe of November 2016 set a whole generation of progressives and political junkies scattering like a covey of quail. The ecstasy of the winners is the agony of those hoping for a rerun of the “New South”.

Living in this New South may be another story. The “deplorables, rednecks, crackers and other “degenerates” fooled the experts, pundits and pollsters. In keeping with the Bible David slew Goliath- the “deplorables” won. As a child I remember folks talking about such an outcome as a redneck’s payday- except this was winning the lottery. Described in less pejorative terms the disenfranchised rural and working classes bypassed an unsophisticated, inarticulate manner of debating style and spoke with their votes. The elections had all of the earmarks of historical political campaigns in the south. It was filled with theatrics, demagoguery, focus on personalities and mudslinging; a flagrant disregard of political decorum, political correctness, or rhetoric about upholding southern political traditions in spite of preaching progress. The flyover from 30,000 feet now suggests that the traditional regional forces have disappeared, and the “mind of the south” is now based on socioeconomic boundaries. As a surprise to the pollsters America is filled with rednecks and the southern cause is now shared in part by a substantial minority of the voting public.

This election was a street fight and you had to get down and dirty to win.

So how did you convince millions of voters to suspend disbelief and vote against what appear to be their self-interests. In the rural south of my childhood “the south shall rise again” and the noble cause is now in the legislatures, House of Representatives, the Senate and now the US Supreme Court. The irony is that the winner said and did things that would have disqualified any politician over the nearly 227 years since the Constitution was completed. In the 19th century, the log cabin was symbolic of humble beginnings, hard work, and determination. The candidate captured the heart and soul of a frustrated, disenfranchised population in culture shock and promised to restore the idealized past. The “experts” babble on about the science of politics, economics and culture change. This election was a street fight and you had to get down and dirty to win.

Perhaps the most dramatic triumph was convincing people who claim to think for themselves, revel in individualism, claim to be good Christian folks, work hard every day want America to be great as it is dismantled around them? First of all, I suspect the president is not the messiah and Obama, is not the anti-Christ. Perhaps George Wallace was the last great master of this art form. He was a master of working crowds, sayingthings in a simple brand of English, kindling and stoking the fires of segregationists and working class folks who had little time, inclination or perhaps academic smarts to worry
about the nuances and subtle art of proper politics. Nixon’s southern strategists
unleashed Spiro Agnew (and Pat Buchanan as the writer of a fiery brand alliterative street fighting) that relied on condemning a free press, independent judiciary, evidence versus belief, and brutal art of devaluing the very government and intellectual foundation of our political system.

This is not the time to hide behind old political theory and voting patterns. It is a time to face the reality of hand to hand political combat. In a sense pundits who relied upon a process analogous to Robert McNamara’s approach to the Vietnam War- fight by statistical analysis, kill ratios, and with technological wonders. Ho Chi Minh and General Giap knew otherwise. This was a bloody mess not a chivalrous battle for principles honor. In the south of my youth politics is a blood sport not a game of chess or bridge. From another angle, how could the Confederate battle flag (Stars and Bars) waivers, Klansmen and other die-hard survivalists celebrate the election of a New York businessman with no comparable life-experiences? Perhaps his aura of anti-intellectualism and an underdog who won rekindles the old myth- “the south did rise again”.

To those who see this in millenarian terms, the president is the great white hope for their version of American greatness. This was a rehearsal for Armageddon. The President’s campaign flare for media attention and drawing zealous crowds resembled a well-choreographed pas de due that played well among the scoop-hungry monster of a 24 hrs./day, seven day a week, 365 days a year news media. Reality TV, like alternative facts is constantly in everyone’s home, car and workplace. There should be an anti-Emmy or Academy Award for best director, actor, screen play and cinematography for old time southern politics wearing new suits.

Next we will continue a larger review with a look into the role of religious and political fundamentalism, evangelicalism and sectarianism in our current drama.

About the Author

Jarrett Barnhill is a native of rural eastern North Carolina. He earned his BA from the UNC-Chapel Hill in anthropology and is a graduate of Wake Forest University School of Medicine. As a psychiatrist, Barnhill has studied the effects culture change and emotional responses to social stress.

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