I've just added Chuck Thompson's new book to my Holiday Season shopping list. The book is called Better Off Without 'Em: A Northern Manifesto for Southern Secession. It's central thesis is that we Northerners would have been much better off letting the South walk 150 years ago -- and it's not too late to correct our mistake.
I'm thinking of giving the book as a present to a Christian fundamentalist in-law of mine who recently de-friended me on Facebook. She cut me off after I told her the Chick-fil-A anti-gay protest she took part in was not about free speech or "censorship" but rather the authoritarian demand by far right religious conservatives like her that other people accept their "biblical worldview" without complaint or contradiction.
So she de-friended me. In defense of free speech. And against censorship. And for not capitulating to her biblical worldview. I'm thinking of attaching a "Happy Holidays" label to the present just to piss her off.
The book's author is a veteran travel writer who toured the American South and came away with the conviction that the North and South remain very different societies and are as bitterly divided as ever. But instead of being torn between free states and slave, this time the nation's "irrepressible conflict" is over religion, and fundamentalist religion in particular.
Thompson argues it was always unrealistic to expect that a modern, cosmopolitan North premised on Enlightenment values and rationalism would ever see eye-to-eye with a provincial South steeped in Biblical literalism. And so, maybe we would all be better off if we just shook hands and went our separate ways. That, at any rate, is what the South has wanted all along.
In an interview on AlterNet that was reprinted in Salon, Thompson says today's polarized and dysfunctional politics is just the most obvious manifestation of cultural tensions that date back hundreds of years.
It is not too much of a stretch, for example, to liken Republican abuse of the Senate filibuster during the four years since a liberal black man was elected president to the threats of Southern nullification and secession before the Civil War.
Nor is conservative hysteria over reinstatement of a Fairness Doctrine that would force Rush Limbaugh to give equal time to liberal points-of-view all that different from the "Gag Rule" Southern "fire-eaters" imposed on the US House of Representatives which prevented anti-slavery petitions of any kind from even being discussed in Congress. Congressman John Quincy Adams, as a matter of fact, was formally censured by the Southern-dominated House after the former president (and staunch abolitionist) repeatedly trespassed on the terms of the South's anti-democratic efforts to prevent disagreement with their peculiar way of life.
"A lot of these problems have been deeply entrenched in American society long before this dysfunction befell our political system," says Thompson. "Politics is really only one way in which the South is quite a bit different in the way it approaches its society. I think religion is the really big factor here, and I think that's what's really not going to change in the South."
Fundamentalists and other "religious lunatics" exist in all 50 states, says Thompson. But only in the South do they have a controlling majority.
"Only in the South can you appeal to voters in very overtly religious terms and expect success on a consistent basis," says Thompson. "That's not to deny that this exists in the rest of the country. It does, but in the South is where its power base is."
No one who has had the opportunity to spend significant quality time in different parts of the country, as I have as an Air Force brat, can doubt that severe barriers to communication and understanding exist between those living in separate regions. And this disagreement extends beyond positions on specific issues or support for different parties and affects the way we understand democracy itself.
For simplicity's sake, residents of Blue States see democracy as a means by which differences are resolved. For the residents of Red States, on the other hand, democracy means one's constitutional and God-given right to live as one pleases - subject only to the taboos and conventions of ones kin, faith and clan - no matter the impact that "freedom" has on others deemed "outsiders."
Boston, where I now live, could not be more different culturally and temperamentally from Montgomery, Alabama where I grew up. I am acutely -- often painfully -- aware of the gulfs which now separate my political and social views from those of my good friends and family who embrace, for lack of a better term, the Southern worldview.
When Boston Mayor Tom Menino sent a letter on City stationary to "urge" the president of Chick-fil-A to "back out of plans to locate in Boston," those of us who live in this godless, cosmopolitan city viewed the Mayor's letter as politics-as-usual -- just the sort of blustery broadside you'd expect in a big, diverse city made up of many warring tribes where politics ranks third behind hockey and football as our favorite contact sport.
However, when Menino told the Chick-fil-A brass that Boston was proud of its support for same-sex marriage "and our work to expand freedom to all people," and so "there is no place for discrimination on Boston's Freedom Trail" and no place for Chick-fil-A alongside it, social conservatives were aghast.
Conservatives saw the Mayor's verbal rebuke as "punishment" of someone "just" for their "opinions" - censorship in all but name -- and so as an uncalled for and impermissible slur against the honor of their way of life. And so religious conservatives turned out by the tens of thousands to stand for hours in the hot sun to buy a chicken sandwich so as to defend their unchallenged right to religious worship against imagined enemies on the secular left.
Culture is determinative of both politics and economics, as Mitt Romney recently reminded us. And the fact is that the fundamentalist mindset, if not religious fundamentalism itself, is a very poor cultural fit for democracy.
That, says Thompson, "is the piece of the puzzle that informs the politics of the South."
Fundamentalist Christianity "is the least tolerant of any sort of diversity or diversity of opinion," says Thompson. "It's Bible literalism. Everything is true and you adhere to everything; it's black and white."
I suspect that Thompson is using the idea of secession less as a genuine proposal than as a literary device to emphasize just how different the North and South really are. But when the majority of people in a society exhibit a fundamentalist mindset, and that mindset becomes the basis for an entire region's social framework, Thompson is not wrong when he says a fundamentalist (and therefore undemocratic) politics is the natural result. "So we get that same sort of blinkered view of humanity by politicians in the South who come up to the North - we get this absolute, no compromise stance between these hardcore conservatives and other politicians."
A pivotal year in American political history was 1994 when the Republican Party retook Congress for the first time since the New Deal and did so with far right factions led by Southern reactionaries like Newt Gingrich, Tom DeLay, Dick Armey and Trent Lott - the guy who said we all would have been better off had Dixiecrat segregationist Strom Thurmond won the 1948 presidential election instead of Harry Truman.
Before the Southern takeover of the GOP, Thompson said it was usual for Republicans and Democrats during the 1980s to fight it out within the rules, norms and conventions of the larger democratic consensus. The famed Tip O'Neill/Ronald Reagan "give-and-take" was the prime example.
This is how politics works, says Thompson. "It's the art of compromise. The ruling power says to the opposition: 'We won the election, so we're going to get these big things. Don't give us too much trouble and we'll work with you. We realize you have a constituency. Let us get our big things through without a lot of hassle, and we'll make sure you're taken care of on some level.' That's sort of how it has worked for the most part."
But that's not how politics works now, not since the South took charge of the GOP. The South is "different," says Thompson. In the Southern worldview "empathy" is a dirty word (as we learned from Alabama Senator Jeffrey Beauregard Sessions III) because it implies putting oneself in another's shoes and so leads to seditious thoughts of race betrayal and class treason.
Neither is there "such a thing as compromise," says Thompson. "If it's God's law that is driving you -- if God says gay marriage is an abomination, if God says abortion is an abomination -- then you simply can't compromise. That's not in your DNA if you really believe that. That's where I think a lot of the dysfunction of our political process comes into play."
There are reasons, as I have said before, why New England and the Deep South have always been natural antagonists, bitter rivals even when allied within the same political party.
The habits of negotiation, compromise and governance learned by New England's Brahmin elders as they managed unwieldy coalitions of Yankees, WASPs, Italians, Jews and others so as to compete with the Irish Catholic Democratic machines that ran Boston and other big cities, could not be more different from the assumed prerogatives of brute force and power that were taken for granted by the Deep South's white Christian majority. It was this Southern white majority that viewed politics not as "the art of compromise" or a means for building peaceful and harmonious communities, but rather as "war by other means" in which an embattled majority fights to protect its way of life against outside infiltration or contamination.
The South's view of politics is now the predominant one inside today's GOP. And that, more than anything else, explains why American politics is at an impasse and the Republican Party at a dead end.