Some 37 years ago, the eminent Southern writer John Shelton Reed posed an intriguing question: Why No Southern nationalism?
I have thought a lot within the last 25 years about the prospect of a renascent Southern nationalism in the face of American decline. And, yes, the South, for several reasons, simply must represent a vital and essential facet of discussion about the future of American constitutional liberty in the midst of this decline.
Here is the problem as I see it: There currently is no coherent Southern nationalist identity to speak of, at least presently. What we currently have in the South is a sense of Southern distinctiveness and identity amid a deep well of hyper-American patriotism, one that is particularly evident in the Deep South, where I live. To put it another way, we have nationalism IN the South but not nationalism OF the South.
Southern Historical Roots
Much of this is deeply rooted in Southern history.
In the last decade of the 19th century, as the South dug its way out of defeat, economic dispossession and grinding poverty, the United States not only was regarded the world over as the most successful post-colonial nation but also the one most likely to overtake and to supplant Britain as the dominant global power. Reed rightfully noted that this prospect appealed especially to the defeated and economically prostrate South, which retained a strong martial tradition and an enduring affinity for cultural rootedness and identity.
Also, as he stressed, the South’s enduring racial legacy certainly has played a significant role in detracting Southerners, black and white, from forging a strong regionalism comparable to Welsh or even Scottish identity. Indeed, the fact that the South’s legacy remains the focal point of the so-called Culture War has only reinforced the Southern penchant for embracing a wider American identity rather than a distinctly Southern one.
One could argue that the Culture Wars, far from driving Southerners away from American identity, has intensified this sense of hyper-American patriotism. The left’s unrelenting assault on Confederate symbolism and the Confederate legacy in general has only worked to drive many Southerners, particularly younger ones, away from anything that smacks of a distinctly regional identity.
The South’s Evangelical Christian Legacy
The present-day cultural struggles within Evangelical Christianity have also reinforced this disposition. This brand of Protestant Christianity has historically served as the de facto state religion of the South and still comprises its moral and ethical cultural ballast. Yet, the largest and most culturally influential Evangelical faith, the Southern Baptist Convention, not only officially decries the display of Confederate symbolism but even has considered whether to retain Southern in its name.
It’s worth pointing out that Evangelical Protestantism has never served the South in terms of supplying a nucleus of cultural identity, certainly not in the way that the Catholic Church has historically sustained the cultural and national identities of Ireland and Poland. And considering the frontier roots of Evangelicalism, that’s not surprising. Evangelicalism, a product of Back Country settlement, was incubated in an environment of strong cultural deracination, just as Southern pioneers were settling the region. Southern identity is not fused with Evangelical Christianity in the way Irish nationalist identity is Catholicism or Russian identity is with Eastern Orthodoxy. And the faith’s strong emphasis on soul competency at the expense of tradition and church authority only reinforces this tendency.
The View among Rank-and-File Southerners
A survey of Southerners randomly chosen from the various socio-economic levels would support these arguments. Most native-born Southerners — whites and, no doubt, a respective number of blacks — are proud of being Southern. They feel a sense of rootedness with Southern culture, with its faith, its cuisine and particularly with its sports traditions. Undoubtedly, the minority of those who have followed closely the growing levels of political and cultural acrimony in this country and who have considered their long-term implications would acknowledge the South as the region of the country best suited to restoring the founding principles of American constitution liberty in the aftermath of some of federal breakup.
But the vast majority of these Southerners, especially the middle-class, college-educated ones among them, would express these views within a decidedly post-racial, post-Confederate context.
This is the great paradox facing the 21st century South. The region, because of historical and cultural cultural distinctiveness, represents the best prospect for restoring a viable counterweight to the culturally corrosive liberalism now represents this country’s regnant culture and political ideology. Yet for such a restorationist movement to survive and grow, it must remain explicitly American and not take on so much as a tincture of Confederate restorationism or symbolism. In time, Southerners could and undoubtedly would conceive a national identity with a more distinctly Southern hue, though one explicitly post-Confederate in nature.
What emerges over time likely would resemble a kind of symbiotic nationalism, one in which an over-arching American identity provides a safe harbor for a uniquely Southern national identity to emerge, one deeply rooted in the region’s culture and faith.
Lessons from Ireland and Taiwan
We can draw lessons from other countries around the world.
Historians have observed that the late Edward Carson, the father of Northern Ireland was arguably as much an Irish nationalist as Eamon de Valera or Michael Collins, only he perceived the British Union as the most congenial context for preserving Protestant Irish identity. Protestant identity on the island has been sustained through affiliation with a wider sense of British identity. But the case also could be made that Catholic and Protestant Irish identities have co-existed in Northern Ireland only because of the adhesive effect British identity has provided.
There is an added lesson here for Southerners: If the American Union ultimately splits into smaller federations, maintaining a kind of residual American identity in the South very well could provide the basis on which black and white Southerners can forge a new distinctly Southern identity.
There are also lessons to draw from the besieged Nationalist Chinese redoubt on Taiwan. Some 70 years ago, the forces of the Republic of China vacated the mainland and established the government on the Island of Taiwan. Initially, this island remained officially Mainland Chinese. Over the course of time, though, as this exiled republic became more democratic and materially prosperous, it provided a harbor for the formation of a strong, home-grown Taiwanese identity.
Today, Taiwanese identity exists in two forms: a soft nationalism, combining elements of both Chinese Mainlander and Taiwanese identities and that emphasizes separateness of the Taiwanese people, though without necessarily eliminating the official name (The Republic of China), versus a much more explicit nationalism calling for replacing the current official name with “The Republic of Taiwan” and seeking United Nations recognition as a fully sovereign nation separate from Mainland China.
Preparing for the Possibility an American Breakup
Granted, we can’t predict what the future will bring for the South and for the United States in general. Even so, we all should be fully cognizant of the growing number of columnists and other public intellectuals on both ends of the American political spectrum who are taking note of the perilous state of American unity. We must begin preparing for the possibly of an American breakup.
For us Southerners, the prospect of an American breakup forces us to consider this remarkable paradox: that the South, because of its very uniqueness, represents the best prospect for restoring a constitutional republic in the aftermath of an American federal crackup. But we can’t assume that this will initially take any form other than one largely American in substance.
The days of saving Confederate dollars and pining for the Confederate restoration are long gone. In time, we will build a distinctly Southern edifice, though one that closely comports with the realities of the 21st century.
To put it another way, we can’t afford to whistle past the graveyard of American unity, and we sure can’t be whistling Dixie.