In the Partisan’s last issue, I raised the question of why the United States has not been troubled in this century by regional nationalisms of the sort that are currently disturbing most other industrialized countries. In particular, I asked, why has there not been a serious version of Southern nationalism? Answering my own question, I suggested that (1) the outcome in 1865 was discouraging, (2) the United States as a whole offered a compelling object for nationalistic sentiment, and (3) identifying the cause of the South with the cause of white supremacy alienated those elements within the South’ s population that might have been expected to formulate a separatist program. I concluded that the United States is not immune to the centrifugal forces operating elsewhere, merely protected from them by a number of unique historical accidents—factors now dwindling in importance.
Consider, in the first place, that the old Confederates have gone, and with them the memories of the last go-round. The veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic are equally extinct, taking with them, I believe, the mystical commitment to the Union that led them to preserve it by stomping the South. Difficult as it may be to imagine another go at secession, it is even harder to imagine that the U.S. Army would burn Atlanta again to stop it. (More’s the pity, some would say.) As well imagine the Canadian Army sent to subdue Quebec, or the R.A.F. unleashed on Edinburgh. Few Western nations any longer have the will for that sort of undertaking. Certainly the U.S. does not.
Both at home and abroad, the idea of Americanism has lost its vitality in recent years. As Washington finally begins to take on the physical trappings of an imperial capital, it is losing the international clout which alone could justify that ostentation. Our role in the world is increasingly unclear, and to our national dismay we are being told that we simply aren’t wanted in many places. As in Britain when it ceased to be Great, the anticolonialist impulse has begun to surface close to home. Deplore it or not, as you will, but it is simply a fact that insisting on the rights and interests of one’s own group within the nation is no longer seen as subversive—or perhaps that subversion is no longer seen as bad form. So far the voice of sectionalism has been subdued amid the clamor of contending interest groups, but if it is heard in the future, it won’t be the only one hollering.
In addition, it seems to me at least possible that the South is ridding itself of the incubus of white supremacy. A later column will examine my reasons for thinking so. For now, I invite you just to consider what that would mean for the cause of sectionalism. Freed of the obsession with race, freed of the necessity to treat the subject (as I am now) in every discussion of the South, those of us for whom bigotry has no charms would be able to celebrate without reservations the region’s undeniable virtues. (The South may not always be right, but by God it’s not always been wrong.) “States’ rights” is a self-evidently reasonable and just doctrine, with an appeal extending well beyond the South—so long as it is not a mask for the states’ wrongs of racial discrimination. We in the South have asked for trouble in the past, giving exploitative and anti-Southern elements in the North the occasion to do well, quite legitimately, by doing good. If the South’s race relations have become (as I believe) better than those elsewhere, that excuse for interference no longer exists.
Moreover, if what I take to be the accidental link between Southern sectionalism and white supremacy is severed, the South can begin to profit from the reservoir of affection for the region which exists among black Southerners. For good reason, most have heretofore looked outside the South for allies, but once black Southerners are assured that their hard-won rights are secure and guaranteed the respect due to partners in the Southern enterprise, it would not surprise me to find many prepared to make common cause with whites on their homeland’s behalf. There are already signs of this, and the process may well accelerate as blacks realize that they are now much more of a presence in Southern state capitals than in the U.S. Congress.
Am I serious? Well, not always. To tell the truth, I don’t know that a full-blown Southern nationalism would appeal to me. But it wouldn’t surprise me to see it emerge, and I for one would find an American politics where the proper balance between federal power and decentralization was subject to debate preferable to one where an arrogant central government recognizes no limits on its authority. And, politics aside, the cultural Balkanization of the U.S. strikes me as almost wholly desirable. I’m not one of those who feel that one New York, California, or Colorado is too many, but God knows one’s enough.
We hear a lot these days—especially from “new-breed” Southern politicians—about what the South has to offer the nation. To hell with that. Let the others look out for themselves. In this column, I intend to explore what the South has to offer Southerners.
One thing other Americans can learn from us, if we will demonstrate it to them, is humility. Tempting as it may be to dictate to others, preach at them, and generally push them around, Southerners of all people should restrain themselves. In a large and heterogeneous country, different regions will have not just different problems but different solutions to similar problems. It would be naïve to expect that our solutions can be a model for other regions (even if they were disposed to learn from us), and presumptuous to tell them how to run their affairs. I take that to be the beginning of wisdom in these matters. When rulers lack that wisdom or fail to act on it, they invite the separatist response.
This essay was originally published in Southern Partisan magazine in 1982.