‘The night they drove Old Dixie’ … back up: reflections on Landrieu’s demise

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Sen. Mary Landrieu eyes offshore royalties for coastal reclamation.

U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu was the Deep South's last Democrat to hold statewide office.

“I am inside someone who hates me.” This is how Amiri Baraka opens his great 1964 poem, “An Agony. As Now.” After the inevitable big defeat of Democrat Mary Landrieu in the Dec. 6 U.S. Senate run-off, this is how I feel as a New Orleanian. The Red Sea surrounding our Blue Island gets ever wider and deeper as the South returns once more to one-party rule.

At least we were among the last states to submit to this frightening and embarrassing new normal. It’s hard to believe that barely 10 years ago, when Katrina struck, we had a Democratic Legislature and governor. Rush Limbaugh’s post-Katrina hate speech was all about a “Democratic city in a Democratic state.” At least we still have our Democratic city, though the Republican state capital has already done it plenty of harm, starting with our local public university, where Democrats lose jobs as fast as our oil-soaked coastline shrinks.

Some contend that the GOP grip on the region’s statewide elections limits the range of political choice as much as in the Jim Crow era when the Democrats ruled the “Solid South.” But in one significant way today’s one-party regime is even more limiting. White supremacy was the unquestionable policy of the past, of course, yet the white electorate split over meaningful economic issues. Some of the most fanatically racist politicians of the era, like Mississippi’s Theodore Bilbo, a two-term governor and later a U.S. senator, were also economic liberals. In Louisiana, the Longs promoted a share-the-wealth approach to taxing and spending even without engaging in the trademark race-baiting of other Southern demagogues (though they didn’t try to challenge Jim Crow in any big way, either).  The “redneck revolt” of the 1920s was as much about empowering poor white people by increasing government services as it was about cementing segregation.

Then came the Civil Rights Movement and, in the person of President Lyndon Johnson, a Southern politician with the decency and courage to oppose racism. Johnson’s economic liberalism, his commitment to equal opportunity and the obligation of the federal government to guarantee it, trumped whatever racist assumptions he may have imbibed as a child. He conceded publicly that the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts of 1964 and 1965 doomed the Democratic Party’s prospects in the South for a generation, then signed them anyway.

Forced to choose between the two strands of their heritage — redneck economic liberalism and racism — working class white Southerners would opt for the latter, Johnson sensed. Republicans did, too — and made it the basis of what President Nixon’s team called their “Southern Strategy.” Fifty years later, Johnson’s grim prophecy has come to pass.

With the GOP so comfortably in the driver’s seat, any talk of raising taxes on the ever-richer richest of the rich is out of the question, and working class white voters are fine with that. They don’t want expanded higher education opportunities, they don’t want cleaner water or air, they don’t want job security, they definitely don’t want affordable health care coverage. They don’t even want better roads and bridges. In Louisiana, they don’t want oil companies to pay for rebuilding the coast they contributed so much to destroying. Why not? Because working class whites have bought into the key concept behind “trickle-down” economics:  that their best shot at getting and keeping a job is “getting government out of the way” of the “job-creators.” No matter that it means undoing everything their racist but liberal ancestors worked for decades to accomplish. And of course the usually unstated but even stronger appeal lies in knowing that wrecking this heritage keeps black people from enjoying those same benefits, the ones the white working poor have decided to spurn.

Racism is definitely not allowed to run around with a name tag anymore. Today’s Southern Republicans aren’t asking for a return to legal segregation. They love black presidential candidates in the primaries, as long as they can be kept off the party’s eventual ticket. And they go ballistic if someone like Mary Landrieu vaguely suggests that the South’s racist past may have something to do with the weird coincidence of white Southerners fleeing the party as soon as it embraced the cause of black equality.

The vigor with which Southern Republicans dispute accusations that they are racist is a sign of progress, I suppose, though their commitment to policies that harm the majority of black voters makes it hard to perceive much difference between intent and outcome.

Today’s GOP is not the same as the party that fought racist Dixiecrats in the Jim Crow era. It’s a hybrid of the worst features of the Republican and Democrat parties our ancestors knew, minus the formal commitment to de jure racism. The Republican Party’s historic mission of preserving the prerogatives of the richest among us remains in place, but it’s now wedded to the distrust of city-slicker intellectuals and immigrants, a legacy of redneck populism that keeps Louisiana Republicanism at odds with the national business elite.

A hundred years ago,  the “takers” were bankers and financiers who didn’t actually make anything and the “makers” were the working poor. That math has been utterly upended by the unholy alliance of cultural populism and plutocratic arrogance.

Nobody’s denying that Obama is the reason Mary Landrieu lost. It was enough for Congressman Bill Cassidy to accuse her of siding with the President “97 percent” of the time.  “She’s with Obama, I’m with you,” he intoned repeatedly, as he walked away with the election.

The depth of the Southern Republican animus against Obama will fascinate social pathologists for generations. There’s a lesson both in how Republicans have succeeded in stoking the loathing and in how Democrats have failed to counteract it. I think most Democrats, including the President, were, like me, simply unprepared for the shock and awe of the vitriol unleashed on him from the moment he took office. I admit I had no idea the pent-up hatred was so deeply felt by such a large sector of white America, that serious men and women in Washington would toy with shutting down government and destroying the nation’s financial credit rather than allow a black man to lead.

Oh, but the hatred wasn’t directed at the man; it was about his policies, right?

Well, not really.

One of the most glaring incongruities in American politics today is that the GOP has become more powerful in Washington than at any time since the 1940s while another corner of America is preoccupied with “white privilege” and the failure to prosecute cops who kill unarmed black citizens. The contrast between nightly news images of street protests and election updates could not be more stark. Clearly the demonstrators and the voters are on two different planets. Guess which side is winning?

Note, too, how many of the states who voted for Republicans also voted for Democratic Party priorities like raising the minimum wage, and it’s hard not to blame Democrats for a message failure.

Republicans have succeeded in caricaturing Democrats as a party of fringe “special interests;” even the party’s long struggle to undo racism is now construed as “hating white people,” not empowering minorities. Democrats of course deserve blame for being so grossly outmaneuvered. They failed to project themselves as  the party of economic opportunity for the 99%, their historic identity.

In many white working class minds, the Dems are the party of metrosexual hipster yuppies who talk up their anti-racism efforts to make other white people feel bad. The Republicans, meanwhile, are portrayed as hard-working (white) people — genuine, if a tad unstylish — trying to pay the bills.  Where are the capitalist oligarchs in this tawdry media spectacle? Invisible, just how they like it.

As Missouri’s longtime Democratic Congressman Dick Gephardt used to say, “If you want to live like a Republican, vote for the Democrats.” Yet an anti-Landrieu ad this fall painted her as a rich socialite with an expensive mansion in Washington, hobnobbing with other “elitists” such as the President. The insinuation was that Landrieu and her ilk were wallowing in a gilded bubble of privilege at the expense of hard-working Louisianans, and yet, paradoxically, the point of the ad was to urge voters to side with the GOP, the party whose core mission has always been to protect the richest among us from the importunate demands of the masses.

Wrongly or not, many white working-class voters struggling to get by from one day to the next are incensed by chatter about white privilege, especially since the liberals they see moving their lips are usually well-heeled members of the media or academic elite, be they white or black. Struggling white working people also sense a degree of hypocrisy in calls for yet another “conversation about race,” given that such discourse usually results in the same platitudes and in the repeated command to “admit that white privilege exists!”

The endless and always unproductive “conversation about race” will go on anyway, though it will not change many minds. I will watch MSNBC and keep saying “but I already know that,” and others will watch Fox and remain just as convinced of their own opinions. I live in New Orleans, where I’m comfortable; others prefer St. Tammany Parish, where the yard signs are a different color. A new generation of Blue Staters will have their Rite of Passage protest experiences, while Red Staters will continue to view them as spoiled kids (either poor black or privileged white) who don’t want to work for a living — 1968 all over again, but this time recast as farce.

The sides have been drawn, and the cities of the South, unlike those up north, are just not populous enough to wrest statewide elections from the rural and suburban precincts. It’s not long-term bad news for America, because, if only they would vote, the majority of Americans cringe when they hear what Louisiana’s leaders think.

Meanwhile, we residents of Southern cities are isolated within our own region, enjoying our culture, but once again feeling deep shame that Dixie is playing such a hateful and destructive role in the history of our country.

C.W. Cannon teaches English and New Orleans studies at Loyola University.

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