Call it the rebel yell heard ‘round the world. Last year, under the watchful eyes of God and the rheumy stare of the last surviving, 93-year-old Confederate war widow, some 2,500 sons and daughters of Dixie gathered in Montgomery, Ala., to issue a Declaration of Southern Cultural Independence from a nation “violent and profane, coarse and rude, cynical and deviant.”
The rally was staged by the League of the South, an organization that fondly remembers the Confederacy as a golden age (with the awkward exception of slavery) and that seeks to liberate the Southern people from the yoke of “a tyrannous central government” unrestrained by the Constitution. Most people dismiss League members as either harmless eccentrics or closet white supremacists (they’re probably a little of both), but their views resonate in circles well beyond the good ol’ boys who don Confederate Gray on weekends to re-enact the Battle of Antietam and pretend-kill some Yankees. You hear echoes of Southern nationalism whenever Mississippi invokes “states’ rights” to justify flying the Confederate flag over their capitols; or when the GOP’s honorary Dixie chick Gale Norton mourns the defeat of the South saying that “we lost too much”; or when John Ashcroft praises Southern Partisan magazine for helping “set the record straight” on the War Between the States.
This re-emergence of Confederate pride is merely the symptom of a much deeper problem: The North and South can no longer claim to be one nation. If you want proof, just look at the electoral map from the last presidential election. Or consider that, although Texas Gov. George W. Bush lost the U.S. popular vote by 500,000, he won the old Confederacy by a resounding 3.1 million votes. Meanwhile, the cultural gap that pits NASCAR fans against PBS viewers continues to widen. Ted Turner all but confirmed the balkanization of America when he established a cable network exclusively for the citizens of Dixie, serving up finger-lickin’ TV fare that includes Andy Griffith reruns, the best of World Championship Wrestling, CNN South, and slapstick movies such as Dumb and Dumber (which, according to the president of “Turner South,” gets unusually high ratings regionally).
The United States doesn’t have to refight the Civil War to set matters right. Rather, North and South should simply follow the example of the Czech Republic and Slovakia: Shake hands, says it’s been real, and go their separate ways. And if the South isn’t inclined to leave anytime soon, then we should show them the door by seceding unilaterally. Because for all the hue and cry of the South being a conquered people, it is the North that increasingly finds itself under the dominion of the Confederacy. The White House has been occupied by a Southerner for 17 of the last 37 years. And the Confederacy’s foot-in-the-door of the Oval Office will become even more pronounced in the next century: The latest census allowed Dixie to pick up six additional Electoral College votes (thanks, in part, to the migration of warmth-seeking Northerners in numbers sufficient to swell the population of the South, yet insufficient to shift its political landscape). Had Al Gore won the same states in 1972 as he did in 2000, he would have trumped Bush with an electoral vote margin of 278 to 260. In 1984, he still would have won by 271 to 267. But in 2000, even with Electoral College juggernauts such as New York, Pennsylvania, and California in his corner, Gore couldn’t win the White House without the support of the old Confederacy.
As the electoral center of gravity has shifted in the United States, so too have the orientations of the two major political parties. The Democrats lost their historic claim to the “Solid South” when the party fractured over the New Deal and the civil rights movement. With Dixie up for grabs, the GOP went carpetbagging for electoral votes—Barry Goldwater paved the way when he won the loyalty of Southern delegates at the 1964 Republican convention through his championship of states’ rights and his opposition to the civil rights bill. Every victorious Republican candidate since then has dished out exactly what Southern voters want to hear: Nixon attacked busing and racial quotas; Reagan embraced the Christian Right while his attorney general, Ed Meese, charged that the 1965 Voting Rights Act discriminated against the South; and Massachusetts-born George Bush Sr. surrounded himself with country and western stars and added a Willie Horton plank to his platform. Since Republicans won the House in 1994, Southerners have dominated the congressional leadership. Today, Republicans maintain their bare voting majority in the evenly split Senate by virtue of the fact that there are four more Republicans from Dixie than Democrats.
The Dixification of the “Party of Lincoln” would be tolerable if the North had a political party of its own. But increasingly it doesn’t; hence the rise of Ralph Nader, who expressed the pent-up frustration among liberals and populists who no longer feel comfortable in a Democratic Party that speaks with a down-home drawl. In all the presidential elections between 1980 and 1992, the Democrats succeeded in winning only one Confederate state. Clinton’s path to victory was the trashing of Sister Soulja as he and other Southern Democrats weaned their party away from Northern special interests (aka “the party base”) such as environmentalists, organized labor, African-Americans, consumer advocates, Latinos, and gays. Gore lost the election (and even his home state, which he loyally represented for 16 years) because he went off message and dared to espouse progressive, populist themes on government, gun control, and the environment. Shut out of all branches of government, some party leaders are once again pushing a Southern strategy to retake the White House and Congress, all but guaranteeing that the Democratic Party will continue whistling Dixie.
Economically and socially, secession will be painless for the North. The South is a gangrenous limb that should have been lopped off decades ago. More people live below the poverty line in the old Confederacy than in the Northeast and Midwest combined. You are three times more likely to be murdered in parts of Dixie than anywhere in New England, despite a feverish devotion to “law-and-order” that has made eight Southern states home to 90 percent of all recent U.S. executions. The South has the highest infant-mortality rate and the highest incidences of sexually transmitted diseases, while it lags behind the rest of the country in terms of test scores and opportunities for women. The Confederate states rail against the tyranny of big government, yet they are the largest recipients of federal tax dollars. They steal business away from the North the same way that developing countries worldwide have always attracted foreign direct investment: through low wages and anti-union laws. The flow of guns into America’s Northern cities stems largely from Southern states. The tobacco grown by ol’ Dixie kills nearly a half-million Americans each year.
Imagine then, for just a moment, the North as its own nation. Trent Lott and Dick Armey would be foreigners. We would no longer be subjected to round-the-clock TV commercials for Dale Earnhardt commemorative plates. If you were to expel all Southerners from Congress (both parties, mind you) the new liberal majority would be able to pass tougher gun laws and legislation barring discrimination against gays and lesbians immediately. With the South banished from the Union, we could begin to correct the most objectionable aspects of Southern behavior with the same tools we use to engage countries such as China: by making trade and continued foreign aid contingent upon sincere efforts to clean up the environment and improve human rights. We could implement “Plan South Carolina” to convince tobacco growers to develop alternative crops. Northern observers could ensure democracy in Florida polling places. Peace Corps volunteers could teach the necessary skills that would allow Southerners to pull themselves out of poverty and illiteracy while simultaneously promoting a better understanding of American values.
In fact, the only obvious downside is that the South would almost certainly insist on keeping the 3,150 nuclear warheads that are scattered throughout Georgia, Texas, Louisiana, and Virginia. Maybe we could strike a deal to get those nukes back, the same way Russia did with Ukraine after the Soviet Union broke up. If not, then perhaps national missile defense might not be such a bad idea after all.