In the 1850s the southern, slaveholding states realized that they were losing, demographically. The U.S. was expanding westward, its population growing, and most of the growth was in non-slave or anti-slavery states. As this trend continued, the slaveholding states would be outnumbered in the Senate, and the slaveholding voters would be outnumbered by those opposed to slavery on economic grounds or (less often) on moral grounds. The clock was ticking. How long would it take for the new majority to impose its will and outlaw slavery altogether?
The demographic reality provoked fears that festered into paranoia and then hysteria in the South. Lincoln’s election convinced the slaveholders that it was now or never, and the Confederacy was born. Four bloody years later, the Confederacy was dead and the Old South lived under federal occupation for more than a decade. In 1877, as part of a back-room deal to resolve a deadlocked presidential election, Rutherford B. Hayes got the White House in return for the withdrawal of federal troops from the former Confederate states. Thus Reconstruction ended and ninety years of anti-black terrorism and Jim Crow laws began.
In 1965, a century after the Civil War, the federal Voting Rights Act finally ensured voting rights for all citizens. This triumph of the Civil Rights Movement, like the military victory a hundred years earlier, provoked a backlash among the white Christian nationalists who had fought to preserve Jim Crow, and lost. The Democratic Party, which for most of its history had been, in the South, the party of slavery and white supremacy, became the party of civil rights and social justice. The Republicans, originally the “party of Lincoln,” now became the last bastion of conservatives. GOP leaders welcomed disillusioned white Southerners and other conservative former Democrats into their ranks, thinking that they could control the more unsavoury elements among them, i.e., the most outspokenly racist and vicious.
Once again, however, demographics began to tell against white supremacy. The nation became increasingly non-white, non-Christian, and multicultural. Once again, white Christian conservatives began to feel their “way of life” being threatened. Now, however, the divisions were not primarily geographic—the Old South vs. the northern and western states. Instead, the new divide was urban vs. rural.
And that’s where we are today. A minority of mostly white, mostly Christian conservatives is using every anti-majoritarian tool it can find to resist the liberalizing tendencies of a growing majority of urban Americans who are more diverse, less religious, less prejudiced against racialized people, and better educated. These more liberal urban voters support abortion rights, support gay marriage, support voting rights for all citizens, and are not terribly alarmed by immigrants or Muslims or transgender people. To the white Christian, “pro-life,” anti-immigrant minority, such attitudes seem to signal the end of their “way of life” in the same way that the election of Abraham Lincoln was seen by whites in the slaveholding South as a mortal threat.
The Republican Party, instead of using and controlling its most extreme members, has been taken over by them. The Democratic Party, with former Republicans and quasi-Republicans like West Virginia’s Senator Joe Manchin at one end, and activist progressives at the other end, constitutes a large but divided and perhaps irreconcilable majority. The outnumbered Republicans, using gerrymandered House districts, the anti-democratic Senate, and the anti-democratic Electoral College, hope to regain control of the Congress in 2022 and the White House in 2024. If even those methods do not suffice, they will use dark-money funding and lies spread by right-wing media to finance and justify the invalidation of elections that don’t go their way.
The Confederacy may be dead, but the Old South, with its white supremacy and religious bigotry and appalling ignorance, is like a virulent bacillus that can be suppressed but never completely eradicated. When conditions are right, as they are today, it breaks out again. Buckle up!