Tea Party conservatism is mostly Southern and rural for one simple reason: Paranoia
Kim Messick, a Southerner himself, EXPLAINS why the GOP is the party of Dixie:
In two earlier articles (here and here), I argued that the Republican Party’s extremism can be traced to its increased dependence on an electorate that is largely rural, Southern and white. These voters, who figure prominently in the Tea Party, often decline to interpret political conflict as a struggle among interest groups or a good-faith clash of opinion. Instead, they tend to identify the country as a whole with an idealized version of themselves, and to equate any dissent from their values with disloyalty by alien, “un-American” forces. This paranoid vision of politics, I argued, makes them seek out opportunities for dramatic conflict and to shun negotiation and compromise.
In what follows, I want to extend these thoughts a bit further by exploring one simple question: why is this strain of political paranoia so entrenched in the South? The answer, I believe, will shed light not only on the current state of our politics but on the evolution of American conservatism generally.
This is a fraught subject, so I want to make my meaning clear. I am not arguing that all Southerners — or all conservatives — are racists or paranoids; I’m not even arguing that all Southerners are conservatives. (I myself would personally disprove that assertion.) Slavery, thankfully, disappeared long ago, and Jim Crow is now almost two generations behind us. Racism lingers on in the South as in America generally, but for the most part must now keep its head down and its voice low; it’s the vice that dare not speak its name. (This is not to deny, of course, that it retains considerable social valence.) What I am arguing is that a certain habit of thought, powerfully shaped by the experience of slavery, survived the passage of that curse and continues to influence some Southern conservatives to this day. It no longer takes the form of a blatant assertion that only the white race is worthy of social trust; its definition of the normative community has shifted. (Though it remains associated with racialist, or at least race-conscious, themes.) It is now more likely to define that community in ideological terms — to see it as consisting of those who endorse a particular view of government and its rightful relations with traditional mores and economic power. It has, however, retained certain aspects of its earlier, darker origins. It is still obsessed with purity — ideological if not racial — and still invests those it regards as impure with a harsh, acute animus. And it continues to equate difference with illegitimacy. Those on the outside — the liberals, the Democrats, the “socialists” — cannot be trusted partners in political life; they want only to undermine our institutions and must therefore be expelled from them.
Thus we arrive at the paranoid version of politics described above, in which policy disputes signal an insidious betrayal of “our” way of life. This is surely what animates the conduct of today’s Republicans — the reflexive rejection of compromise, the flagrant violation of long-established institutional norms, the experience of diversity as an invasion by foreign, unfamiliar powers.
The Republican belief that it would be better to suspend the government (or default on the debt) than to fund “Obamacare,” for instance, can be explained only by this kind of wrathful, embattled logic. There is a sense in which the current shutdown is the culmination of the last 50 years of Republican history. Today’s GOP is the heir of Reagan’s remark that “[G]overnment is not the solution… government is the problem,” even as Reagan embodied the strident, anti-statist dogmas of Barry Goldwater. The Party’s development since 1964 has, in effect, been one long preparation for the time when it would have to argue that no government would be better than liberal government. It would make no sense to say this if liberals were simply misguided souls with some bad policy ideas. It makes perfect sense when one sees them through the prism of Tea Party doctrine: as illegitimate interlopers from the outer darkness whose intent is to exploit and subvert the normative American community.
William F. Buckley, Jr., in so many ways the father of modern American conservatism, once famously described the conservative as “standing athwart History, yelling “Stop!” But the shrill faux-individualism of today’s Southern-fried conservatives actively abets one of the most destructive trends in American life: the fact that our notions of agency are increasingly fragmented even as the structural forces which constrain agency grow ever larger. In a 2012 Republican Presidential debate held in Florida, Ron Paul, Rand’s father, asked rhetorically what should happen if someone without health insurance shows up at an emergency room. “Let him die!” roared part of the audience, to loud applause.
That is the cry of our Southern conservatism.