The Southern exception

By Jordan Green, YES! Weekly

The cover of Southern Exposure magazine in the fall of 1996 depicted Bill Clinton grasping a Confederate battle flag beside a bayonet-wielding Newt Gingrich with the headline: "Way up north in Dixie: How the South is winning the Civil War."

Southerners dominated the national political landscape at the time. Both the Democratic president and vice president hailed from below the Mason-Dixon. Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich was from Georgia. His counterpart in the Senate, Trent Lott, came from Mississippi. Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The irony was that 130 years after the South surrendered in the Civil War, the national culture was moving into sync with Southern conservatism, religiosity and suspicion of government. As part of a rightward trend, President Clinton presided over the dismantling of welfare, and famously declared in his 1996 State of the Union speech that "the era of big government is over."

Today, a man from Chicago occupies the White House. The most powerful Republican leader in Washington is from Ohio. The South's heyday as pre-eminent region has passed.

From our vantage point in the Piedmont Triad, it was apparent last fall that the nation was headed in one direction and North Carolina in quite another as President Obama cruised to reelection while Republicans consolidated control of the NC General Assembly and put one of their own in the Executive Mansion.

Signs of the diverging paths multiply by the day.

While Obama was declaring in his second inaugural address that "no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us, at any time, may face a job loss, or a sudden illness, or a home swept away in a terrible storm," the Republicans in Raleigh were busy devising a plan to reduce unemployment benefits and in so doing forfeit federal dollars.

A day after the May primary, when North Carolina voters froze the state law forbidding same-sex marriage in place for another generation, Obama made the announcement that he believes people of the same sex should have the right to marry. Tracing a historical arc from the women's equality movement through the Southern civil rights movement and gay liberation, the president said in his inaugural speech: "Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law -- for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well."

As regards the young, undocumented people who have spent most of their lives in our communities yet fear deportation, Obama created the deferred action program, and articulated the values behind his executive order by declaring, "Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity; until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce instead of expelled from our country."

The NC Attorney General's office notified the Division of Motor Vehicles four days before the inauguration that driver's licenses should be issued to young immigrants who have been approved for deferred action, but as of Monday the division -- now under Republican administration -- was still reviewing the legal advice of the state's highest law enforcement officer. (Editor's note: The state Department of Transportation announced yesterday that it would issue licenses to participants in the deferred action program.)

It's worth noting that we would not be wrangling over this had the Senate mustered 60 votes to close debate and pass the DREAM Act, providing young, undocumented immigrants a pathway to citizenship, in 2010. Among the five Democrats who voted to keep the bill bottled up were two Southerners, Kay Hagan of North Carolina and Mark Pryor of Arkansas.

The South was an isolated cultural and economic backwater from the end of the Civil War to roughly the time of World War II. It was a region where the state of Tennessee prosecuted a public school instructor for teaching evolution in 1925 and where generations of Dixiecrat politicians resisted federal integration efforts under the banner of states' rights.

As George Packer has noted in his much-discussed New Yorker article, the South is becoming isolated again.

With North Carolina flipping back into the Republican column with its preference for Romney over Obama, you could say that the new Solid South begins in Henderson, N.C. and ends in Valdosta, Ga., bracketed by Virginia and Florida.

In North Carolina, the GOP has forged a successful coalition between wealthy suburbanites and rural social conservatives to hold an edge over the urbanites and rural black-belt communities that make up the Democratic constituencies. Greensboro and Winston-Salem are attempting to refashion themselves as vibrant urban centers -- the former with a proposed performing arts center and the latter with its nascent downtown research park -- to attract and retain talented young people. The sought-after creative class tends to be socially libertarian on matters of sexuality and immigration, and increasingly multiracial -- in essence, the core of Obama's demographic.

Meanwhile, the Republicans are centralizing power in Raleigh by taking over decisions that were traditionally left to local government such as drawing political districts and regulating matters like billboards and carrying guns in parks.

It will be interesting to see if North Carolina cities thrive in opposition to the larger political culture of the state, or lose their luster as the region slides further into irrelevancy. Time will tell.