I'd like to put forth an outrageous proposition: that the American South is dead.
I don't mean in the clinical sense -- in fact, it's anything but. If you took Amtrak's Southern Crescent from New Orleans to Washington, and then the Metroliner to New York, and looked out the window, the notion of the South as America's defeated region would seem laughable. It's happy and prosperous, and also a little self-satisfied.
It's the mythology that's dead. The juice is gone. It isn't the nation's most distinctive region any more.
It may be hard to care about this if you're not a southerner. It may also seem that what made the South different, really, was slavery and its long aftermath, so its assimilation is all to the good. Even so it would be worth noting because the South's differentness has so much shaped American history. But there's a nobler and less practical reason to care: because it seemed, for a while, that the South would turn its particular experience to the whole country's advantage.
The historian C. Vann Woodward was the most eloquent voice for this theory. He said the South did not share in the dominant American culture of military victory and economic success -- implying that in the '70s, the rest of the country could learn from the South how to handle its taste of defeat and failure. Even on race relations, many southerners felt that having been through the convulsions of the civil rights movement, the South now stood ready to lead the way to black-white harmony.
The November election results show how wrong those predictions were. Blacks and whites may be at peace in the South, but the sharpness with which they split on Election Day shows that the gulf between them hasn't narrowed nearly as much as people thought. The white South, supposedly sad and wise, hardly seemed put off by President Reagan's shiny talk of prosperity and strength; but the black South, supposedly rocketing upward, obviously didn't believe it.
Culturally, the big loser in the death of the South is the sense of deep tragedy and complication that once infused every aspect of the life of the region -- the quality that made William Faulkner possible. The South is still producing far more than its share of talented writers (the winner and runner-up for the latest American Book Award in fiction were both new-face southerners, Ellen Gilchrist and Padgett Powell), but they're mainly working the eccentric edges of the culture. The center now belongs to Southern Living and Hilton Head and Peachtree Plaza, I'm afraid.
The big loser politically is the conservative southern Democratic Party, which only yesterday was as unquestionably in power as the PRI in Mexico. It used to be that the South wouldn't go Republican on grounds of race and of suspicion of ours, both emotions rooted in memories of Reconstruction. When segregation was finally banished from politics, southern Democrats lost half their sales pitch; as Yankees seem less scary, they are losing the other half.
What southern Democrats really stand for is something different: the classic rationale of a one-party-system political party, namely that it will get things done and cut everyone important in on the deal-making. But that's almost impossible to articulate in the age of media politics, when message is important.
When they had to run against liberals in Democratic primaries, conservative southern Democrats ran either as segregationists (in the '50s) or as conservatives (later on), and won easily. Running against Republicans who are serious candidates is much more difficult for them -- the Republicans attack them with their own conservative rhetoric, and the conservative Democrats are left grumbling privately that their opponents are ideologues who don't know how to deliver the goods. That's why, most notably in North Carolina and Texas, they're starting to lose even local races.
Southern Democrats do still believe that the South has a lesson to teach the rest of America, namely, that the Democratic Party should become more conservative. But as they lost to Republicans, the South won't any longer be able to put forth authentic claims that a different value system -- either superior or inferior -- exists there. You'll still hear that its men are more gallant and its life more graceful, but these claims will endure only because they're so unprovable.
One more outrageous proposition: In the parts of the South that really do have a mythology that distinguishes them from the rest of the country, it's the mythology of the Sun Belt. Everybody's scrambling to get rich, there's no past worth thinking about, and schemers, drifters, and dreamers abound. It may lack dignity, but those interested in regional culture and politics ought to pay it heed.