The desire to southernize the entire United States is not new, and in some ways it’s been happening for a while, at least where Republicans have control of government. But now that Republicans have complete control in Washington, they’re going to try to accelerate and deepen that process. Let’s look at it piece by piece:
The Southern economic model. The first and most far-reaching component of this project is to take the Southern economic model national. The foundation of that model is the elimination of collective bargaining and the destruction of the labor unions that are able to negotiate higher wages and better benefits for workers. The Southern model replaces the North’s high-wage, unionized manufacturing with a low-wage, low-benefit version that has succeeded in drawing many factories southward. Southern states have lured companies with gigantic tax breaks and the promise of a powerless and desperate workforce. The result is often more jobs in those Southern states, but worse jobs. And what those states give up in taxes means poorer schools and fewer social services.
This is a story with roots that go back before the Civil War, but in recent years it has taken on a new character as even foreign firms look to the American South as a source of cheap labor. And as Harold Meyerson explained last year in this terrific article, multiple forces including the crippling of unions and the emergence of Walmart as the nation’s largest retailer have acted to pull wages and benefits across the country down toward the South’s level.
It’s deeply ironic that Donald Trump won by promising white working class voters that he could turn back the clock to the halcyon days of American manufacturing when unionized workers had secure jobs with high wages and benefits, while his administration is going to pursue policies that will essentially initiate a race to the bottom for workers. Yesterday we learned that Trump will nominate Andrew Puzder, the CEO of the fast-food company CKE Restaurant Holdings, to be Secretary of Labor — the person in charge of looking after workers’ interests. Puzder is an ardent opponent of minimum wage increases, expanded overtime pay, paid sick leave, health coverage for workers, and collective bargaining. While he’s toiling at the Labor Department for the interests of corporations, Republicans will almost certainly try to pass a federal “right to work” law — the kind now in force in states across the South — as part of their effort to destroy labor unions once and for all.
The Southern health care model. The Republicans’ first legislative priority is to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and while we don’t yet know what form that repeal (or its replacement) will take, the people most vulnerable are the estimated 12 million who would lose the coverage they gained because of the law’s expansion of Medicaid. Nineteen states refused to accept that expansion, preferring to keep their poor citizens uninsured rather than allow them to get coverage paid for by the federal government. Those 19 included some conservative states in the Midwest like Kansas and Nebraska, but the largest group of states was in the South: 10 of the 11 states of the Confederacy (Louisiana being the sole exception) refused the Medicaid expansion.
The Southern education model. Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, is not an educator or education administrator; using her wealth as the wife of an heir to the Amway fortune, she has devoted her efforts to essentially trying to destroy public education in her home state of Michigan and in America more generally. DeVos advocates for vouchers that can be used at private and religious schools, and for the expansion of for-profit charter schools with as little oversight as possible. She has been extremely successful in pushing this agenda in Michigan, with disastrous results. As Politico recently described it:
Critics say Michigan’s laissez-faire attitude about charter-school regulation has led to marginal and, in some cases, terrible schools in the state’s poorest communities as part of a system dominated by for-profit operators. Charter-school growth has also weakened the finances and enrollment of traditional public-school districts like Detroit’s, at a time when many communities are still recovering from the economic downturn that hit Michigan’s auto industry particularly hard.
That may be happening in Michigan, but it’s a system that is particularly strong in the South, where not only charter schools (which have support in many places) but private vouchers (which have far less support) are prevalent.
The Southern civil rights model. For his Attorney General, Trump picked Alabama’s Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, named for the president of the Confederacy and a Confederate general. Sessions was rejected by the Senate in the 1980s for a judgeship because of his history of what these days we call “racially charged” comments. His most famous case as a prosecutor involved his unsuccessful prosecution of a former aide to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whom Sessions went after for helping elderly African-Americans to vote absentee. While we don’t know exactly what Sessions’ agenda is, it’s a fair bet that vigorous enforcement of civil rights protections will not be high on his list.
In addition, Republicans will almost certainly be taking their voter suppression crusade national, especially given how successful it has been in putting up voting barriers to African-Americans, Latinos, and other people who might cast ballots for Democrats. Look for federal versions of voter ID laws, limits on early voting, and bans on same-day registration. Trump has also appointed Ben Carson to be Secretary of Housing and Urban Development; Carson has compared efforts to enforce the Fair Housing Act to communism.
The Southern abortion rights model. As I’ve explained, not only are Republican eager to overturn Roe v. Wade; even with that precedent intact they may try to pass federal laws that make the whole country like the South when it comes to abortion. That would mean that it’s technically legal to get one, even as a series of onerous laws targeting both abortion providers and the women who seek abortions make them extraordinarily difficult to obtain. That isn’t a sure thing: in order to accomplish it Trump would need another Supreme Court vacancy, then a Court willing to gut the “undue burden” standard that the current pro-Roe majority has upheld. But if the Court’s makeup changes, Republicans in Congress will likely try to pass national laws that make abortions all but illegal.
The Southern environmental model. Trump has named Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruitt to be administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, in a clear sign that he believes the first two words of the agency’s name are no longer operative. This too could represent a nationalization of what prevails in the South, where officials in Republican-dominated states see environmental protection as essentially a nuisance for corporations and the most pressing environmental question is how many wells we can drill.
During the 2016 campaign, some commentators noted that Donald Trump’s rhetoric bore a disturbing resemblance to the backlash to Reconstruction a century and a half ago. Now, as one constitutional scholar recently told this blog, it’s not unreasonable to expect “the beginning of the end of the Second Reconstruction.” The center of gravity in the GOP has been moving south for decades, and Republicans have long yearned to bring the South’s version of government and democracy to every corner of the country. Now they’ve finally got their chance.