The Southern Question / The Rural Question and the Polarization of America and Other Historic Nations By City Interests, Rural Interests, and Related Class Interests
The tension between city interests and rural interests is at the heart of much political polarization, and in America it begs “the Southern Question“. Or rather, more specifically, it begs “the Rural Question”.
What is “the Southern Question?” – From the Perspective of America
The Southern Question is the same for America as was when Antonio Gramsci asked it in the 1920’s regarding the unification of Italy, it can be stated in a few ways such as:
“Can a rural part of a nation, having a different culture and a different set of interests that is generally less modernized than its citied counterpart, really be part of a Union with a citied part?”
“Can the rural citizens, traditionally at the bottom of the class pyramid (except in cases where the untouchable or slave class was lower), what we historically would call “peasants”, with their ‘backward ways’ really be expected to follow their Northern Brethren’s customs? Or, will they forever be trumped underfoot of the industry and finance elite class of the left and right and the related political establishment, which consolidates power away from the rural regions and common man creating political, social, and economic inequality.”
So in America, “Can we have a unified nation where federal and state policy works for the poor rural whites of the mid-west and south, AND the poor non-whites in the cities, AND the middle-class citied or coastal liberal, AND the recent immigrant, AND the factory worker, AND the factory owner, AND the investor class, AND the big city Democrats and Republicans who control both parties, the government, and all major businesses…”
“…Can we have a unified Nation that works for everyone, or will the stronger always oppress and manipulate the weaker, dividing by social issues and oppressing by economic means?”
Those questions might seem harsh (and certainly when Marx asked if the Jewish population could integrate in Germany in his Jewish Question, that was harsh then… but of course, in retrospect, exactly the sort of question we must ask). In other words, so be it if the words are harsh, Civil Wars, World Wars, and Revolutions are much harsher (and they arise in times of inequality when a class or people is blamed for social, political, and economic inequality and when differences cannot be worked out with the spoken word or pen).
City Interests Vs. Rural Interests; They Ain’t the Same Thing Fella
The point is that city interests are different than rural interests, as the needs of a person living in a city are different than a person living in a rural region.
The needs of rural Georgia and Atlanta are different, Savannah and the black belt don’t have the same culture, and neither do eastern and western Washington state. So why try to treat them “exactly the same?” Never-mind the difference between San Fran and Bayou’s of Louisiana or New York and Nome. The idea that citizens of these vastly different regions would have the same tastes is absurd. Forcing the same policies upon them is equally as absurd (hence federalism), yet in some cases, as it is with the Mormons of Utah and Amish of Pennsylvania, despite the differences, two different types of citizens need to follow some of the same customs and laws.
The compilations aren’t just about interests and tastes though. There is more to it than that.
Opportunity isn’t the same, and generally the rural citizen is poorer, thus generally the rural citizen is of a lower social strata.
Likewise, city culture is different than rural culture, as the environment and way of life of a city is different than of a rural region.
Rural regions tend to be “behind” the cities in terms of embracing “progressivism” and “modernization.”
Rural Regions tend to be less integrated, and tend to favor socially conservative politics, wishing to push back against a modernizing world and hoping to conserve back to simpler times more in line with their current way of life.
Add these issues in to the differences between the types of people who have settled in different lands, and there is a range of complications.
Part of the difference is just a matter of population density and thus proximity to different types of people, but part is a class struggle between lowest classes.
In cities wealth and poverty live side-by-side, in rural regions population is sparse and poverty is common, this has complex effects not all of which I can or will note here).
Thus, for these reasons and more, the citied citizen tends to have an edge in education and finance, and that puts them in a higher class (leaving the poor rural class and poor citied class at the bottom of the social class system in any state that has even a shadow of a capitalist economy).
Over time class interest has an effect, and this polarizes the city and rural regions even more (and polarizes the rural and citied poor, each with different wants and needs themselves).
Over time this sets it up for the cities to control the rural areas politically and economically as they increasingly move ahead of their rural counterparts and power gaps and cultural gaps widen.
Then, when federal and state laws are passed, the cities get a better deal (as politics follows money more often than warm bodies). To the extent that politics can’t follow money, and to the extent those warm bodies of the rural voter are needed, we get lots of vote buying, gerrymandering, strict laws, and strategic manipulation (like we see in the Southern strategy and Sixth Party Strategy).
Then, yada yada, there is a populist tyrant who rises up at the whim of the frustrated lowest classes (this according to Plato at least).
TIP: I didn’t say I was offering a Southern Answer, I said I was explaining the Southern Question (better stated as “the Rural Question”). That said, I’ll give an answer before I lose you, the answer is “purple state politics“. We must find common ground between the wants and needs of different interests in a Democracy, no special interest should seek to dominate the others, instead we should be finding common interest in-line with the common good. It is what the founders intended. To do this we must recognize that the Northern Liberal is not the Mid-Western Framer, is not the Deep South urbanite, is not the recent immigrant, etc AND we must at the same time realize that despite all the inherent inequalities, we are all American. For everything else, there is TRUE federalism (not as a code for Confederate States’ Rights position, but in its true Republican purpose).
TIP: There is a reason the Northern Coasts and Cities are in one party and the Rural South and Mid-West are in the other party in any era, with this being true even when the parties switch. This is because the main divide is between the political, economic, and social interests of rural regions and city regions (and between their related and inequalities and cultural differences). This difference is expressed well by the left-right paradigm “Big Government Progressivism” vs. “Small Government Social Conservatism”. Learn more about party switching and what it does and doesn’t mean.
The Civil War as an Emblem of this Tension
Although the Civil War’s causes were complex, a main sentiment that led to the Civil War in America was a struggle between North and South, between the rural “old ways” of slavocracy and citied “new ways” of industrialization.
This wasn’t too different from what happened under Jefferson or Jackson’s watch, but the events from the War of 1812, the industrialization after, and the tension over expansion really magnified the issue.
In the old days the lowest class was the black slave, that meant every poor rural white, was, by his skin color, not at the bottom of the class system.
It went like this: black slave, then black non-slave, then the poor white, then the citied worker (the proletariat), then the country aristocrat, then the citied elite. Here the New York citied elite was always just a snooty nose higher than even the most honorable man of Georgia. No Federalist or Citied Anti-Federalist was going to muddy their boots going to some backwards state like South Carolina if they could help it.
Consider the very socially liberal abolitionist founder trash the pro-slavery south in 1787
IT WAS A NEFARIOUS INSTITUTION-It was the curse of heaven on the States where it prevailed. Compare the free regions of the Middle States, where a rich & noble cultivation marks the prosperity & happiness of the people, with the misery & poverty which overspread the barren wastes of Va. Maryd. & the other States having slaves. Travel thro’ ye whole Continent & you behold the prospect continually varying with the appearance & disappearance of slavery. The moment you leave ye E[astern] Sts. & enter N[ew] York, the effects of the institution become visible; Passing thro’ the Jerseys and entering Pa.-every criterion of superior improvement witnesses the change. Proceed Southw[ar]dly, & every step you take thro’ ye great regions of slaves, presents a desert increasing with ye increasing proportion of these wretched beings. – (1787) Gouverner Morris “The Curse of Slavery”
Never, was the countryman EVER of the same rank as the citied elite. To a social liberal he was less moral, to a more rural founder like Jefferson, he was to be cherished despite his backwards ways. To the business conservatives of both parties, he was at best a way to make profit and at worst a nuance.
That is true in America, that was true in Italy, that wasn’t so different from any past nation. It is hard for an aristocrat or oligarch to see a peasant as their equal, that was true in the old Kingdoms, but that really is no less true in 2017.
And with that noted, in America prior to Lincoln’s victory (his Unification of the rural South and citied North), losing slavery meant that the poor white and poor black would be the peasants of the citied North.
Not only that, but the divide between the fast pace of modernization of cities and the “backwards” way of the rural citizen compounded with the liberal revolutions, industrialization, and modernization to create a divide not only have class and economy, but of politics.
I could go on for days about this, but it is really simple to get. The north has more technology, more education, more opportunity, and different needs. Given that they have more political power and more economic power they typically get their way.
In a capitalist society being “rural” essentially means being somewhere down the food chain.
This naturally creates a citied aristocracy who is far removed from the needs of the city folk.
This creates a problem.
This problem is compounded when at least one faction of city folk, typically the oligarchy, decides to manipulate the opinion of the rural folk (as in a Democracy or winner-take-all system the rural peasants vote is important).
The Oligarchs and Aristocrats from the North Control Everything, Just Like They Always Have
Today in America we get Trump promising coal jobs to the forgotten man, but at best that is an empty promise of scraps of dignity (the kind that wage slavery provides).
I get why the South stopped voting Democrat, there is the race issue granted, but it isn’t just that (or at least not just that). It is that Hillary screams establishment citied liberal from New York…
However, one must remember, Trump is also a citied Liberal from New York.
The south was given an absurd choice, and the only thing more absurd than their choice is their willingness to buy into the modern form of the Southern Strategy and empty promises of “the Forgotten Man” stolen verbatim from FDR (a real friend of the people, a real Democrat, like Jefferson, Jackson, Bryan, and Bernie).
The rural south doesn’t need or want the same assistance programs that the poor city folk do, that has always caused tension, but at least the populist left liberals really do care about both the city worker and the rural worker, about the have-nots of any region.
That is what Gramsci’s Southern Question was all about, it was about,
“By introducing workers’ control over industry, the proletariat will orient industry to the production of agricultural machinery for the peasants, clothing and footwear for the peasants, electrical lighting for the peasants, and will prevent industry and the banks from exploiting the peasants and subjecting them as slaves to the strongrooms. By smashing the factory autocracy, by smashing the oppressive apparatus of the capitalist State and setting up a workers’ State that will subject the capitalists to the law of useful labour, the workers will smash all the chains that bind the peasant to his poverty and desperation. By setting up a workers’ dictatorship and taking over the industries and banks, the proletariat will swing the enormous weight of the State bureaucracy behind the peasants in their struggle against the landowners, against the elements and against poverty. The proletariat will provide the peasants with credit, set up cooperatives, guarantee security of person and property against looters and carry out public works of reclamation and irrigation. It will do all this because an increase in agricultural production is in its interests; because to win and keep the solidarity of the peasants is in its interests; because it is in its interests to orient industrial production to work which will promote peace and brotherhood between town and countryside, between North and South.”
Now yes, Gramsci was a Communist and he was jailed by the Fascists shortly after writing that. But who can say that Mussolini offered the peasants anything more than nationalism and war? At least the left wanted to help the rural south rise up, but of course, it is more complex than left, right, extremes, Communism, or KKK. These are all just reactions to political, social, and economic inequality and we can find insight in all ideologies if we are willing to look, speak honestly, and reserve judgement.
Since 1860 citied liberals from the North have controlled both parties, and the equivalent has always been the case for any nation. This is naturally occurring, it will happen, and one can’t stop it without conscious effort.
The mechanics are simple, ain’t no Goldman Sachs headquarters opening in the middle of rural nowhere with nothing but a bunch of backwards hicks and cows roaming around.
No, Goldman doesn’t go directly, instead a Bourbon straps on a Cowboy hat and goes offering big money (which is small money but looks big to the southern gentleman) for his vote, land, and labor.
With this the Bourbons take the South, and this southern strategy is really no different for a Reconstruction Carpet Bagger as it was for Hoover, Goldwater, or Nixon.
Just poor rural folk getting fooled by big city folk, always walking away back to the farm with at best a modicum of pride and a bad deal.
The Populist Left and Social Liberalism vs. The Populist Right and Social Conservatism
You know, FDR wasn’t perfect, but when FDR offered help to all, he really meant it. When Bernie says he cares about the have-nots, he really does mean it. I don’t think Hillary or Trump have bad intentions, but literally they are big city aristocrats and oligarchs respectively.
One would think that rural politicians would look out for the rural voter, but this is not really correct, they are looking out for rural businesses who benefit from exploiting the south.
Smug liberals say that when a Southerner votes Republican he votes against his interests, but that isn’t fully true, he votes against his economic interests (that is empirically provable since Democratic party policies generally offer assistance to the poor and working poor), but he does not vote against his interest. His interest is in retaining his identity and pride, and although Trumpian policies will not deliver, he votes for the strong male who at least was willing to say the words he wanted to hear and was willing to set foot in his town. That is more than can be said for Hillary, here policy was much better (empirically speaking) for the Southern rural voter, but the 2016 election was not won on policy, it was won on sentiment and rhetoric.
When a person values their pride, and when the class under them is only one handout away from being their equal, and when so many social policies favor northern modernization and culture, it really is no mystery as to why the rural voter picked the northern oligarch from NYC over the northern aristocrat from NYC. The question is, “can we get the Solid South voting Democrat again by running Bernie?”… hmm maybe? But we saw the problem Bryan ran into, and that is social liberalism and classical liberalism don’t always pair well, especially when it is a social liberal doing the pairing.
We have to remember the forgotten worker in rural America, the forgotten ghetto of the city, and the too often forgotten class divide which helps explain everything.
TIP: The above may all sound harsh, and certainly it is meant to be for effect. My actual personal political theory is one of centrism (I err toward the center left, but am not just “left”). See our political science section for a better understanding of everything I am saying; or feel free to ask questions and comment below.
- Red State, Blue City: How the Urban-Rural Divide Is Splitting America
- Rural interests rise with Republicans
- The Southern Question