For my initial (much delayed, but better late than never) posting to Cliopatria, I thought I’d introduce myself both by saying something about what I’m currently up to and making some observations about the connections (or disconnections) between history and public policy. Normally I teach at Vanderbilt and live happily ensconced in Nashville, but a year ago I received an invitation to spend this academic year at a newly established Global Research Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
I have for a long time (too long–mortality knocks) been at work on a project with the working title “Strategies of Southern Development: The Case of North Carolina.” Its origins were rooted in a specifically historical concern: my discontent with the so-called “Prussian Road” school of the New South, which argued, among other things, that the industrialization of the South was sponsored by a ruling elite rooted in the antebellum planter class, and that its tight control of the process explained the “separate path” the region took to the modern world. While I certainly believed that there was a distinctive southern style to the region’s post-Civil War economic development, I had long concluded that in fact the elites that drove southern industrialization were in almost all respects similar to their counterparts in business elsewhere in the US. If the manner in which they’ve developed the region was distinctive, I reasoned, the reason lay not in their class power but in their peculiar situation as business people. As late-comers to industrialization, hampered by the structural disabilities bequeathed by the slave plantation regime, lacking human capital and institutional depth, and facing crippling competition with one of the most sophisticated industrial regions on earth, they were largely forced into a reactive, adaptive strategy rather than a creative one. Instead of creating new industries and new technologies, they adopted old industries and borrowed technologies. Rather than compete on innovation and quality, they concentrated on competing on cost alone, identifying industries with low skill requirements, and turning the poverty of the southern people, white and black, into a cheap-labor advantage. Rather than create new markets for new goods, they thrived by stealing market-share in established markets. Explaining southern business history in business terms, I thought, was far more logically parsimonious, and thus more satisfying, than talking about planter persistence.
Over time, though, I found myself less interested in the historical issue, and increasingly interested in what I saw as its public-policy implications. For any close observer of the contemporary South will tell you that much of it is hurting, and hurting badly. De-industrialization has hit the region hard, especially in the small-town and rural precincts where so many still cling to their traditional worlds of family and community. The massive employment shift out of agriculture between the 1930s and the 1970s was largely balanced out (along with out-migration) with a massive influx of “footloose industry”–what Philip Scranton and Douglas Flamming have termed the “second wave” of southern industrialization. During that wave, large swaths of the rural South became as heavily dependent on factory jobs as any state in Smokestack America. For the past twenty years, however, that wave has been receding dramatically. In the Piedmont, massive industrial monuments such as Cannon Mills and Dan River Mills have become immense vacant lots, leaving aching holes in their communities. More quietly, jobs to which people devoted lifetimes have evaporated, with little prospect of replacing them. North Carolinians are well aware of this crisis, and indeed the first theme of the GRI (and the reason they invited me here) is framed as “Globalization, the Economic Crisis, and the Future of North Carolina.”
So I’ve been spending the year hobnobbing with public-policy types, and enjoying it greatly. But in so doing, I’ve found myself confronting people with a very different mind-set from my own. Whether it grows out of my historical work or out of my native Calvinist pessimism, I have always been most struck by the constraints under which historical actors operate. Far from being replete with the power to shape their society, the “agency” of the businessmen and communities I’ve studied have persistently faced the problem of playing bad hands the best they could. This grim determinism carries over to my observation of the present-day devastation I see in my travels around the region; I see little room for agency in responding to the present situation. While some public-policy people (especially economists) share that pessimism, or go it one better, most insist on the ability of people of good will (usually in the public sector) to solve these problems. After all, not all of North Carolina is hurting: the Research Triangle, one of the fastest-growing regions in the nation, is doing quite well, thank you, and the setbacks of its banking sector may simply be a hiccup in Charlotte’s inexorable rise. The future, the argument goes, is there, in clusters of creative-class entrepreneurs nurtured by intelligent industrial policy. Even the so-called “traditional industries” can survive by exploiting niches carved out by long experience and proximity to customers. The South can still have an industrial future; all it needs is the application of intelligence and a willingness to change. To this the pessimist in me replies, well, yes. But, however great creative-class clustering is for the Carys and Northern Virginias, it’s hardly the way out for the Spindale, North Carolinas or the Dresden, Tennessees. In fact, this sort of internal economic polarization is introducing a new inequality into the region, one that separates those ready to embrace the new world of knowledge-based products and rapid product cycles from those who just want steady jobs to support their families and communities. To me, the history still matters: to drag out that dreaded southern-studies cliché, the past not only isn’t dead, it’s not even past. Or is that all the history can teach us? Is it my inner Calvinist strangling my imagination? That’s what I’m wrestling with right now. It’s odd fare for Cliopatria, but as a veteran reader, all its fare is odd. I hope this is a good opening course.
Jamelle Bouie has an interesting piece in The American Prospect on the present state (grim) and future prospects of the Democratic Party in the South. I like Bouie's southern commentary, because he writes with a ground-level knowledge notably lacking among liberal commentators, but in this piece I think he misses something.
In essence, he contends (like Tom Schaller) that white southerners are a lost cause to the Democrats, and that the future of the party in the region will be black and (increasingly) brown. I'd respond that such a strategy would be bad news for Democrats, for black and brown southerners, and above all for the South itself.
A little history: As we all know, southern state Democratic parties up to the post-World War II era were obsessively focused on maintaining white supremacy--a focus that allowed them to corral most white voters under their banner while smothering real differences over a range of issues, assuring control of policy by what was in many respects a retrograde oligarchy. As is also well known, those parties (described so well in V. O. Key's classic Southern Politics in State and Nation) went into crisis after the war, first as the New Deal shifted the balance of power in the national party away from the South and then as racial liberalism gained ascendency in national party councils. The oft-told story goes that with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, followed by the Goldwater ascendency in the GOP, the Wallace insurgency of 1968, and the Nixon-Thurmond "southern strategy," the Democratic Party lost its grip on southern white voters. It took a while, to be sure, but whatever Democratic loyalty remained among whites was strictly a matter of engrained cultural habit; newer white voters automatically went Republican, while older whites who remembered "the Hoover time" (a phrase I remember still hearing in a crossroads SC barbershop in the 1970s) died off. The race issue was central, and the Republicans owned it.
Again, I think this misses a lot. In particular, it misses an important, but overlooked, fact about the post-Civil Rights Era Democratic Party in the South--that by the 1970s it made an epochal transition from being the party of white supremacy to being a true coalition of blacks (browns weren't in the picture yet) and whites. It was in many respects a jerry-built coalition (They were Democrats, after all), in particular incongruously welding the remnants of the old Black-Belt oligarchs with newer voters of sharply different priorities. But for a long time (in states like North Carolina a very long time) they actually worked hard at trying to bring a backward region into the modern age. They pushed hard to improve public education and public health, in particular, and more importantly extended social services to large swaths of the population that had hitherto been denied it. Not that they were "liberal" in any rigorous meaning of the term; their notion of economic development, for instance, remained wedded to "smokestack chasing" and the subservience to corporate interests such a strategy enforced (I'd argue that they had little choice, but whatever). And despite their efforts, much of the region continues to trail the nation in educational attainment, infant mortality, and a host of other measures. But the South of the post-Civil Rights Era was, in public policy terms, a much different, and better, place than it had been in the past.
OK, then, why the erosion, and recent collapse, in white support for the Democrats? Race is certainly part of the answer, but not all of it, and its role is more subtle than white-South-bashers customarily depict it. Part of it lies in the sharp postwar expansion of the southern urban middle class, which as observers from Merle and Earl Black to Matthew Latimer have pointed out, have led the surge into the GOP. For them, economic conservatism was a ticket to prosperity and a means of keeping what they got. But urban white southerners are increasingly unreliable for a party hostile to the public-service needs of city-dwellers. The critical segment of the white southern electorate are the working-class white voters, many of them still rural, small-town, or small-city residents. As Chris Kromm of Facing South notes in a good analysis of the recent Pew Center study of the American electorate, southerners are over-represented in two of their categories: "Hard-Pressed Democrats" (heavily female and black) and "Disaffecteds (heavily white working-class)." Neither group is exactly "conservative"--certainly not in the normal sense of the term. Both feel beleaguered and in need of help, but both are cynical about the good faith of government as well as business. Above all, both groups are socially conservative and deeply religious.
Why does that matter? Because it's arguable that, for the white working-class segment of these groups, both parties have failed them. As I mentioned in an earlier posting, the traditional economic base of the working-class South as seriously eroded in recent years, and public policy of any sort has done little to stem the hemorrhaging. Along with economic stress has come social and cultural stress as well; as Naomi Chan and June Carbone have recently argued in Red Families v. Blue Families, those Americans most passionately devoted to "family values" are increasingly those who have the hardest time living up to them. In response to this crisis, Republicans offer what seems to be a compelling narrative; American culture is being degraded by libertine liberal elites and minorities, unproductive classes living off those who still try to work hard and live by the rules. Restore the country to its rightful owners, they say, and all will be better. It's a classic populist appeal; if it's incongruous coming from a party so closely allied to wealthy suburbanites, incongruity is a characteristic of any major American political party. And what do Democrats have to say in response to this crisis? Damned if I know.
So the GOP views an economic and social crisis through the lens of culture war--and Democrats ignore it. Not a formula for a viable political party, and no help for either the ignored whites or the black and brown southerners who share many of the same afflictions. I'm not sure how that crisis can be addressed in the present climate--but focusing on issues that divide southerners by race isn't a good plan. Not to say that the peculiar concerns of black and brown southerners should be jettisoned; far from it. But the future of the Democratic Party in the South--indeed the future of the South--requires a broader reach.
I've been poring over the coverage of the recent brouhaha over the National Labor Relations Board complaint that when Boeing sited its new 787 Dreamliner facility in South Carolina it did so in order to intimidate union workers at its Puget Sound facilities. For all the bloviating over this issue from politicians and shoot-from-the-lip commentators, I must say that I find the issues murky and difficult to judge.
On the one hand, Boeing management did explicitly link the move to union negotiations, which appears to be a pretty clear unfair labor practice (Note that many of those screaming about the complaint basically think the law on unfair labor practices is ridiculous; intimidating workers is just fine in their book, especially if they can benefit from it). On the other hand, no union jobs were actually eliminated by this move; indeed, Puget Sound has added Boeing jobs. The timing of the complaint--two years after the move, and several months before the beginning of production in North Charleston--is also problematic--although given previous "ownership" at the NLRB, it's understandable. In any case, though, it's just a complaint, not a ruling; there will be hearings, and in all likelihood a court case. It'll drag on for years. For all the allegations that the complaint is politically motivated, the politicization seems to be coming primarily from its opponents.
One interesting feature, though, of how the controversy has played out in my native state: folks there are framing it (please curb your astonishment) as a "states' rights" issue. These, after all, are "local" jobs, provided by a "local" employer, under assault from a foreign invader. A prime example of this is this recent cartoon by Robert Ariail of the Spartanburg Herald-Journal. I must confess I'm not sure what Ariail himself thinks of this argument (I generally like his work), but it seems to capture a lot of instate sentiment. Suffice it to say that this is a crock. These are not South Carolina's jobs (and for that matter they aren't Puget Sound's jobs, either); they're Boeing's jobs. South Carolina only, er, services them, with deference to management prerogatives and massive subsidies. Really, the South's been down this road before. I recall with amusement how some years ago a company ironically still named Murray Ohio [well after it had picked up and moved to Middle Tennessee] was the target of a hostile takeover bid from a Swedish firm. Management responded with a massive publicity campaign demanding "Tennessee jobs for Tennesseans"--until they recruited a white-knight counteroffer from a British firm. Their Tennessee plant closed some years ago, BTW, devastating the small town of Lawrenceburg. Easy come, easy go. Boeing, TBS, isn't as likely to go easily; the investment's too big. Also (and this is the big hope of such development schemes) it could well become the hub for a complex of suppliers. Unlike Murray, which never did much to build capacity in Lawrenceburg apart from its own sprawling factory, Boeing may well nurture a community of skilled labor and entrepreneurship in the Low Country that could generate economic dynamism on its own and supplant Boeing should it later decide to depart. Or it may rely for its inputs on an increasingly global supply chain and build little capacity locally at all. The truth is probably somewhere in between (I may well more to say about this in a future posting).
I continue to suspect that big-fish catches like Boeing, while they're great for local bragging rights, are a really problematic way to do what economic development policy really needs to do, namely build the capacity for self-sustaining growth. Wide swatches of the South have been finding that out to their sorrow over the past twenty years, as jobs added at BMW or Nissan have been more than counterbalanced by manufacturing losses elsewhere. But building capacity requires a strategy somewhat different than selling oneself cheap to an outsider who needs you less than you need him. Can such a strategy be formulated in the present climate? Stay tuned.