Saturday, June 1, 2013

Are We Witnessing the Persistence of the Southern Veto?

As I have mentioned before on this blog, I am more and more convinced that regionalism has played a major part in America's history and its politics.  After all, regionalism led to this nation's most horrific and destructive war; you'd think that we would see such regional divides and divergent histories still having power after 1865.  Examples aren't hard to find.  Right now I am reading Fear Itself by Ira Katznelson, which examines the outsized influence that Southern politicians had on the New Deal.  Because FDR needed these politicians, New Deal policies often reinforced, rather than challenged white supremacy and the social hierarchy south of the Mason-Dixon line.

You could easily make a case that through most of this nation's history, the South has claimed and exercised a veto over national legislation.  It began all the way back in the drafting of the Constitution, which included a provision for the capture of fugitive slaves, as well as the 3/5s compromise.  During the 1830s, the "gag rule" in Congress kept the issue of slavery from even being discussed.  Reconstruction ended in 1877 largely due to the White South's refusal to alter the vaunted "Southern way of life."  At crucial moments, such as the Civil War and in the passage of major civil rights legislation in the 1960s, that veto has been broken.

Of course, it wasn't for lack of trying.  Southern senators used the filibuster time and again to derail civil rights bills, or used their disproportionate seniority power on committees to prevent legislation they didn't like from even reaching the floor.  At the state level, governors like George Wallace actively resisted integration. Then as before, these politicians assumed that the federal government should not be allowed to make any laws that altered the South's social arrangement.

Although such claims are not being explicitly made today, we might well be seeing the persistence of this regional veto power.  A look at the electoral maps of the last two presidential contests shows a nation increasingly polarized on the basis of region.  Both McCain and Romney won the majority of Southern states, as well as the Great Plains and Mountain West, Colorado and New Mexico excluded.  These regions are extremely red, except for the so-called "black belt" of the South's cotton heartland, where the population is majority African American.  Based on my time in Texas and Nebraska, I can tell you that many folks there see themselves besieged by an out of control government led by a Kenyan usurper.  They see him and liberalism as threats to their way of life, and want to use any means necessary to derail president Obama's policies.

Many of the president's policies, such as gun control and expanded health insurance, go directly against accepted Southern (and to an extent, Western) social norms of an impoverished underclass willing to labor cheaply and ready access to firearms.  On the issue of gun control, support for new regulations was widespread, but the wave of filibustering and obstruction in the Senate meant that new measures required 60 votes rather than fifty. Unfortunately, the filibuster, long the weapon of choice against civil rights bills, was used quite effectively to nix gun control. In fact, traditionally the filibuster was used almost exclusively by Southerners to prevent civil rights legislation.

 Today's shenanigans not quite the same as the old regional veto, but they do  point to how badly fractured our politics are on regional lines, and how people in certain regions still feel that they have the right to veto things they don't like, even if the rest of the nation disagrees with them.  Back during the New Deal, this meant that Southern politicians bent national policy to their purposes, since they were at least in the same political party as FDR.  With the party of the South now the Republicans, the retention of regional veto power means nothing can get done.  Without meaningful reform, our political system will continue to give individual regions the power to stop the wheels of progress from moving.

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