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Power is Where Power Goes

ISSUE:  Autumn 1976
Power Shift. By Kirkpatrick Sale. Random House. $12.95

Ever since the beginnings of the Southern defection from the Democratic Party in 1948, political observers have been speculating about the possible breakup of the New Deal coalition. And since sectionalism has been one of the constants in the history of partisan alignment in American politics, much of this speculation has focused on the possible emergence of new regional party alliances. The recent reversal (since 1960) of the older electoral pattern in which the Northeast consistently provided the strongest basis of support for the Republicans and the South furnished the highest proportions of votes for the Democrats in presidential elections lends support to the possibility that a realignment is under way. The appearance in 1969 of Kevin Phillips’s The Emerging Republican Majority not only stimulated debate on the issue but, by combining analysis with advocacy in the advancement of the theory of an incipient conservative coalition among the “Sun Belt” states, reinforced the plausibility of the Southern Strategy among the members of the then dominant wing of the Republican Party.

Kirkpatrick Sale’s bold leap into this political thicket affirms, with some alterations, the Phillips thesis on the emergence of a Southern-South western political bloc, but the central purpose of Power Shift is to provide an ideological refutation of Phillips’s assumption that this potential new geographical locus of pivotal electoral power is a good thing for the country.

Sale’s 18th-century sounding sub-title, “The Rise of the Southern Rim and its Challenge to the Eastern Establishment, ” does not entirely convey either the neatness of his geographical arrangement or the completeness of the dichotomy he draws between the two regions. The “Southern Rim” consists of the whole of 13 states, plus the southern tip of Nevada and California as far north as the San Francisco Bay area. The region encompassed starts in the East at the North Carolina shore and stretches unbroken to the Pacific West, embracing roughly all the territory south of the 37th parallel. The Northeastern region is defined by a bold annexation in which Sale incorporates five Midwestern states (Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, and Illinois) into the traditional Northeast (New England, New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey). Although he weakly explains why he leaves Virginia out of the Southern Rim (its climate, agriculture, and migration patterns are different, and it has a cosmopolitan population in the Washington area), and why he includes the major part of the Midwest in the Northeast (the whole region enjoys a “certain cohesion,” especially in demography and economics), the arbitrariness of Sale’s conceptions of geographical affinity recedes to the point of insignificance as one moves steadily through his Procrustean animadversions on the culture of the Southern Rim as contrasted with that of the Northeast.

According to Sale, the economic growth of the Southern Rim is based on six basic “pillars”: agribusiness, defense, advanced technology, oil and gas, real estate and construction, and tourism and leisure. Since World War II, developments in these industries have “tilted” the country southward in terms of population growth, economic expansion, and political power, largely at the expense of the Northeast, with its older, slower-growth economy based on financial institutions and basic manufacturing industries. Although the major portion of the first half of the book is devoted to a sometimes questionable quantitative documentation of the shift, the essence of the book is the contrast drawn between the two “cultures” posited by Sale. And on that count Senator Goldwater’s suggestion that the Northeast ought to be detached from the rest of the country and floated out to sea was a mild solution to the problem as he saw it compared with what the author of Power Shift must have in mind for the Southern Rim on the basis of his unrelieved indictment of everybody and everything in the United States south of the 37th parallel.

The author has a penchant for cute turns of phrase, e.g., “oilionaires”, “moondoggle”, and “rococonutty” (the adjective applied to Miami Beach). And he has a mean talent for invective. One would have thought, for example, that it would have been sufficient to brand George Wallace “. . .a racist, a demagogue, a crude, vindictive, repressive, power hungry bigot,” but with the insensitivity of a malicious and morally unrestrained child, Sale goes on to describe him as “a tiny man whose body is half useless now and confined to a wheelchair, the governor of a nationally insignificant state . . .” (p. 103). But this is no more than one might expect from a moralizer who is prepared to condemn an entire [sub?] “culture” and all of its people for “rightism,” “racism,” and “repression,” and who rather indiscriminately flings the degrading term “rednecks” around, while being over-solicitous (as obviously befits an Eastern educated person of high culture) about the terminological characterization of those social classes and groups to which he has extended absolution.

Sale’s consummate descriptive phrase for the Southern Rim, however, is the “Cowboy Culture,” a term he applies so repeatedly, so chauvinistically, and with such a complete disregard for internal differences in the area that it loses all sardonic bite and simply becomes boring. That the latest “New South” tendencies have some relation both to the frontier expansionism of historic memory and the urban-industrial expansiveness of the developing Southwest is not in question. And it is even possible that the Sun Belt political alignment may be a factor in whatever geographical redistribution of political party strength may be under way in the United States. But strain as he will, Sale cannot override all the historical differences that prevent the immediate homogenization of either of the two cultural regions he attempts to identify, any more than he can totally dissociate the entreprenurial spirit, the political spoilsmanship, and the aggressive upward mobility of the emerging South and the Southwest from their national antecedents in the Gilded Age, McKinleyism, and Business Progressivism, all of which were prominent in the earlier annals of the Northeast, and are perhaps not entirely eradicated even today. But if he cannot override all internal distinctions or totally disconnect the Southern Rim’s extravagant social behavior from its sources in national experience, he does ignore such challenges to the comprehensiveness of his thesis to the extent possible, and when he cannot ignore them he apologizes them away.

For Sale, the Southern Rim has reached a stage of total degradation. All of the evils of contemporary American society can be traced to the patterns of behavior associated with the Cowboy Culture, including the military-industrial establishment, Vietnam, racism, and crime (the politics of organized crime resembles that of the Cowboy Culture because both dislike interference by the federal government). A long “before and after” analysis of the Kennedy assassination which leans heavily on all of the negative responses to the findings of the Warren Commission leads Sale to the sweeping conclusion that the solution requires a resort to the old legal principle, “cui bono— to whose advantage?” And the answer lies in “A confluence of forces including organized crime (especially its Southern branch), the defense industry (especially its Texas components), the oil industry (especially the newer and Texas-based elements), the Far Right (especially the Texas and Floridian branches), and beyond doubt Lyndon Johnson, the 36th president of the United States, Or, to put it in three words, the Southern Rim.” (p. 134). One could go on and on with examples of the mode of argument indulged in by Sale to make his condemnation absolute: Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon are equated completely in political style, policy stands, and uses of power; if a “Yankee” by background and education is involved in Cowboy Culture activities, e. g., Jeb Stuart Magruder, the corruption results from his having married a Californian, lived in California, and regarded himself as a Californian; contrariwise, though Robert Welch of John Birch Society fame lives in Massachusetts, he was born and brought up in North Carolina. But enough is enough in such a no-compromise, no-win game.

The sum of the matter is that Sale pushes a thesis which has limited validity at best to the point of absurdity. But there is a more insidious side to Power Shift. Muckraking has long been a semi-respectable form of American journalism, but recently we have witnessed a trend that goes beyond muckraking and becomes a total critique of society or of some social class, segment, or section of society. Heavy-handedly sensationalist, as in the case of the book at hand, this genre (if it can be called that) evokes a Manichean version of morals and politics in which good and evil are absolute, and are absolutely identifiable by authorial ascription. This type of writing plays on and exaggerates existing divisions in society by denying the existence of common values (and common problems) that might make it possible to reconcile the divisions. It is ironic that in the obvious concentration on saleability those examples of this literature which may be identified with the left blatantly display the complicity of their authors in the capitalistic excesses they so roundly condemn.

If one were in a defensive mood, many of Sale’s arguments could be answered on their own level by reference to such snappy retorts as that contained in the country music song, “I Wouldn’t Live in New York City if You Gave Me the Whole Dang Town,” or in the suggestion by Carleton Putman (the last exponent of classically orthodox arguments supporting racial segregation, and non-Southerner who now lives in the South) that those who regard Southern whites as degenerate should take a ride on a New York subway and give their fellow passengers a close scrutiny for comparative purposes. But I prefer a more direct response from the Gallic sector of the Cowboy Culture. For years a revue entitled the “Fudge Ripple Follies” ran in New Orleans (it may still be playing there). Its sub-title, “Nobody Likes a Smart Ass,” seems particularly applicable here.


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