By JP Miller, Contributing Editor.
The problem with being a socialist in the southern United States is more a function of being disconnected from the rest of the family of like-minded souls. Where I grew up in the Deep South, one could drive for miles and miles in any direction and never meet another person who identifies their political selves as a socialist or communist. Quite the contrary. Most of the white lower class and working class individuals identify with Reagan still or as a tea-party supporter. Although most southerners that I know would greatly benefit for a socialist government, they refuse to even utter the word “socialism”. Some vote, most don’t. If it sounds like I am complaining, I am. Sometimes I feel like the last southern socialist.
Looking at the problem from the inside out is much more difficult than watching from the outside, if not more revealing. Trying to explain why the south is now such a wasteland of progressive politics is like walking into a wall. Regardless of which avenue one takes to explain this political, social, and fiscal phenomenon, the way is blocked by staunch anti-this and anti-that. So if I fail in my attempt to explain this southern political scrabble of juxtaposed neo-liberal and neo-conservatism forgive me. At the very least I can help you to understand this enigma. I must add that despite other descriptions of the southern United States which include Maryland, Kentucky, and West Virginia, I cannot include these states—none of which officially supported the Confederate cause in the Civil War. And, to a southerner this is the true definition of the South.
The traditions of racism, rebellion, restrictive voting laws, anti-labor laws, libertarianism, agrarianism, multitudes of conservative churches, neo-liberal borrowed parts, flag wavers, and inadequate political education, all create a historic, antebellum wall between the poor white, black, middle-class, workers, writers, journalists, media, and the genuine messages of socialism. The media have much of the culpability here. But there are other walls as well and just as damaging.
White southerners that are poor, lower class, and engaged in the political process at all are difficult to find. Row upon row of trailer parks and sub-standard housing in rural and urban areas hold millions of potential socialist votes. But they are apathetic toward the entire process. Most of their time is spent scratching out a living by taking minimum wage jobs and applying for a government subsidy of some kind. Most of these people could not tell you who their Senators or Representatives are in Washington, DC and many consider Obama a communist.
The African-American community in the south is more active in politics but seem to tolerate the blatant racism and accept the southern political landscape as long as their local candidates are elected. Many live in housing projects or pack themselves into small, dirty apartments in specific areas where whites wouldn’t live. They work hard and apply for government assistance if possible, just like their white counterparts.
Both groups work and seek out help in attaining government assistance. Yet, congressional austerity programs which are targeting government assistance to families and individuals are quickly disappearing. They battle in a zero-sum game for pathetic jobs that cannot begin to sustain their families. This lack of employment is possibly the greatest challenge to southerners and the greatest cause of discord among all groups. Each group blames the other for taking jobs which were rightfully their own. The competition over employment is a battle of attrition which swings one way then the other. Ironically, none of the employers like McDonalds or Best Buy or Wal-Mart give a damn about which group takes the job. They are still going to pay the pitiful wages to either. I don’t believe that racism even plays a part in the hiring process at these marginal jobs. The winner, if you can call them that, is simply whoever is the most desperate
Regardless, none of these groups have enough political strength, interest, political education nor consciousness to even attempt agitating or voting for a socialist candidate, even at the local level. Although, a socialist society could mean enhanced benefits like education, healthcare, and a sustainable income, the average southerner would rather vote for their favorite dog than rather vote for a socialist candidate.
The southern United States is not a homogeneous society by any standard. The divisions are stark and often marked by very real fences and territories. Hence the political landscape, so often uncovered by gerrymandering, is purposely designed as apartheid like communal townships—temporary voting blocs for the party in power.
Despite, the South’s apparent lack of political consciousness, at the same time, the south has a great liberal tradition that once was the center of the union cause (see Mill Hill…The Greanville Post, JP Miller) and has a sympathetic literary tradition second to none. But there is also the unforgettable racism that dates back to slavery. There is this “separate but equal” tradition practiced by both sides but admitted by neither. Instead of assimilation there is division and discord. Instead of discussion there are racial epithets. Many southern whites feel the black community is profiting off government subsidies. All the while, the black community eyes the white southerner as a simple-minded racist redneck that gobbles up all the good jobs.
The true nature of this southern conservatism is like Frankenstein’s monster. There’s a piece here and a piece there. And, much like the various southern states they all add up to a frightening mixture of a sewn together conservative, misinformed, repressed voting bloc. However, as shown by many presidential elections, this bloc of states can carry a candidate to victory upon a void of votes, a tide of fear as well as the southern tradition of irrational hatred toward the north and minorities. Winning the south is an important strategy for Presidential candidates.
Then there are some who claim to be socialist and like to speak the language of socialism. But this is more an upper-middle class affectation rather than a genuine ideology or practice. They rail against the republicans and democrats and then resort to voting for the least, worst option, while holding their noses high; the Democrats. When I am allowed into this world of specious socialism, I can see the tradition of the older yellow-dog democrats and the neo-liberals coming together for a brief moment to out-socialist each other. It’s quite a fight, watching them hang on the most up to date politically correct words. How they like to correct each other. I am mute at these functions and prefer to let my writing tell my story. Often, I feel as if I am in a Paris salon while others discuss the latest fashion—political or otherwise.
Many political scientists will tell you that the determinant factor in what will be your own political identity are simply what your parents political identity happened to be. It’s an inherited political marker and a tough tradition to break. I am no different to a degree. I was raised by women, black and white, who were leftists. Although they never voted, these women put a very leftist view of the world into me. Although it took a war to radicalize me.
Using the 2012 presidential election to gauge any socialist tendencies in the voting public, the results are disappointing to say the least. In the 2012 presidential election only one southern state had a socialist candidate on the ballot, Georgia. The ballot access is carefully guarded by those in the Republican and Democrat camps. Usually, the fees are too high or the amount of signatures needed to make the ballot is so overwhelming that third parties cannot even become a choice. The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) had ballot access in six states (none southern) and amassed a total of 4, 115 votes. The Socialist Party of the United States (SPUSA) had ballot access in three states including Georgia and managed a total of 4,430 votes. The Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA) failed to even field a candidate or make a ballot. It is worth noting that the Green Party, which has some socialist tendencies, was unusually successful by managing to get access to the ballot in 37 states and amassing 469, 583 votes. This was a mere 0.36% of the total popular vote however. And, usually, the write-in socialist vote across the nation is tossed in with the category of “other” which could be lumped in with the Klan vote or the natural law vote.
There is not one socialist or Communist Congressman. There is not one socialist Governor. There is not a single elected official in the south that identifies themselves as socialist. Yet, the poverty, educational standards, racial demographics, and rebellious nature of the south make it fecund ground for a socialist breakthrough. But at the same time, the same attributes, are among the reasons why people will not vote or Socialist or Communist.
For the most part, the mainstream media is either oblivious to progressive ideas or has effectively shut down any sort of southern liberalism. One is hard-pressed to even find a paper or news channel that would carry a positive message from the socialist perspective. Much of this is leftover from the union struggles in the 1920’s and 1930’s and beyond. Bloody battles were fought and the unions, supported by northern Communist agitators, lost the fight. Union is a dirty word in the south because the media is owned or supported by the same people who own the plants where unionism would thrive. If you ever get a chance to see a sound- bite from a southern news channel or read a southern newspaper, whenever the word “union” is tossed around as if it is unpatriotic, unclean, and almost alien.
Today, southerners are merely grateful to have a job. Hence, supporting a union would be taking a big chance with your job since there are so few. Presently, the southern states are nearly all among the states with the lowest mean income per capita—Texas being the exception at the middle of the pack. To support a socialist cause, union, or Communist party is economic suicide in the south.
Once upon a time however, the south was the scene of the largest Socialist vote and movement in US history. Louisiana, the state with the lowest per capita income in the US and the state with arguably the most diverse population in the nation became a political battleground where socialism would win the day. At least for a period, socialism was king.
In 1912, Eugene Debs, the man who would cause the formation the Socialist Party (SP) nearly single-handedly, ran for President against the Democrats and Republicans and won six percent of the popular ballots cast, with one million votes. The SP exploded into membership, unions won the right to collectively bargain and strike, 323 newspapers took up the SP cause and local chapters opened all across the US. Local socialist candidates were elected and the party thrived.
Debs, who had begun his campaigns to point out the brutality and inequality of capitalism, spread the words of class struggle and revolution. He attacked the Democrats and Republicans by pointing out their utter interchangeability, their obvious corruption, and likened them to the party of Wall Street. Sound familiar.
In 1920, with his last run for President, Debs was jailed for his speeches of opposition to World War One (WWI) and arousing socialist consciousness in millions of working folks. Much of his work led to better working conditions and rights for workers nation-wide. Yet, as WWI ended, nearly the entire SP evaporated as industrial expansion continued and the SP split into many factions. The great experiment was over. And, Debs died in 1926. The two party system or rather the uniparty was once again in control.
As I wrote before, I sometimes feel as if I am the last socialist in the southern United States. I know of not one other single socialist in my little southern world. But, the divisions and strife that my fellow southerners struggle with are not entirely bad news. It takes injustice, inequality, and rebelliousness to exist before revolutionary politics can take hold. Eugene Debs knew this well. It may not happen in my lifetime but I have children and they will have children and so I keep going on. I keep agitating.
JP Miller is a disabled veteran, journalist, and writer who lives in the Outer Banks of North Carolina beside the Atlantic Ocean. He has published short stories and political essays in The Literary Yard, The Southern Cross Review, The Greanville Post, Pravda, Countercurrents, Uncommon Thought and Cyrano’s Journal.