Conservative Southern Values Revived: How a Brutal Strain of American
Aristocrats Have Come to Rule America
By Sara Robinson
America didn't used to be run like an old Southern slave plantation,
but we're headed that way now. How did that happen?
IT'S BEEN said that the rich are different than you and me. What most
Americans don't know is that they're also quite different from each
other, and that which faction is currently running the show ultimately
makes a vast difference in the kind of country we are.
Right now, a lot of our problems stem directly from the fact that the
wrong sort has finally gotten the upper hand; a particularly brutal
and anti-democratic strain of American aristocrat that the other
elites have mostly managed to keep away from the levers of power since
the Revolution. Worse: this bunch has set a very ugly tone that's
corrupted how people with power and money behave in every corner of
our culture. Here's what happened, and how it happened, and what it
means for America now.
North versus South: Two Definitions of Liberty
Michael Lind first called out the existence of this conflict in his
2006 book, Made In Texas: George W. Bush and the Southern Takeover of
American Politics. He argued that much of American history has been
characterized by a struggle between two historical factions among the
American elite -- and that the election of George W. Bush was a
definitive sign that the wrong side was winning.
For most of our history, American economics, culture and politics have
been dominated by a New England-based Yankee aristocracy that was
rooted in Puritan communitarian values, educated at the Ivies and
marinated in an ethic of noblesse oblige (the conviction that those
who possess wealth and power are morally bound to use it for the
betterment of society). While they've done their share of damage to
the notion of democracy in the name of profit (as all financial elites
inevitably do), this group has, for the most part, tempered its
predatory instincts with a code that valued mass education and human
rights; held up public service as both a duty and an honor; and imbued
them with the belief that once you made your nut, you had a moral duty
to do something positive with it for the betterment of mankind. Your
own legacy depended on this.
Among the presidents, this strain gave us both Roosevelts, Woodrow
Wilson, John F. Kennedy, and Poppy Bush -- nerdy, wonky intellectuals
who, for all their faults, at least took the business of good
government seriously. Among financial elites, Bill Gates and Warren
Buffet still both partake strongly of this traditional view of wealth
as power to be used for good. Even if we don't like their specific
choices, the core impulse to improve the world is a good one -- and
one that's been conspicuously absent in other aristocratic cultures.
Which brings us to that other great historical American nobility --
the plantation aristocracy of the lowland South, which has been
notable throughout its 400-year history for its utter lack of civic
interest, its hostility to the very ideas of democracy and human
rights, its love of hierarchy, its fear of technology and progress,
its reliance on brutality and violence to maintain “order,” and its
outright celebration of inequality as an order divinely ordained by
As described by Colin Woodard in American Nations: The Eleven Rival
Regional Cultures of North America, the elites of the Deep South are
descended mainly from the owners of sugar, rum and cotton plantations
from Barbados -- the younger sons of the British nobility who'd farmed
up the Caribbean islands, and then came ashore to the southern coasts
seeking more land. Woodward described the culture they created in the
crescent stretching from Charleston, SC around to New Orleans this
It was a near-carbon copy of the West Indian slave state these
Barbadians had left behind, a place notorious even then for its
inhumanity....From the outset, Deep Southern culture was based on
radical disparities in wealth and power, with a tiny elite commanding
total obedience and enforcing it with state-sponsored terror. Its
expansionist ambitions would put it on a collision course with its
Yankee rivals, triggering military, social, and political conflicts
that continue to plague the United States to this day.
David Hackett Fischer, whose Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways In
America informs both Lind's and Woodard's work, described just how
deeply undemocratic the Southern aristocracy was, and still is. He
documents how these elites have always feared and opposed universal
literacy, public schools and libraries, and a free press. (Lind adds
that they have historically been profoundly anti-technology as well,
far preferring solutions that involve finding more serfs and throwing
them at a problem whenever possible. Why buy a bulldozer when 150
convicts on a chain gang can grade your road instead?) Unlike the
Puritan elites, who wore their wealth modestly and dedicated
themselves to the common good, Southern elites sank their money into
ostentatious homes and clothing and the pursuit of pleasure --
including lavish parties, games of fortune, predatory sexual
conquests, and blood sports involving ritualized animal abuse
But perhaps the most destructive piece of the Southern elites'
worldview is the extremely anti-democratic way it defined the very
idea of liberty. In Yankee Puritan culture, both liberty and authority
resided mostly with the community, and not so much with individuals.
Communities had both the freedom and the duty to govern themselves as
they wished (through town meetings and so on), to invest in their
collective good, and to favor or punish individuals whose behavior
enhanced or threatened the whole (historically, through community
rewards such as elevation to positions of public authority and trust;
or community punishments like shaming, shunning or banishing).
Individuals were expected to balance their personal needs and desires
against the greater good of the collective -- and, occasionally, to
make sacrifices for the betterment of everyone. (This is why the
Puritan wealthy tended to dutifully pay their taxes, tithe in their
churches and donate generously to create hospitals, parks and
universities.) In return, the community had a solemn and inescapable
moral duty to care for its sick, educate its young and provide for its
needy -- the kind of support that maximizes each person's liberty to
live in dignity and achieve his or her potential. A Yankee community
that failed to provide such support brought shame upon itself. To this
day, our progressive politics are deeply informed by this Puritan view
of ordered liberty.
In the old South, on the other hand, the degree of liberty you enjoyed
was a direct function of your God-given place in the social hierarchy.
The higher your status, the more authority you had, and the more
"liberty" you could exercise -- which meant, in practical terms, that
you had the right to take more "liberties" with the lives, rights and
property of other people. Like an English lord unfettered from the
Magna Carta, nobody had the authority to tell a Southern gentleman
what to do with resources under his control. In this model, that's
what liberty is. If you don't have the freedom to rape, beat, torture,
kill, enslave, or exploit your underlings (including your wife and
children) with impunity -- or abuse the land, or enforce rules on
others that you will never have to answer to yourself -- then you
can't really call yourself a free man.
When a Southern conservative talks about "losing his liberty," the
loss of this absolute domination over the people and property under
his control -- and, worse, the loss of status and the resulting risk
of being held accountable for laws that he was once exempt from -- is
what he's really talking about. In this view, freedom is a zero-sum
game. Anything that gives more freedom and rights to lower-status
people can't help but put serious limits on the freedom of the upper
classes to use those people as they please. It cannot be any other
way. So they find Yankee-style rights expansions absolutely
intolerable, to the point where they're willing to fight and die to
preserve their divine right to rule.
Once we understand the two different definitions of "liberty" at work
here, a lot of other things suddenly make much more sense. We can
understand the traditional Southern antipathy to education, progress,
public investment, unionization, equal opportunity, and civil rights.
The fervent belief among these elites that they should completely
escape any legal or social accountability for any harm they cause.
Their obsessive attention to where they fall in the status
hierarchies. And, most of all -- the unremitting and unapologetic
brutality with which they've defended these "liberties" across the
length of their history.
When Southerners quote Patrick Henry -- "Give me liberty or give me
death" -- what they're really demanding is the unquestioned,
unrestrained right to turn their fellow citizens into supplicants and
subjects. The Yankee elites have always known this -- and feared what
would happen if that kind of aristocracy took control of the country.
And that tension between these two very different views of what it
means to be "elite" has inflected our history for over 400 years.
The Battle Between the Elites
Since shortly after the Revolution, the Yankee elites have worked hard
to keep the upper hand on America's culture, economy and politics --
and much of our success as a nation rests on their success at keeping
plantation culture sequestered in the South, and its scions largely
away from the levers of power. If we have to have an elite -- and
there's never been a society as complex as ours that didn't have some
kind of upper class maintaining social order -- we're far better off
in the hands of one that's essentially meritocratic, civic-minded and
generally believes that it will do better when everybody else does
The Civil War was, at its core, a military battle between these two
elites for the soul of the country. It pitted the more communalist,
democratic and industrialized Northern vision of the American future
against the hierarchical, aristocratic, agrarian Southern one. Though
the Union won the war, the fundamental conflict at its root still
hasn't been resolved to this day. (The current conservative culture
war is the Civil War still being re-fought by other means.) After the
war, the rise of Northern industrialists and the dominance of Northern
universities and media ensured that subsequent generations of the
American power elite continued to subscribe to the Northern worldview
-- even when the individual leaders came from other parts of the
Ironically, though: it was that old Yankee commitment to national
betterment that ultimately gave the Southern aristocracy its big
chance to break out and go national. According to Lind, it was easy
for the Northeast to hold onto cultural, political and economic power
as long as all the country's major banks, businesses, universities,
and industries were headquartered there. But the New Deal -- and,
especially, the post-war interstate highways, dams, power grids, and
other infrastructure investments that gave rise to the Sun Belt --
fatally loosened the Yankees' stranglehold on national power. The
gleaming new cities of the South and West shifted the American
population centers westward, unleashing new political and economic
forces with real power to challenge the Yankee consensus. And because
a vast number of these westward migrants came out of the South, the
elites that rose along with these cities tended to hew to the old
Southern code, and either tacitly or openly resist the moral
imperatives of the Yankee canon. The soaring postwar fortunes of
cities like Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Houston, Dallas, and
Atlanta fed that ancient Barbadian slaveholder model of power with
plenty of room and resources to launch a fresh and unexpected
According to historian Darren Dochuk, the author of From Bible Belt to
Sunbelt: Plain-Folk Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Rise of
Evangelical Conservatism, these post-war Southerners and Westerners
drew their power from the new wealth provided by the defense, energy,
real estate, and other economic booms in their regions. They also had
a profound evangelical conviction, brought with them out of the South,
that God wanted them to take America back from the Yankee liberals --
a conviction that expressed itself simultaneously in both the
formation of the vast post-war evangelical churches (which were major
disseminators of Southern culture around the country); and in their
takeover of the GOP, starting with Barry Goldwater's campaign in 1964
and culminating with Ronald Reagan's election in 1980.
They countered Yankee hegemony by building their own universities,
grooming their own leaders and creating their own media. By the 1990s,
they were staging the RINO hunts that drove the last Republican
moderates (almost all of them Yankees, by either geography or cultural
background) and the meritocratic order they represented to total
extinction within the GOP. A decade later, the Tea Party became the
voice of the unleashed id of the old Southern order, bringing it
forward into the 21st century with its full measure of selfishness,
racism, superstition, and brutality intact.
From its origins in the fever swamps of the lowland south, the
worldview of the old Southern aristocracy can now be found nationwide.
Buttressed by the arguments of Ayn Rand -- who updated the ancient
slaveholder ethic for the modern age -- it has been exported to every
corner of the culture, infected most of our other elite communities
and killed off all but the very last vestiges of noblesse oblige.
It's not an overstatement to say that we're now living in Plantation
America. As Lind points out: to the horror of his Yankee father,
George W. Bush proceeded to run the country exactly like Woodard's
description of a Barbadian slavelord. And Barack Obama has done almost
nothing to roll this victory back. We're now living in an America
where rampant inequality is accepted, and even celebrated.
Torture and extrajudicial killing have been reinstated, with no due
The wealthy and powerful are free to abuse employees, break laws,
destroy the commons, and crash the economy -- without ever being held
The rich flaunt their ostentatious wealth without even the pretense of
humility, modesty, generosity, or gratitude.
The military -- always a Southern-dominated institution -- sucks down
60% of our federal discretionary spending, and is undergoing a rapid
evangelical takeover as well.
Our police are being given paramilitary training and powers that are
completely out of line with their duty to serve and protect, but much
more in keeping with a mission to subdue and suppress. Even liberal
cities like Seattle are now home to the kind of local justice that
used to be the hallmark of small-town Alabama sheriffs.
Segregation is increasing everywhere. The rights of women and people
of color are under assault. Violence against leaders who agitate for
progressive change is up. Racist organizations are undergoing a
We are withdrawing government investments in public education,
libraries, infrastructure, health care, and technological innovation
-- in many areas, to the point where we are falling behind the
standards that prevail in every other developed country.
Elites who dare to argue for increased investment in the common good,
and believe that we should lay the groundwork for a better future, are
regarded as not just silly and soft-headed, but also inviting
underclass revolt. The Yankees thought that government's job was to
better the lot of the lower classes. The Southern aristocrats know
that its real purpose is to deprive them of all possible means of
rising up against their betters.
The rich are different now because the elites who spent four centuries
sucking the South dry and turning it into an economic and political
backwater have now vanquished the more forward-thinking, democratic
Northern elites. Their attitudes towards freedom, authority,
community, government, and the social contract aren't just confined to
the country clubs of the Gulf Coast; they can now be found on the
ground from Hollywood and Silicon Valley to Wall Street. And because
of that quiet coup, the entire US is now turning into the global
equivalent of a Deep South state.
As long as America runs according to the rules of Southern politics,
economics and culture, we're no longer free citizens exercising our
rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as we've always
understood them. Instead, we're being treated like serfs on Massa's
plantation -- and increasingly, we're being granted our liberties only
at Massa's pleasure. Welcome to Plantation America.
Sara Robinson, MS, APF is a social futurist and the editor of
AlterNet's Vision page.