the haunting of george wallace

Lots of folks in blog world are talking about THIS article in the National Journal, and how the Republican Party has evolved lately, as if it can now be defined as; ” in one sentence: Barry Goldwater and Nelson Rockefeller got into an argument and George Wallace won.” The article then proceeds to outline George Wallace’s particular brand of right wing populism, and to show the similarities to the modern Republican Party and, in particular Sarah Palin’s Tea party-esque political rhetoric. As the author points out;

Wallace’s national appeal came neither from the racial backlash he exploited nor from his program, such as it was. “It was a deep sense of grievance,” Carter says — a feeling that elites “are not only screwing you over but at the same time they’re laughing at you, they’re looking down their noses at you.”

Following with a comparison of both Wallace’s and Palin’s campaign rhetoric;

Palin: “The soul of this movement is the people, everyday Americans, who grow our food and run our small businesses, who teach our kids and fight our wars…. The elitists who denounce this movement, they just don’t want to hear the message.” Wallace: “They’ve looked down their noses at the average man on the street too long. They’ve looked [down] at the bus driver, the truck driver, the beautician, the fireman, the policeman, and the steelworker….”

Palin: “We need a commander-in-chief, not a professor of law standing at the lectern.” Wallace: “We have a professor — I’m not talking about all professors, but here’s an issue in the campaign — we got these pseudo-theoreticians, and these pseudo-social engineers…. They want to tell you how to do.”

Palin: “What does he [Obama] actually seek to accomplish…? The answer is to make government bigger; take more of your money; give you more orders from Washington.” Wallace: “They say, ‘We’ve gotta write a guideline. We’ve gotta tell you when to get up in the morning. We’ve gotta tell you when to go to bed at night.’ “

And finally, concludes with;

First, with the important exception of race, not one of Wallace’s central themes, from his bristling nationalism and his court-bashing to his anti-intellectualism and his aggressive provincialism, would seem out of place at any major Republican gathering today.

Second, and again leaving race aside, any Republican politician who publicly renounced the Wallace playbook would be finished as a national leader.

Third, by becoming George Wallace’s party, the GOP is abandoning rather than embracing conservatism, and it is thereby mortgaging both its integrity and its political future. Wallaceism was not sufficiently mainstream or coherent to sustain a national party in 1968, and the same is true today.

Conservatism is wary of extremism and rage and anti-intellectualism, of demagoguery and incoherent revolutionary rhetoric. Wallace was a right-wing populist, not a conservative. The rise of his brand of pseudo-conservatism in Republican circles should alarm anyone who cares about the genuine article.

I think this observation is all well and good, but to better understand the phenomena of right wing populism we should probably look past George Wallace, and into the heritage of Southern society to understand the root causes that make these “deep seated grievances” possible in the first place. – as it seems counter factual, that such a political identity known for its overblown sense of patriotism, militarism, and all round embrace of anything authoritarian, could also harbor the necessary distrust of elite power to create the schism of “grievance” in the first place. But, it does. In spite of the essentially contradictory nature of the proposition.

The antebellum South was basically an agrarian society, and agrarian societies trend toward societies that are necessarily resistant to change and more dependent on established (extended) family units, where the reward/punishment structure for behavior is inherited or fixed, as opposed to negotiated and subject to change. This rigidity was further reinforced through the institution of slavery, where the maintenance of order, necessarily becomes an even more vulnerable, and all consuming task that must radically eschew any demands toward change.

Southern culture then as a result, became dependent on maintaining a massive status quo, the institution of slavery, as the primary agent of creating growth for that society. And as a consequence, the South became intellectually and creatively bogged down. This can be illustrated by comparison to the North of the same period, where the the rate of invention literally exploded into one of the most creative periods in history. Whereby the North led the industrial revolution with the inventions of the steamboat, sewing machine, the revolver, mass production, interchangeable parts technology, anesthesia, the screw propeller, and even the cotton gin, among others – whereas in the South, where change was discouraged by necessity, virtually nothing new was invented. This disparity of course, then went on to create a great tension in the whole of society that eventually precipitated the civil war, when the South’s grip on political power suddenly slipped away with the election of Lincoln. Simply put, the South became an intransigent drag on the emergence of a dynamic and modern American society.

From the Southern perspective, this dynamism itself, represented a mortal threat to the foundations of their “way of life”. The replacement of traditional values as societies engine of growth, with the much, much, more productive liberal values of science, technology, and the arts, as the engine of growth – then produced in its wake, a festering animosity or a “deep seated grievance” toward these agents of change. Or in other words, its creative intelligentsia, and their big government politically elite enablers.

The problem of course, with this “deep seated grievance” scenario is that it essentially based on an emotional inferiority complex that fails to admit to its own very real failings, both as a legitimate form of competitive governance and culture for society – which it clearly is not, and the fact that such a system of governance is itself controlled by its own silent party of elites. Namely, the economic elites that have transformed this grievance into a political machine that replaces the government functions of oversight and regulation with a system whereby the economic elites are free to carry out their feeding frenzy predation in the dark of night – moving, as it were, from consuming the last remaining drop of blood in the economy, toward devouring the tax base itself.

UPDATE (or reduction of the above)

The antebellum South was an agrarian based culture, that was by structural nature, resistant to change. The primary “instrument of expansion” (growth, promoting accumulation of wealth) was by consequence, the institution of slavery.

The static nature of agrarian based culture coupled with institutional slavery, basically removed all motivation toward invention, which is itself the more productive “instrument of expansion”.

Which is illustrated in comparison to the North where innovation proved to be the far more productive “instrument of expansion”.

This disparity produced in Southern society a sense of “grievance”, whereby the dynamic success of the liberal Northern institutions became a threat to their agrarian based society.

In modern times, this grievance is capitalized upon by demonizing the “government” as the “elite” agent of displacing traditional values with liberal values.

The problem with this scenario is that when the “liberal government” is rejected, government function and oversight is also rejected.

Which in turn liberates the true economic elite to fill the void of control and general operation of society.

To which we know, has absolutely no moral obligation to society what so ever.

And so thus, negates any vestige of legitimacy to the notion of a “deep sense of grievance”.

Unless of course they are willing to live as the Amish, in which case their point would be valid.

10 Responses to “the haunting of george wallace”

  1. LC Says:

    So does this mean that all agrarian societies are rigidly invested in the status quo? Or was the South a particularly intractable case due to slavery?

  2. jack Says:

    I think it means that all agrarian societies are predisposed to maintain status quo and resist change, as changes undermines the established interdependent hierarchy. The addition of slavery into the mix, only adds to the task of maintaining the status quo. So yes, I think you are correct. Additionally, I think that when a society is so structured, all the oxygen that might be applied toward invention, is sucked into the task of maintenance.


  3. jack Says:

    I should also add that the election of Lincoln also represented a veto of allowing the institution of slavery to spread to the new western states – which further eroded that institutions ability to function as a (Jacksonian) instrument of expansion.
    All this meant that without institutional slavery the South was left with no viable instrument of expansion i.e. the instrument of expansion being the tool that creates, through invention an accumulation of wealth, that can in turn be used as investment in further invention, or the engine of growth in a societies potential and well being.

    Without slavery as the instrument of expansion, the South was left with no viable means to expand its potential – especially compared to the North which found a greater means of expansion through emphasis on liberal policy making which in turn reinforced the path toward more invention.


  4. LC Says:


    I don’t question any of the analysis of Lincoln and the political effects there concerning the Southern status quo – I think that’s pretty well established.

    I’m trying to decide how I feel about this idea of “agrarian equals energy goes into maintenance”.

    I’m going to have to do some reading on the issue, I suspect. It feels right, but something about it nags at me. Is that necessarily a bad thing, for instance? Does technological change’s disruption of the social stability always result in benefit? Is it a binary, or is there some more graduated middle ground there?

    I do think the general thesis of “this change wrecked our society and the greivance still holds” for explaining some of what is going on in USian politics is pretty dead on, though.

  5. ...---... Says:

    To be fair, the cavaliers and crackers adapted pretty adroitly to the end of slavery. They replaced it with debt peonage. It worked so well to keep the underclass, black and white, in line, that they still swear by it (just look at where the most outrageous usury is legally sanctioned; it’s interesting too, how usury and insupportable debt took off nationally when the confederate state of Texas took power.) After all, innovation, growth, or prosperity are not so important to provincial southerners. The main thing for them is social control because their society is continually unravelling in promiscuity, violence and periodic destitution. And debt peonage is a time-honored means of social control. That, along with simple-minded politesse and authoritarian religion, is the basis of their self regard and they don’t really give a shit about innovation. I never really sense inferiority hangups there, despite the amused contempt of all civilized peoples. It’s hostility, that’s all.

  6. am Says:

    I guess it was the tendency toward “acting out” or of overcompensation, that led to the inferiority complex label.

    Nonetheless, just plain mean, contempt, or inferiority complex – all are signs of creating imaginary scenarios that justify their sense of victimhood so they can lash out at the “other”.

    But I agree that the efforts toward maintaining social control in agrarian based culture, both precludes and stunts innovation. Good point also on debt peonage in this respect.


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