Southern Populism, from The People's Party to the Present
The South as a region has always been as or more associated with populism than others in the United States. This is often figured negatively – as one historian of the region calls it ‘the resident region of the nation’s boobocracy; a receptacle of reprobate preachers, gun-toting toddlers, assorted Bravehearts rampaging against government, education, and the arts, and politicians who raise hogs and lower taxes.’
We can see this association played out in popular culture. Probably the most enduring image of the Southern politician on film is the populist who stirs up trouble for the city, gaining support amongst dirt-farmers through race-baiting and populist rhetoric. Think of Broderick Crawford or Sean Penn as Willie Stark in the two film versions of All the King’s Men, or perhaps less famously of James Cagney in ‘A Lion is In the Streets’. This association might be expected since it could be argued that the roots of Southern populism go back to the American Revolution. While New England was attracted to the relatively conservative path of the Federalists, Thomas Jefferson’s more radical vision of Democracy, of an agrarian Republic built on individual liberties, primarily took hold in the Southern states.
Let us not pretend that Jefferson was a populist. His brand of politics wouldn’t play well with that image. Nor would his ideas that although the agrarian yeoman is the bulwark of the country, it should still be run by aristocrats. But a fuller lurch towards populism might be dedicated shortly afterwards, in Andrew Jackson’s re-configuring of the Democratic Party. Though Jackson was a general and therefore at some level an elite, he positioned himself outside the old Eastern elite as a rugged common South westerner, trading on his wartime nickname of Old Hickory. In moves that might seem highly contemporary, much of Jackson’s animosity was aimed at banks, financial speculation, and corruption amongst the financial and political elite. Jackson’s position on banks and on internal improvements would split the Jeffersonian consensus, drive the Democratic Party in one direction and set the rails for American politics until the middle of the twentieth century.
At this early point in American history, we might tentatively identify populism in the South with a left-wing tendency: this is something that becomes more explicit by the end of the nineteenth century, with the formation of the Populist or People’s Party. This party grows out of divisions in the South between holders of great plantations run by many slaves, and family farmers who own smaller plots. It’s then exacerbated by the economic turmoil of Reconstruction and the money for internal improvements and industry pouring into the region as a result of the New South agenda. Systems such as sharecropping made small-scale farming a less prosperous way of making your living than it had been in the pre-war period. In short, antagonism between the various sections developed into a formal political party that opposed the urban, financial elite of gilded age America, and put the farmer at the heart of their conception of America. An allegiance across the South and West, strongly suggesting that American values and prosperity are built not on the city, but on the rural community – is the republic of the Jeffersonian Yeoman writ large, albeit one that, in its criticism of capitalism, would find itself allied to the Labor movement in the North.
The populists would fail to break through, and were effectively subsumed by the Democratic Party, even sharing a presidential nominee with them at one point. But populist ideals would not go away, finally re-emerging in the ‘New Deal’ of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. But this long-standing left-leaning version of Southern populism might seem to even the most casual observer of American politics to be far removed from the situation as it is today. The first real shift away from this perspective in the region comes in the 1940s, in the form of the Dixiecrats. Led by Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, the Dixiecrats split the Democratic Party in protest of both Truman’s Civil Rights’ legislation and some of the more extensive pro-Labour reforms of the new deal.
In terms of the modern orientation of the Republican Party, people often talk about Barry Goldwater and the Southern strategy, but the man who is arguably even more important for the shift in that direction is George Wallace, the Democratic governor of Alabama for much of the period between 1963 and 1987. Under Thurmond and, more successfully under Wallace, Southern populism shifted in such a way that emphasised different targets at which Southern people could aim. The South had been, since the Second World War, a strongly Christian region, and even though earlier branches of populism had occasionally reached across the colour line the region was still always bound up with white supremacy. In the 1960s, George Wallace built his political support not only on attacking Wall Street, but through McCarthyist attacks on communists, on intellectuals, on long-haired anti-war demonstrators – and perhaps most famously of all, in ethnic terms. Wallace, the man who famously took office in 1963 with the call of ‘Segregation now, Segregation Tomorrow, Segregation Forever’ would resist the Civil Rights movement by arguing against ‘public disturbance’.
Taken together, we can potentially see that Wallace’s electoral successes in Alabama were built on a longstanding tactic in the South of building the idea of a pure community under attack from outside agitators – as in, a virtuous South that is unpicked by rabble-rousers in the North. Dan T. Carter, suggests that the real targets of Wallace and his supporters are educated, trouble making ivy league types who reject all manner of accepted American religious and cultural values, something which this constituency regard as deeply unpatriotic. This seems to fit together with David Goldfield’s suggestion that the rigid orthodoxy in the region stems from the evangelical religious surge in the aftermath of defeat in the Civil War – ‘dissent was not merely a disagreement – it was the difference between redemption and damnation. The punishments meted out to heretics, therefore, must be severe; isolation, harassment, physical violence, or banishment awaited those who questioned or criticized.’
The scale of Wallace’s success can be seen by measuring his performance in the 1968 Presidential Election against Strom Thurmond’s twenty years earlier. Thurmond won four Southern states but only took around 1m votes and 2% of the vote. Wallace, standing for the American Independent Party, took the Southern position national. Though he was only able to win 5 states, he won 9m votes nationally, and in Electoral College votes finished a close second to Nixon in the former Confederate states, nearly wiping out the Democratic Party in the region in the process.
The American Independent Party vote collapsed back at the following election, with Nixon peeling away Conservative voters, and there’d be no real populist challenge of note to Nixon, Ford or Reagan. But the Republican Party turn under George H.W. Bush would lead to more dissent from populists on the Republican’s right flank. The most famous of these is the independent candidacy of Ross Perot, whose best results came outside the South. In Southern terms the former Nixon and Reagan adviser, Pat Buchanan ran against Bush, and later Dole, in the 1992 and 1996 Republican Primaries on hard right platforms, winning some Southern contests in 1996 but failing to convert this to votes for the Reform Party in the polarised 2000 Presidential election. As for the Republican Party itself, the younger Bush pitched his tent on sufficiently Conservative ground that non-establishment candidates failed to gain any real traction in 2000 and was virtually non-existent in 2004. But with Bush’s second term popularity collapse, since 2008 there is more evidence of a strong Christian, populist message. John McCain won the nomination that year, but Mike Huckabee, the Southern Baptist minister and former governor of Arkansas, won five Southern States, and in 2012 less than half of the former Confederate states voted for the establishment front-runner, Mitt Romney. The South’s distinctiveness comes to the fore when we remember that Romney won the primary of three quarters of American States, and all but one of the American territories.
All of which brings us to the present moment, and the most conspicuous figure in contemporary US politics. Donald Trump’s popularity in the South is unquestionable. Looking at the results in the Republican primary of 2016, Trump won the vast majority of primary contests in states that were part of the Confederacy, with the lone exception being Texas – the home state of his primary rival, Ted Cruz. His win was narrow in Louisiana and he also lost Oklahoma, which wasn’t a state at the time but was a territory under de facto Confederate control. But despite these codicils, the brash New Yorker performed well across the South, in a way that he would not do across the Republican strongholds of the west and plains.
Whether or not Trump is really a populist in government, I think it is incontrovertible that Trump at least campaigns as a populist. An article late in 2016 by J. Eric Oliver and Wendy M. Rahn provided data suggesting that Trump not only used consistently populist messages, but also campaigned in the most consistently populist syntax. And in several ways his rhetoric appears to be not out of step with the traditions of Southern populists going back to George Wallace and beyond. The contention that trade deals are loaded against the ‘people’ in favour of elites, signed off through backdoor deals, runs through populist rhetoric back through the People’s Party all the way to Andrew Jackson’s protests at the deal following the 1824 Presidential Election which put John Quincy Adams into the white house. As specific as Trump’s border wall is to this historical moment, the reasoning behind it sounds rather like this extract from the People’s Party manifesto of 1892:
‘we condemn the fallacy of protecting American labor under the present system, which opens our ports to the pauper and criminal classes of the world and crowds out our wage-earners; and we denounce the present ineffective laws against contract labor, and demand the further restriction of undesirable immigration.’
In this quotation we can hear both the idea of migrants bringing crime to the country, and of their effect in terms of pushing down wages. Trump would echo both of these points in 2016: one of the most famous moments of the campaign was his statement of Mexican immigrants: ‘They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people’. Trump also claimed repeatedly that he (and be extension, regular Americans) were victims of establishment conspiracies, fostering a tendency amongst nativist and populist groups to put more stock in conspiracy theories than other Americans.
But in other interesting ways Trump seems to deviate quite strongly from the model of traditional Southern populists. From the People’s Party through to Mike Huckabee, populism in the region has been based on the rock of Protestant religious faith, and while most Americans express Christian faith it is the strong, conspicuous evangelism of populism in the region that has really stood out. If there was one area in which Donald Trump looked as if he might have been vulnerable early on it was whether he would appeal to social conservatives. Though claiming to be a Presbyterian, Trump was accused by some (including prominent people in the Southern Baptist Community) of being generally indifferent to religion. Some conservatives (such as Ted Cruz) attacked Trump for suggesting women should be punished for having abortions, claiming that it was evidence he didn’t truly understand the pro-life position. Trump’s dominance across what is often referred to as ‘the bible belt’ is perhaps evidence that social conservativism in the region might manifest outside the traditions of hard-line Protestantism.
The other major thing to note is that Trump himself is not Southern. Most populists to succeed in the region – from Jackson to Wallace through to Buchanan and Huckabee – are all Southerners or, at the very least, people who can claim some sort of ancestral connection to the region. Often their rhetoric, the ‘people’ that underpins their populism, has been inferentially the ‘Southerner’, with the Yankee figured as speculator, carpet-bagger, the very elite that the virtuous society must be defended against. But Trump doesn’t fit this mould at all. He’s a big, brash New Yorker. As a businessman whose empire is built on inherited wealth, he’s absolutely a member of the financial elite. In the past, it has been suggested that American politics was ‘Southernized’ as a result of George Wallace and his national campaign. But while it might be too early to really state this categorically, the success of someone like Trump might be an early sign that Southern distinctiveness is waning and bleeding into more national socially conservative tendencies.
Finally, and intriguingly, there is no concurrent populist wave in the South on the left side of party politics at the moment, at least judging by electoral results. Parallels have been drawn between Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, and yet the 2016 Democratic primaries in the region went strongly for Hillary Clinton. Oklahoma voted for Sanders as did West Virginia. But these tie in more closely with Sanders strong position across the plains and his splitting the rust belt with Clinton, while the Democratic Party in the South tended to vote for the more moderate, established candidate. But while I’ve mostly spoken about the right wing in this paper, I’m going to finish with a note of caution about homogenising the South in this way. While they might not feel as though they fit into a particular left/right binary, both Virginia and Kentucky have seen strong environmental protests against the deleterious effects of mining in their communities, particularly in the Appalachia region. I’ve also recently been conversing on some of these issues with a scholar from the region who notes that since the Trump tidal wave, small groups across the South have been trying to challenge the idea that everyone in these areas is supportive of Trump or shares the same political perspective.
Peter Templeton is Honorary Fellow in the School of Social Sciences and Humanities at Loughborough University. This blog is derived from a paper first given at a conference in 2017.