If you read the same newspapers and watch the same cable shows I do, you can be forgiven for not knowing that the most populous region in America, by far, is the South. Nearly four in 10 Americans live there, roughly 122 million people, by the latest official estimate. And the number is climbing. For that reason alone, the South deserves more attention than it seems to be getting in political discussion today.
But there is another reason: The South is the cradle of modern conservatism. This, too, may come as a surprise, so entrenched is the origin myth of the far-westerners Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan as leaders of a Sun Belt realignment and forerunners of today’s polarizing GOP. But each of those politicians had his own “southern strategy,” playing to white backlash against the civil-rights revolution—“hunting where the ducks are,” as Goldwater explained—though it was encrypted in the states’-rights ideology that has been vital to southern politics since the days of John C. Calhoun.
Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains is part of a new wave of historiography that has been examining the southern roots of modern conservatism. That lineage features episodes like the third-party presidential ticket headed by the Virginian T. Coleman Andrews in 1956, with its double-barreled attack on the Brown v. Board of Education decision and the federal income tax. Further back lies the breakaway Dixiecrat candidacy of the South Carolinian Strom Thurmond in 1948, after the Democratic Party added a civil-rights plank to its platform. Earlier still was the quixotic insurrection in 1936 led by Georgia Governor Eugene Talmadge, the front man for something called the Southern Committee to Uphold the Constitution. A Dixie offshoot of the more visible Liberty League, it shared that group’s conviction that “an ever spreading governmental bureaucracy” spelled “the end of democracy.”