by Jeffrey Cavanuagh
BAMSouth.com Contributing Columnist
In this, the premier edition of our new online magazine devoted to covering Southern business and culture, it is fitting, I think, to first place the American South – from its culture and people to its businesses and economic potential – into a global context. After all, to paraphrase an old saying, the journey of a thousand miles may start with a single step, but if you don’t know where you’re coming from you’ll inevitably get lost while getting to where you’re going to.
Taken together, the twelve states that are generally considered part of “The South” – Texas, Florida, Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, Louisiana, Alabama, South Carolina, Arkansas, Kentucky, and Mississippi–annually produce goods and service worth $4.6 trillion – or just under a third of national GDP. Given the American South is home to approximately a third of America’s 316 million people, this is to be expected.
If it were its own separate nation – something which caused a slight national tiff some 150 years ago – the South would be the fourth-richest country in the world, coming right after Japan, at $5.8 trillion, but before Germany at $3.4 trillion. In terms of population, it would be the twelfth biggest country – right after Mexico’s 118 million. As for natural resources, it would be rich in oil, agriculture, minerals, and all the other sundry products of nature crucial to the working of a modern economy.
The American South, therefore, is a rich place – but its riches can be deceiving, for that wealth is not distributed equally across the region. Take out Texas, for instance, and a quarter of the South’s collective population and GDP would be lost. Subtract Florida and Virginia in addition to Texas, and Southern GDP and population would fall by half. But one does not even have to take away whole states, for it is the region’s cities – Houston, Dallas, Atlanta, Miami, Nashville, and so on – where both wealth and population are concentrated. Take those away and you would have a very big country in terms of land area, but a very sparsely populated and poor one, too.
Thus, we have the first paradox of the contemporary South – it is a region that is largely dominated by rural cultural traditionalism and political inclinations, yet its wealth and vitality overwhelmingly comes from its cities and associated metropolitan areas. This mismatch between where wealth is created and where culture is centered isn’t particular to the South, either – it can be found in any country where economic and demographic growth has led to a rapid expansion of urban areas at the expense of a stagnant, even declining rural population such as you might find in Latin America, India, or China.
Indeed, one of the major issues besetting the South is the degree to which “country” still politically dominates “city” – and the problems that necessarily entails in terms of provision of government services, patterns of economic growth, and attitudes towards outsiders and the acceptability of changing cultural norms. Cities, put frankly, tend to be cosmopolitan while rural areas tend not to be, and the conflict this difference in worldviews creates can often be paralyzing. While paying homage to one’s cultural roots can be a good thing in that it keeps Southerners grounded in a changing world, it can also create obstacles as they tackle the problems the modern world throws at them.
A case in point is the South’s troubled history when it comes to race relations. Of course, the South did not invent racism and the South of today is not the South of the Jim Crow era, but there are nonetheless deep-seated social fissures from that earlier time that permeate the modern American South in a number of ways – mostly for the worse. From current tussles over voting rights and law enforcement to education funding and tax rates, race still plays an important role in how Southerners think about and interact with one another, often at great cost to the economy both communities, black and white, depend on.
A second paradox that faces the American South today is that, more than any other part of the country, it is a region with a distinct cultural identity that creates a sense of cohesion across state borders within the South but often stops dead at the Mason-Dixon Line. In this sense the South is very much like such places as Scotland in Britain or the Basque region in Spain – nascent nations that have long been since incorporated into larger, more dominant countries.
While the method of incorporation matters, very often this process of being swallowed up by a richer, more powerful neighboring society creates a sense of inferiority in those that are forced to join, often unwillingly, the more dominant people. Since this process of being amalgamated into a larger entity entails more than a bit of exploitation in the process, this naturally creates the desire to set oneself apart from “The Other” that has taken over and is now calling the shots.
Sometimes this is healthy and can lead to a cultural flowering creating intense pride in one’s own identity that helps the community to overcome tremendous adversity. At other times, however, it can lead to a cancerous resentment that expresses itself in the form of narcissistic victimhood. Both expressions can be found in communities throughout the American South, and each in its own way has shaped how the region sees itself, the rest of the country, and the outside world.
Finally, I would be remiss – given the news of the day – in not mentioning the South’s curious relationship with government, particularly the Federal government. The modern South is one that was largely built by massive outside investment by Washington during the years of the New Deal coalition – that odd alliance between conservative Southern Democrats and much more liberal Northern Democrats that began during the Depression and ended with desegregation in the 1960s.
Those thirty years represented a peak in the South’s ability to wield power at the national stage and funds flowed in as a result. From the dams and power stations of the Tennessee Valley Authority to the highways and armaments factories funded by the Department of Transportation and Defense, Washington has played a key role in fostering the South’s transformation from a rural, semi-colonial backwater to a vibrant, important part of the American economy.
All this makes the South’s turn against Washington – epitomized by its rightward lurch and subsequent embrace of the Tea Party faction of the Republican Party in recent years – all the more strange. The South has hardworking and talented entrepreneurs and businessmen and women aplenty – and they have fundamentally transformed the region for the better. They also, however, didn’t do it alone; and cooperation – not conflict – is what built the modern South, something Southerners would do well to remember.
All this will be grist for topics covered by my column here at BAMSouth.com. I hope you enjoy our online magazine, and look forward to exploring with you this weird, wonderful part of the country and the men and women who do business here and call it home.
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