Why Are Southerners Like That?

I'm going to delve into a mix of politics and sociology here. Since I was born and spent most of my life in South Carolina I know a little bit about its people. As a gay man, I also see those people as something of an outsider.

In the past weeks as the Brett Kavanaugh hearing has ramped up I've seen people asking why in the world southerners stick with Trump and his gaggle of amoral sexual predators, con men, and crooks. After all, aren't southerners supposed to be Christian to a fault? Well, yes and no. There are some key points you have to understand if you're from "away" if you hope to wrap your mind around the cultish devotion to Trump in most parts of the south. The first point is that southerners, by and large, come from a couple distinct groups. The most prominent in the mid-south are the Scots-Irish. These are descendants of Scottish immigrants to Ireland in the 17th Century. They were primarily Calvinist (Presbyterian and Baptist) and those groups make up the biggest mainline religious groups still. Early on there were some Quakers but they generally were driven away prior to the Civil War over the slavery issue which they opposed.

After the Second Great Awakening, those Calvinists began to peel off into other charismatic groups which today we tend to lump together as evangelicals. So religion is very important in the south. That's not to say anyone is actually following the Bible too closely. Most evangelical churches that have made big successes teach a "Gospel of Wealth" which boils down to a weird type of Social Darwinism. If God loves you he rewards you with riches and success. If you do something He doesn't like you fail and are poor. It's the exact opposite of what Jesus Christ teaches in the New Testament. But, that's why the most devout in the south see no problem with Donald Trump's wealth and conspicuous consumption. It's why they support taxes that hurt them in the short term because they all feel with enough prayer and good attendance at church they will be elevated to the status of the righteously rich.

John Knox
Along with that Calvinism comes a heaping helping of misogyny. John Knox famously railed against the "monstrous regiment of women." Along with all of that is the firm belief in Creationism which requires the believer to take the story of Adam and Eve literally with Eve being a manipulator who made Adam fall from grace because of her disobedience. Of course, there are many other ways of looking at that story/allegory but southerners who believe the Bible is the literal and absolute word of God don't like to split theological hairs. Thus, women are seen and taught that they are responsible for the original sin. Let's just add to that this jewel from Genesis:
Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow, thou shalt bring forth children, and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.
This is the view women are taught to have of themselves and other women. Going along with the religious aspects is the clan aspect. Here I am speaking of the clan with a "c" as used in Scotland and Ireland. Southern people are fiercely loyal to family and tribe. With this loyalty is a need to fit in and toe the line. When you put together the church and the clan you have a very tight-knit community that tends to suffer very little dissent. To go against prevailing attitudes is to become isolated within your own community. Now, I don't want you to get a picture of Amish shunning or something like that. Instead, we are talking about much more subtle social approbation. Maybe not being invited to a wedding. Being the talk of local gossip. Finding you aren't elected to a church board or community position. Small but important things in small towns and cities.

But what about poor southerners. Why do they so consistently vote against their own self-interests? There are a couple reasons we can unpack for that. The first is the most obvious - racism. Most southerners will deny they are racist. I will tell you it is very hard to be brought up in the south and overcome the incipient racism you learn from those around you. It was not until I was an adult that I was able to come to grips with my own attitudes and prejudices and see how tone deaf I was to the struggles of people of color. I had African-American friends so surely I couldn't be a racist. But, I had absorbed many attitudes over the years. The most jarring was one that I first heard voiced by a conservative friend from West Virginia. We were visiting Charleston, WV and he casually noted that "the blacks" were much more well behaved because "they know their place." Suddenly, it hit me that when people I knew said they weren't "racist" what they meant was that they got along with and tolerated African-Americans as long as they were shown proper respect. To shake up the social order and actually have equality was scary. The word used for those who did not respect their place in the social hierarchy was "uppity."

This is the same reason poor whites who did not own slaves fought and died for rich planters during the Civil War. The idea of free former slaves was terrifying to them. As long as there were slaves, no matter how poor you were, you were better off than they were.

President Reagan and Lee Atwater. Atwater helped spread the
idea of "Welfare Queens." He graduated from Newberry College
in my hometown of Newberry, SC. 
That same thinking and attitude are why we went through the "welfare queen" period under the Republicans in the 80's and even into Clinton's years. It's why white southerners love to drug test people on welfare or unemployment. It's a way to remind people of their place in the pecking order. As long as you can put someone on a lower rung you feel better about your own lot in life, no matter how bad that might be and no matter how much that vote might hurt yourself. To this day I have to police myself because those thoughts come far too easily when I'm annoyed.

Not too long ago I was in line at the grocery store. It was busy, my chronic back pain was particularly bad that day and the family in front of me were using a food stamp (EBT) card. They had a lot of groceries but also a lot of kids. Unbidden, in my annoyance with having to stand and wait, came the judgment of what they were buying, how much they were spending, and how many children they had. These are all things I'd been taught to think and heard a million times in my life. It took conscious effort to pull myself back from mentally placing them on a lower social rung and smugly looking down my nose. That is the trap of growing up poor in the south. Even though my family had survived on food stamps for a few months when the mills closed in the early 80's and my father lost his job of nearly 50 years.

Those are just some of the reasons Southerners are like that. There are others. The attempts to unionize the cotton mills have a lot to do with the anti-union feelings of many southerners. If you were rich you didn't like those "lint heads" getting too above themselves. If you were poor you didn't trust the union organizers because you were told horror stories of people being fired for even speaking to them. Don't forget that for a long time if you worked in the mill your house was owned by the mill and at least part if not all of your pay might be in scrip which could only be used at mill run stores. To lose your job meant disaster. The "Norma Rae" story was an aberration.

Southerners are complex and confusing. There are 300 years of race relations, economics, and politics that make up their attitudes and foibles. Hopefully, now, you've got a little idea of why we can be so vexing to those who did not grow up there.