The Embittered Heartland
excerpted from the book
America Right or Wrong
An Anatomy of American Nationalism
by Anatol Lieven
Oxford University Press, 2005,
Radical nationalism has many fathers, but its mother is defeat,
and her milk is called humiliation. From this poisoned nourishment
comes in part the tendency to chauvinist hatred which has streamed
through so many of the world's nationalisms.
prolong a widespread spirit of inveterate malignity against Russia
for a decade after the Soviet Union ... the Israeli lobby has
... played its part over the decades in generating hostility to
Arabs and Muslims.
... ethnic lobbies ... would not have achieved their objectives
had they not been able to tap the support of much larger bodies
of Americans who have a natural tendency in the face of any disagreement
to adopt harshly adversarial stances and who, when confronted
with opposition from any other country, feel impelled automatically
to take up positions of fear, hostility, militancy, intransigency
and self-righteousness: in other words, classically nationalist
'The nationalist culture, and not only
public ignorance, helps to explain how the Bush administration
could transfer the anger Americans felt after 9/11 to targets
which had nothing to do with that attack and why the opposition
by much of the world to the Iraq War caused such an outburst of
chauvinist fury in sections of the American media and public opinion.
This capacity for chauvinist nationalism
in the United States can be explained largely by the fact that
the role of defeat in the genesis of nationalism resides not only
in the defeat of nations as a whole, but of classes, groups and
indeed individuals within them. The hatred and fear directed abroad
by nationalism often emanates from hatreds and tensions at home,
and this is strikingly true in the case of the United States.
The appearance of nationalism in many
countries has been correctly attributed in large part to the ascendancy
and needs of new bourgeois classes; but it is equally true that
many of nationalism's darker features have been produced by classes
in relative or absolute decline, or with good reason to fear such
decline, ones that have seen not only their status and security
but their cultural worlds undermined by economic and social change.
These sentiments are especially liable to become radicalized if
a period of economic growth ends and is replaced by depression
or stagnation; thus many of Europe's modern radical conservative
and radical nationalist movements had their origins in the first
"Great Depression' which lasted from the mid-1870s to the
If one defining feature of many nationalisms
has been a belief in a glorious future for the nation, another
equally common feature has been the desire for a return to an
idealized past, of a culturally and ethnically purer nation, a
stable, traditional society and a "moral economy" in
which decent, hardworking people are guaranteed a decent job:
a shimmering, golden, ungraspable mirage, ever present, ever receding.
In Germany, for example, this was the old world of the independent
small towns, with their homogenous religious cultures and their
guilds guaranteeing employment to respectable insiders and the
exclusion of outsiders.
In the United States, this sense of defeat
and embattlement resides in four distinct but overlapping elements
of the American national tradition: the original, "core"
White Anglo-Saxon and Scots Irish populations of the British colonies
in North America; the specific historical culture and experience
of the White South; the cultural world of fundamentalist Protestantism;
and the particular memories, fears and hatreds of some American
ethnic groups and lobbies.
Daniel Bell's words of 1963 remain true
today: "What the right wing is fighting, in the shadow of
Communism, is essentially 'modernity'-that complex of beliefs
that might be defined most simply as the belief in rational assessment,
rather than established custom, for the evaluation of social change-and
what it seeks to defend is its fading dominance, exercised once
through the institutions of smalltown America, over the control
of social change. But it is precisely those established ways that
a modernist America has been forced to call into question."
The White South
Both foreign analysts and Americans themselves
have often treated the South as a culturally quite separate part
of the United States, without influence on the nation's wider
national identity. And the South does indeed have a very special
historical and cultural character-one which, however, cannot be
somehow cut out from America's wider political culture and American
nationalism: "No small part of the reactionary nationalism
of the twentieth century United States can be directly attributed
to the South's pronounced conservatism and its comparative isolation
from contact with foreigners and foreign ideas."
The White South occupies a very considerable
section of the United States and a very much bigger one of what
I have called the American Nationalist Party or Republicans .61
According to the 2002 census, the eleven former Confederate states
made up 30.21 percent of the U.S. population, with the Greater
South (including Oklahoma, Missouri, Kentucky and West Virginia)
making up 35.44 percent. Only 19.79 percent of the former Confederate
Old South and 18.13 percent of the Greater South was Black; 17.91
percent and 15.71 percent respectively were Latino, Asian and
This means that White Southerners make
up over one-fifth of the total U.S. population-not a dominant
section, but certainly a potentially very powerful one. In terms
of political power, the position of the South (and the often-allied
West) is strengthened by the American federal system, which gives
disproportionate weight to states with small, mainly traditional
White populations." Since the 1970s, only a handful of Southern
states have ever voted Democrat in presidential elections.
As Michael Lind, Kevin Phillips, Peter
Applebome and others have pointed out, over the past two decades
the "southernization" of the Republican Party has given
these traditions a very considerable new importance in the politics
of America as a whole and consequently in U.S. international behavior.
Among the effects of this "southernization" has been
a harsher form of nationalism. The growing Southern-style religiosity
of the Republicans also has had its effect, both in alienating
the United States from "atheist" Europe and in increasing
commitment to Israel. This transformation of the Republicans has
contributed greatly to the increasing polarization of Americans
along party lines. As indicated in the introduction, party lines
also reflect strongly contrasting attitudes to religion, morality,
culture, economics and nationalism.
This division was symbolized in 2003 by
the public condemnation of the Democrats for moral decadence and
lack of patriotism by their last senior conservative Southern
representative, Senator Zell Miller of Georgia. Or as Thomas Schaller
put it in 2003, "Trying to recapture the South is a futile,
counterproductive exercise because the South is no longer the
swing region. It has swung: Richard Nixon's 'Southern strategy'
of 1968 has reached full fruition."
... Because a majority of the White South
switched its allegiance to the Republican Party in the 1960s and
1970s in reaction against Democratic advancement of Civil Rights
and multiculturalism, its role has become a good deal more activist.
The critical importance of the White South to Republican hopes
has been demonstrated in a series of presidential elections-most
notably in 2000, when Al Gore's failure to win a single Southern
state (despite coming from Tennessee himself) doomed his presidential
The region's importance to hard-line conservative
influence in the Republican Party is indicated by the fact that
in a survey compiled by the National Journal of senators and congressmen
in 2004, of the sixteen senators dubbed "most conservative"
(one-third of the Republican total), ten came from the Greater
South; of twenty-one senators dubbed "centrist," only
five were from the South.
If only because Southern Blacks now have
the vote and use it to vote solidly Democratic, the South today
is not as overwhelmingly Republican as it was once Democratic.
The recent end of discrimination and the economic rise of the
South (compared to the "Rust Belt" cities of the Midwest
and Northeast) has led Blacks to return to the South. If this
process continues and intensifies, eventually it will seriously
undermine the grip of White conservatives on the South.
As of 2004, however, Southern Whites form
the most solidly and reliably major Republican voting bloc in
the country, which naturally gives them immense influence. The
political power and longevity of the Southern conservatives in
Congress has been unintentionally increased by the redivision
of congressional districts to create solidly Black areas and therefore
strengthen Black representation; the result of which has also
necessarily been to create more solidly White districts. From
the late 1970s, and particularly since the Republican Revolution
led by the Georgian Newt Gingrich in 1994 and the formation of
the Texan-led Bush administration in 2001, this influence has
been used to advance programs with their roots in White Southern
As noted by Applebome, Mead and others,
this process has been greatly facilitated by the fact that important
parts of White Southern culture have in recent decades spread
far beyond their original homelands; consider the Southern evangelical
Protestant religion; the cult of personal weaponry; country and
western music; and stock car racing (which apparently originated
among Appalachian Mountain bootleggers of moonshine whiskey).
The South has also long been the home of a particularly intense
form of American nationalism, strongly flavored by respect for
the military and military values, and part of a wider culture
which believes in traditional values of religion, family, manhood
A Vignette of the Deep South
In 1979 I spent several months at a college
in the small town of Troy, in southern Alabama, on an English-Speaking
Union scholarship named for the soon-to-retire governor, George
C. Wallace. At that time, not only was society rigidly divided
between Blacks and Whites, but the absolutely overwhelming majority
of locally born Whites I met were of mixed Anglo-Saxon and Scots
Irish descent, and Southern Baptist by religion. A 1982 survey
shows religious adherents in Pike County, where Troy is situated,
as 67.5 percent Southern Baptist and 15.7 percent United Methodist.
No other church reached 5 percent of the total. Eighteen years
later, the figures for the Southern Baptists and Methodists were
almost identical. Fundamentalist believers in the Assembly of
God and Church of Christ had grown to 3.8 percent and 4.9 percent
The public spirit of the place was strongly
marked by this religious tradition. Thus the county was "Dry"
(not completely, but alcohol could not be advertised or drunk
in public, and bars were highly restricted). Neither this nor
the fact that we students were mostly under twenty-one, the legal
drinking age, seemed to have the slightest effect on the drinking
habits of my peers. The great majority of White students were
self-described "rednecks," and proud of it. They were
very far indeed from the centers of American wealth, power, culture
and influence. They knew this, and their response differed from
prickly pride to bitter resentment.
They possessed a very strong sense of
ethnoreligious community and local tradition. Although very few
were of wealthy or aristocratic descent, very many were able to
trace their ancestry back beyond the creation of Alabama, to settlers
who had originally moved from Tennessee, Georgia, or the Carolinas.
Surprisingly, some were even proud of the possession of Cherokee
or Creek ancestry, since this constituted proof of ancient establishment-whereas
Black ancestry, although perhaps sometimes present, was emphatically
not talked about. Despite state relief programs a large part of
the rural population, White as well as Black, was also still appallingly
poor by the standards of the "developed" world, with
extremely high levels of illiteracy.
Except for time spent in military service,
a quite astonishing number had never been outside Alabama, except
for visits to nearby Pensacola and the beaches of the Florida
Panhandle, and still more had never traveled outside the South.
Given the greater distances in the United States compared to Europe,
Troy's isolation was in some ways comparable to that of small
European towns before the coming of the railroads.
People were extremely kind and hospitable
to the individual visitor (at least from Britain, a land which
seemed to enjoy an almost mystical prestige both as an ally in
war and as their own ancestral land of origin), but many were
deeply suspicious of outsiders in general and deeply ignorant
of America beyond the lower South. The world beyond America's
shores was a kind of magic shadow play, full of heroes and demons,
but without real substance. "Demons" in some cases is
a literal rendering of how they saw America's enemies, for millenarian
views of history were also present, although of course less at
the college than among the surrounding population.
This was therefore a society as different
from the common image both of American prosperity and of the American
"melting pot" as could be imagined; and this picture
was and to a considerable extent still is mirrored in small towns
across the Deep South and certain parts of Texas and the West,
reflecting what Oran Smith has called the continuing "incredible
homogeneity among White Southerners." Blacks had been accepted
into the university and were not subject to overt discrimination,
but they were still in a thoroughly subordinate position, with
little local influence.
Over the past sixty years, the tremendous
economic changes initiated by World War II have changed the South
greatly. The shift of industries from the Rust Belt of the Northeast
and Midwest have transformed parts of the South into some of the
most industrialized areas in America, and this transformation
has been widely publicized by boosters from the region and beyond.
Economic development has sucked in new immigrants, including not
only Latinos but also South Asians, so that for the first time
since the expulsion of the Indians, Southern society is not simply
split along Black-White lines.
However, a glance at the political, religious
and ideological map of the White South reveals a society which
has not changed nearly as much as figures for economic change
would suggest. Although both the Latino and South Asian minorities
have grown enormously, in 2000 the Southern Focus Poll still found
that 65 percent of Southerners declared themselves Protestant,
and more than half the population of Mississippi, Alabama and
Georgia belonged to one denomination, Southern Baptist. Six out
of ten Southerners still say that they prefer the biblical account
of Creation to evolutionary theory (this figure of course includes
The region has continued to elect a range
of politicians of strikingly conservative, religious and nationalist
cast. Older representatives of this culture such as Strom Thurmond
and Jesse Helms have retired, only to be followed by younger figures
such as Tom DeLay, Newt Gingrich, Trent Lott, James Inhofe and
Dick Armey, who perpetuate their tradition. These are indeed "lively
dinosaurs," as one observer put it. They are no fading remnants
of a dead tradition and a lost cause.
One reason for this continuity may be
that in one respect, the South has become if anything more homogenous
over the past century. Before the Civil War, Blacks were a majority
in two Southern states (South Carolina and Louisiana) and very
close to a majority in two more (Alabama and Mississippi). By
the 1960s Black emigration to the North, pulled by Northern jobs
and pushed by Southern White oppression and harassment, had radically
reduced these figures-a change which helps explain why the achievement
of civil rights for Blacks under federal pressure, savagely resisted
though it was by many Whites, did not lead to the Balkan-style
eruption of White mass violence of which Southern racists and
conservatives had so often warned. According to the census of
1880, Blacks made up 41 percent of the population of the Old South.
By the 1960s this figure had fallen by more than half.
For a century and a half, however, the
desire to preserve first slavery and then absolute Black separation
and subordination had contributed enormously to the closing of
the Southern mind, with consequences for America as a whole which
have lasted down to our own day. Both before the Civil War and
in the mid-twentieth century, the social system of the South was
"on the defensive against most of the Western world"
and White Southerners saw "outside aggression" against
the South everywhere." The effects of this long experience
of embittered defensiveness continue to this day.
Racial solidarity gave poor Whites pride
in belonging to the superior, ruling race and helped deflect resentment
against the wealthy plantation owners. Cultural, racial, political
and economic defensiveness reached the point in the 1850s where
the South became the pioneer in the modern world of the mass public
burning of "dangerous books"; in this case, attacks
on slavery from the abolitionist North. "In place of its
old eagerness for new ideas and its outgoing communicativeness
the South developed a suspicious inhospitality toward the new
and the foreign, a tendency to withdraw from what it felt to be
a critical world. "
Some 260,000 Confederate soldiers-more than one-fifth of the entire
White adult male population-were killed in action or died of disease.
(Some 350,000 Union soldiers died, but from a much larger population.)
In an opinion poll commissioned in May 2004 by the Washington
Post and ABC News, 34 percent of respondents said that torture
is acceptable in the case of "people suspected of involvement
in recent attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq or Afghanistan' with
64 percent rejecting this. When asked if physical abuse short
of torture is acceptable, 45 percent said yes and 53 percent no."
What happened can also clearly have come
as no surprise to White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales, who in
a memo to the president of January 25, 2002, described articles
of the Geneva Convention regarding the treatment of prisoners
as "quaint" and advised that they be abandoned (Cohn
Powell strongly dissented). Later, lawyers in the Justice Department
(August 2002) and in the Pentagon (March 2003) advised the administration
that a U.S. President in his capacity as commander in chief has
the right to override both U.S. and international law and sanction
physical abuse of prisoners as part of the war on terrorism."'
These memos were intended to be kept secret.
There was nothing secret, however, about the reaction of numerous
right-wing politicians and media commentators to the Abu Ghraib
revelations. Senator James Inhofe (Republican, Oklahoma) declared
to his colleagues on the Senate Armed Services Committee: "I'm
probably not the only one at this table that is more outraged
by the outrage than we are by the treatment .... You know, they
[the prisoners at Abu Ghraib] are not there for traffic violations...
they're murderers, they're terrorists, they're insurgents.
Senator Inhofe attacked the International
Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) as "humanitarian do-gooders
right now crawling all over these prisons looking for human rights
violations while our troops, our heroes, are fighting and dying."
His fellow Republican senator, Trent Lott (Mississippi), declared:
"Frankly, to save some Americans' troops lives or a unit
that could be in danger, I think that you should get really rough
with them." Reminded that at least one prisoner had been
beaten to death by U.S. troops at Abu Ghraib, Lott replied: "This
is not Sunday school. This is interrogation. This is rough stuff."
Similar statements came from right-wing media figures such as
Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly and Michael Savage. Limbaugh declared:
"Maybe the people who ordered this [the abuses at Abu Ghraib
are pretty smart. Maybe the people who executed this pulled off
a brilliant maneuver... boy, there was a lot of humiliation of
people who are trying to kill us-in ways they hold dear. Sounds
pretty effective to me if you look at us in the right context."
Right-wing radio star Michael Savage described
Arabs as "non-humans" and declared that "conversion
to Christianity is the only thing that can probably turn them
[Arabs] into human beings." He said: "Smallpox in a
blanket, which the U.S. Army gave to the Cherokee Indians on their
long march to the West, was nothing to what I'd like to see done
to these people." Savage's talk show is broadcast on 350
radio stations and has an audience of some 7.5 million people.
Limbaugh's goes out on 680 stations and has an audience of around
Senator Inhofe's attack on the ICRC was
echoed two days later by the Wall Street Journal in an editorial
entitled "Red Double Cross," which decried the organization's
"increasing politicization" and warned that it was at
risk of becoming "just another left-wing advocacy group along
the lines of Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International"
(the Journal has always been glad to cite these bodies as respectable
authorities when it comes to attacking countries which its editors
hate and wish to target).137 Of course, these statements did not
represent the views of all Republicans. They drew a sharp rebuke
from former prisoner of war Senator John McCain, who praised the
ICRC's record and stressed America's duty to abjure torture and
respect international conventions."'
This tradition is clearly antithetical
to the formal aspects of the American Creed when it comes to both
the administration of justice and the equality of rights-it certainly
does not believe either that fundamental rules of justice are
to be found in law books or that "all men are created equal."
However, in the past it has usually coexisted comfortably enough
with the Creed at home, because the eruptions of popular fury
and folk justice have been short-lived responses to particular
real or perceived threats.
The exceptions were the Frontier, where
the threat from the Indians and the tradition of vigilanteeism
and collective punishment which it produced, lasted as long as
the Frontier itself, and the South, where the constructed threat
from the Blacks required collective repression which lasted from
the origins of these colonies to the 1960s.
Right or Wrong