Things are going South

January 29, 1999|By Tom Teepen

THERE has been a fair amount of chin-pulling and other histrionic musings in recent years over the suspected "Southernization" of America. By that, it is generally meant that the whole nation is taking on the characteristics associated with the South -- and usually its worst ones: a hidebound moralism, anti-intellectualism and a social and political conservatism that stops, if it stops at all, just a hair short of the outright reactionary.

Most of those supposed characteristics are more like stereotypes than archetypes and the anecdotal evidence often looks more assembled than weighed. Still, if you're after further suspicious trends, consider the drift in national attitudes toward treating politics mainly as a spectator sport, useful only for whatever passing entertainment it provides and otherwise meaningless or even damaging.

For generations after the Civil War, the South's one-party Democratic politics and its dead weight of leaden racist demagoguery reduced elections to an empty exercise in form without substance.

Laws and custom both drove potential voters away from the polls. The South's turnouts were usually the nation's lowest. Personal rivalries and cooked-up differences substituted for the honest differences of honest partisanship. Voters were walk-ons in staged dramas. The "big mules" -- major landowners and others with business interests -- used political gofers to keep schooling weak and labor cheap.

Politics became not a means for working a broad public will for the better but instead the occasional source of mere treats for its players -- a road here, a dinky college there. With most voters fatalistic and sidelined, the electorate settled for political gossip and tales of the shenanigans of elected characters.

Hmm. The old South swapped its political yarns in barber shops and courthouse halls. The new America hears its political stories from late-night TV jokers and "The McLaughlin Group."

A 1996 Pew Research Center poll found that a fourth of voters learned about the presidential campaign from Jay Leno, David Letterman and so on. And since the biggest targets are the easiest, presidents are the butts of most yuks and cheap outrage. Last year, according to the Center for Media and Public Affairs, President Clinton was hit 1,721 times on the four leading late-night TV shows; Kenneth Starr 139 times.

National voter participation has fallen to historic lows. After all, why not? Politics, we are tutored, is pointless -- didn't Ronald Reagan teach us no problem is so bad it can't be made still worse by any effort to solve it? -- and politicians are only a troupe of scamps, charlatans and clowns.

Hyper partisanship is as off-putting as one-party politics once was. Since politics is a means to no end but itself, why not study it in the circle of Hollywood detritus assembled nightly by "Politically Incorrect"?

We are selling our franchise for channel-surfing. Southern or not, it's a lousy deal.

Tom Teepen is national correspondent for Cox Newspapers.

Pub Date: 1/29/99

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