Look back for a way forward

Frye Gaillard and Cynthia Tucker review the past two decades in ‘The Southernization of America.’


For those of us who were by turns startled, mystified, and disturbed by some of the events that have shaped our country since the millenium, it takes a strong stomach to review them. And since the 2020 election and the end, at least for now, of Donald Trump’s approach to running the country, it’s been a relief not to be battered every day by yet another assault on the rule of law and, even more, the truth. But we run from our recent history at our peril, as George Santayana famously warned us a century ago: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

In a compact but potent collection of essays, two distinguished native Alabaman journalists — one Black, one white — review the past two decades with an eye toward understanding how our country as a whole has come to mirror attitudes and behavior that were once ascribed exclusively to the South. Written by Frye Gaillard and Cynthia Tucker, “The Southernization of America: A Story of Democracy in the Balance” is a vital tool for those of us still scratching our heads over the evaporation of the cultural progress we thought we had made in the last part of the 20th century. That the authors should choose such a striking subtitle indicates the gravity of our times, as they see it.

The first essay, co-written by the authors and called “The Fragile Promise,” reacquaints us with a brand of conservatism that began to flourish with the election of Ronald Reagan. It was both a reaction to the left-leaning cultural and political progress of the 1970s and an introduction of Southern values to voters across the country — President Reagan privatized businesses, promoted private schools as a response to integration, and encouraged his political operatives to use campaign tactics that were even then being honed by Karl Rove in Alabama — personal attacks, innuendo, and outright lies. In an eerie echo of Nixon’s notorious Southern Strategy, Reagan also cozied up the religious right, particularly in the South. Soon enough “the views and tools of southern segregationists had become the official position of the national Republican Party and the Reagan presidency,” wrote Steve Suitts in his book, “Overturning Brown: The Segregationist Legacy of the Modern School Choice Movement,” cited by the authors in this chapter. “In all of this,” the authors write, “there were those who believed — with a blinding righteousness sometimes spilling into hate — that God, most surely, was on their side.”

In “Traumas of the New Millennium,” the book’s second essay, Frye Gaillard describes the consequences of George W. Bush’s bold but misguided reactions to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Declaring a “war on terror” and painting support for it in moralistic, black-and-white terms, Bush’s decision to send ground troops into Afghanistan pointed up the depth of our misunderstanding of that part of the world. “It has become a cliché that Afghanistan, with its rugged terrain and fierce tribal fighters, is a place where powerful armies go to die,” writes Gaillard. Within 18 months, Bush doubled down, this time invading Iraq, which had almost zero relevance in the Arab world at the time. Worse, the aggression was based on a lie.

On cue from Bush’s definition of patriotism, a wave of anti-Arab sentiment crested when American soldiers started to come home dead and maimed. It didn’t take much to nudge that hostility into anti-Black sentiment, particularly when the Obama campaign started to take off. The moment he took office, a venal brand of obstructionism took root, nourished by poorly disguised racism.

And then came Trump. As if his claim that Barack Obama wasn’t born here weren’t proof enough of his anti-other bias, surely his obsession with the Wall was. Written off as publicity stunts initially, they were instead out-front indicators of his intentions — making America great again depended on white dominance. Suddenly those who’d kept their bigotry under wraps found their voice: We’re White, and We’re Proud! On Day 1 of his presidency, Trump revealed that his relationship with the truth was malleable at best, claiming that his inauguration outdrew Obama’s eight years earlier. “At first it seemed like a silly distraction until we slowly [Oh, so slowly] began to realize that it was part of a concerted attack on reality,” Gaillard writes. “‘Alternate facts’ became an explanation … an intoxicating gift to his followers, who so often seethed with resentment and rage. Now, in giving voice to those feelings, they were free to say — believe — anything they wanted; the only test of truth was how loud and often they said it, and how good it felt when they did.”

In ensuing essays, the authors help us understand the Southern underpinnings of the polarization that threatens to immobilize America today. It starts with the region’s obsession with the Lost Cause, justifying the Civil War as a noble fight for states’ rights, not as a desperate effort to maintain slavery. They also trace the origins of Black Lives Matter, the increased influence of the conservative church in politics, and the effort across the country to make it harder for minorities to vote, easier for white conservatives to hold onto power.

The assault on truth and the denial of facts runs as a terrifying undercurrent throughout the book. This still comes as a shock to many of us, but we had fair warning. Interviewing a key adviser to George W. Bush for a story he published in the New York Times Magazine in 2004, Ron Suskind was told, “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

“The Southernization of America” is compelling reading for those who worry about the country’s future, who long for the re-emergence of the tenets that the country was built on. For instance, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

“The Southernization of America, A Story of Democracy in the Balance,” by Frye Gaillard and Cynthia Tucker. Available at Edgartown Books and Bunch of Grapes bookstore in Vineyard Haven. Gaillard and Tucker will both be speaking at Islanders Write this summer. For more information, visit islanderswrite.com.


  1. An excellent and timely book with historical background by two superb Alabama journalists and historians.

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