The South's late turn towards democracy

Image courtesy Princeton University Press.

Image courtesy Princeton University Press.

Review: Robert Mickey, Paths Out of Dixie: The Democratization of Authoritarian Enclaves in America’s Deep South, 1944-1972. Princeton University Press, 2015. 584 pp.

In 1934, textile workers across the South joined compatriots around the country in what was at the time the largest strike the nation had ever experienced. Governor Eugene Talmadge of Georgia mobilized his firmly unified political resources to mount a swift and harsh response. After declaring martial law and deploying the National Guard, he had hundreds of workers rounded up into a de facto internment camp—which he then visited personally, subjecting the imprisoned activists to an outdoor reading from Mein Kampf. In the face of similar shows of force in other states, the strike soon withered away, its demands reduced to rhetorical point-scoring as the New Deal’s long implementation slowly unfolded. In his recent book Paths Out of Dixie, Robert Mickey relates this anecdote almost in passing—for him, it’s just one of many events exemplifying the ways partisan autocracy and racial ideology dovetailed to secure White elite rule in the post-Reconstruction South. Mickey puts such vignettes to good use, weaving them into a detailed and compelling study that breaks new ground in academic political science by analyzing, for the first time, the history of the South after Reconstruction as a story of genuinely authoritarian governance.

Paths Out of Dixie presents a systematic and compelling reinterpretation of the eleven ex-Confederate states as systematically repressive regimes that began to democratize only after the Second World War. Mickey is a political scientist, educated at Harvard and now a tenured professor at the University of Michigan. Political science is in many ways a fragmented, even balkanized, profession, comprising numerous “subfields” that are more or less internally unified by their themes or approaches but that do not always do a particularly good job of speaking to each other. The innovation of Mickey’s book lies in large part in the way in which he crosses those traditional intra-disciplinary divisions, taking the lessons of comparative research on authoritarian regime change and applying them to the study of American political development.

Mickey’s analysis rests on the insight that ostensibly democratic governance can mask thoroughly authoritarian power. As is common in empirical and historical social science, Mickey defines “democracy” in fairly minimal terms, as a package of formal procedures and civil-society protections. Democratic rule, on this account, combines a basic set of institutionalized mechanisms for formal electoral competition with civil liberty guarantees that protect the role of the public in political life. “Authoritarian” regimes are, in turn defined simply as those that fail to meet these basic criteria. Even by the minimal standards of this framework, the post-Reconstruction governments of the former Confederate states were authentically authoritarian for much of the twentieth century, their careful claims of democratic legitimacy notwithstanding. Moreover, Mickey convincingly rejects the influential claim (advanced by Robert Dahl, Kenneth Vickery, and others) that the South of the Jim Crow era should be understood as a “herrenvolk” or “partial” democracy—that is, as one in which the government enjoys a basically democratic structure even as the full citizenship of public political participation is limited to a dominant ethnic or racial group. The significance of Mickey’s book thus lies in large part in his emphatic rejection of even this more limited defense of the postwar South’s democratic credentials. Mickey’s analysis demonstrates that the Southern states six decades ago weren’t even democratic for White people, and so they are best analyzed as properly authoritaran, not as partially or fully democratic, regimes.

Paths Out of Dixie presents a systematic and compelling reinterpretation of the 11 ex-Confederate states as systematically repressive regimes that began to democratize only after the Second World War.

To make his case, Mickey draws on an impressively broad array of sources from the massive body of existing research on Southern politics, but he looks at their insights anew through a lens taken from comparative political science. From the beginning his project is situated within a broader range of studies of the region: the modernization-oriented interpretations of Southern political development offered by Earl Black and Merle Black and by Numan Bartley; Doug McAdam’s sociological work on Black insurgency; economic-historical approaches drawing on the work of Barrington Moore and others; and, especially, V. O. Key’s influential research on Southern elites.

Mickey relies on these academic approaches and others to flesh out the details of his historical narratives, but he constructs his interpretative account in a way that moves beyond each of the studies on which he draws. Most significantly, Mickey borrows from comparative research the concept of “enclave authoritarianism”—subnational authoritarian governance exercising hegemony over a smaller region within a larger, federally governed country. In comparative political science, the idea of the authoritarian enclave has emerged as an important research tool primarily in recent studies of Central and South America, but Mickey breaks new ground by applying the concept to the eleven post-Confederate governments.

The end result is that Mickey takes a well-established body of work on the South and pushes it in a new direction by introducing previously unused conceptual tools.

Mickey takes as case studies three Deep South states: Mississippi, Georgia, and South Carolina. For each, he traces out in expansive detail the ways in which rulers’ responses to internal and external democratization pressures shaped their states’ varying trajectories in the middle of the twentieth century. With the end of Reconstruction, the former Confederate states revised their constitutions and restructured their legal and political institutions in order to consolidate single-party systems that unified state-level governments with their Democratic Party machines. In the ensuing decades, the effects of these reactionary transformations denied the Black population access to the polls while depriving the states’ only partially enfranchised White bases of any meaningful choices when voting. (Southern states still widely excluded poor Whites from the franchise in the first part of the twentieth century.) Like many authoritarian regimes around the world, the Southern states held elections that served merely to provide a cover of legitimacy to the self-perpetuating rule of the elites—in this case, wealthy White men—with no entrance available to those denied access to the machinations of the status quo.

The upshot is that the political history of the South is best interpreted in terms not of a widening public sphere achieved through political reforms but rather a protracted struggle for fundamental, totalizing regime change. Understood against this historical background, the Black liberation movement was not a push for inclusion within what would otherwise have been a more or less satisfactory legal system. Rather, Black leaders effectively built an insurgent rebellion aiming at the total transformation of post-Reconstruction governance.

Southern authoritarianism was Janus-faced, its activity ordered at once by White supremacy (limiting any significant Black access to governing institutions) and by one-party rule (preempting any meaningful electoral options for enfranchised Whites). Racial ideology underpinned mass Wite support for the South’s rulers within their respective states, while party hegemony secured the region’s critical importance to the national Democratic party and thereby its relative protection from federal interference. In Mickey’s account, the South’s eleven authoritarian enclaves only began to democratize after the Second World War, when the internal pressures of Black insurgents and the top-down changes imposed by the federal government and the national Democratic organization began to chip away at White Democratic hegemony within the Southern states.

Within Black American political thought and the activist movements that it has animated, there is a long tradition of contesting the democratic credentials of the United States.

This democratic transition, which unfolded in different ways and at different paces across the region, opened the ballot box to the Black population and to large numbers of poor Whites for the first time since the withdrawal of military occupation at the end of Reconstruction. As electoral politics opened up to once-excluded actors, increasingly robust two-party competition chipped away at the White Democratic monopoly even as Black activists contested White supremacy in new ways.

Of particular interest is Mickey’s emphasis on the integration of public universities, which he places at the center of his argument. The varying routes travelled by the rulers of South Carolina, Georgia, and Mississippi as they handled the judicial mandates to integrate Clemson University, University of Georgia, and the University of Mississippi crystallized the broader differences in how the elites of these states dealt with the legal and political demands of democratization.

Across the region, Southern rulers and their White constituents seriously discussed closing down or privatizing educational institutions rather than allowing the admission of African-American students. The education crises thus provide a window into the processes by which elites managed their own interests, responded to civilian and federal pressures, and sought to safeguard their positions of privilege within both the territories they governed and the national party with which they were aligned. In a contemporary moment in which public higher education in the South faces new threats from reactionary political forces, Mickey’s focus on the political salience of these institutions is especially timely.

Mickey’s final chapter surveys a few of the possibilities opened up through his reframing of American political development. He points out that his interpretative lens suggests the relevance to Southern politics of the idea of “transitional justice”—a concept more familiar in discussions of South Africa, Latin America, and the former Soviet bloc than in conversations about the United States. (Debates about reparations, he argues, could be worked out more clearly in these terms.)

Moreover, he notes that any account of the South’s late and recent democratization must change our understanding of the kind of polity that the United States writ large has been all along. Because the South, despite the ambitions of its secessionists past and present, cannot be understood apart from the United States as a whole (nor the reverse), any study with even half the scope and achievement of Mickey’s has far-reaching ramifications for debates about the country’s past and future.

In many respects, Mickey’s argument is among the most ambitious and provocative I’ve encountered in contemporary political science. It brings together an impressive range of sources; it synthesizes them into a compelling account of a set of complex and fiercely debated problems; and it makes a straightforward but widely significant contribution to our understanding of those questions. Paths Out of Dixie promises to transform academic research on the political history of the South and thus to better inform public understanding of the complex processes that have unfolded in the region since the abolition of chattel slavery.

Yet the book is long overdue, and is indeed in many ways simply catching up to what other disciplines and other communities have known for a long time. I was stunned to discover that Mickey’s interpretation of the South in terms of authoritarianism rather than racial democracy is basically a new one within political science. Indeed, I suspect that the contours of the landscape he maps out will feel familiar to those outside the academy whose understanding of American history is shaped by more or less leftwing or radical political commitments, as it will to those in the more critically inclined areas of the humanities.

Within Black American political thought and the activist movements that it has animated, there is a long tradition of contesting the democratic credentials of the United States as a whole and of the South in particular. This line of thought has often relied on a call for the nation to live up to the ideals it has always to some degree espoused yet persistently failed to realize. Frederick Douglass’ famous speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” provides one early source for this critique; its political ethos was echoed, reiterated, and redeveloped throughout Black intellectual traditions that developed after the Civil War. In the early twentieth century, W. E. B. Du Bois explicitly challenged the South’s claim to democracy in the era of White Democratic hegemony (particularly in The Souls of Black Folk and Black Reconstruction in America), even as the work of Ida B. Wells and other Black feminists laid bare the hypocrisy of the nation’s democratic ideals in the decades before the dismantling of Jim Crow.

Black nationalism and other forms of political radicalism emerging within and alongside the civil rights movement likewise dismantled the claim to democratic legitimacy upon which the White South relied. And of course, in recent years, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s provocative analysis of American “kleptocracy” has cogently recapitulated a long history of Black discourse on reparations from which some of the most significant critical accounts of “democracy” in this country have emerged. Yet these traditions are largely absent from Paths Out of Dixie. The book in this way reinscribes, rather than challenges, the very failings of social science that have allowed Mickey’s argument to appear so original within his discipline.

Mickey seems to fail to recognize that though his interpretative approach is in many respects wholly new within American empirical political science, it nevertheless stands in a long line of projects that have advanced similar moral and political claims. This should not undercut the book’s real academic achievements: Mickey’s deft use of the tools of comparative politics to analyze the South in authoritarian terms is indeed unprecedented, and the book coherently synthesizes and analyzes wide resources that are likely to be of great value to those who are more aware than he of the intellectual genealogy of his project’s critical ambitions.

Yet the obscuring of that genealogy in the book itself risks leaving political science with the sense that it is enough merely to achieve a better understanding of the South’s history, when what the discipline most forcefully needs is a wholesale interrogation of the assumptions about its own canons, topics, and tools that have let it to go so long without arriving at an account like the one Mickey advances.

As a work of political science, Paths Out of Dixie is thus at once monumentally original and tellingly conventional. Its impressive argument provides indispensable tools for anyone who seeks to grasp the story of the South in social-scientific terms—but its failure to see its precedents outside of contemporary social science stands as a reminder that White academia has its own path lying still ahead.