Summary: There is a void in conservatism that will eventually be filled by dangerous ideologies. The Southern tradition already has the answers that the alt-right and populists seek, but we have not packaged these in a way that they can absorb and use. If we seek to preserve Southern traditions we must seize this moment to present a practical political theory for contemporary use. This will require that we change some things that we have done, that we expand our horizons, and that we start new efforts; all of that must begin by developing a comprehensive strategy that we can operationalize.
The Abbeville Institute began with a noble goal, to “preserve the history and culture of the American South. Our efforts are to view the South’s history through an academic lens to help others understand the rich traditions and culture that was born here.” Yet, if we are honest, has the organization done much more than preserve history? Is it practically anything more than a historical society? Has it preserved culture?
It does great work reaching a number of young folks each year and it provides bread and meat for a dwindling remnant, but is this alone enough?
The answer, the honest answer is that it certainly has not preserved culture in a meaningful way. In fact, it has a difficult time preserving history, its presentations are often forced to cover topics and foundational matters that ought to be common knowledge to a high school student.
These are harsh words, they ought not to be taken as coming from the wrong place. The Abbeville Institute and similar efforts are good works, engaged in by people with sincere and well-placed principles. It is work done in an environment where every possible variable is set against the effort. The criticism herein is not directed at people or previous efforts. The intent is to ask what it would mean to preserve history and culture, perhaps in such a way that our traditions and the rich intellectual heritage of Southern thinkers might offer practical solutions to contemporary problems.
If our traditions have no practical contemporary use, what good are they in preserving? We know they have practical contemporary use; therefore, we must evaluate what we are doing.
The United States now sits at the ledge of a precipice. A long train of abuses, sloth, absurdity, and ignorance have left Americans without a compass, in terms of political theory. Conservatism has conserved and preserved nothing since WWII, and many are beginning to realize this. Young folks are searching for answers, they in many ways agree with those on the radical left; neoliberalism combined with corporatism, centralization, and cronyism has utterly failed. The left seeks answers in classical and cultural Marxism. Some elements of a rising young conservative movement are seeking answers in the Fourth Way, they have found the writings of Alexander Dugin and even Theodore Kaczynski. We might assume that if they have slipped that far there is no hope of reaching them. That is a flawed assumption.
Ironically, at the base of the criticism of the new young right, we find words very similar to those written in 1930 by the “twelve Southerners”. Their reading of Kaczynski sounds true to them because they see a criticism of post-modernism that Wendell Berry and many agrarians wrote of industrialization. There is truth in the base criticism, that they have found solace in a mad man is perhaps our fault for not offering an alternative that they could understand. The same can be said of their growing admiration for Dugin, he frames the original problem in a way that is foundationally true, then presents a political theory solution that ultimately is very dangerous.
In our tradition, our thinkers warned of what would become of us if particular trends flowed to their natural conclusions. Our writers spoke out at numerous points across our history highlighting what was good and wholesome of tradition and dangerous in idealism. Our traditions are rich with warnings and prescriptions. However, we have been increasingly incapable of packaging the medicine in a way that can be easily digested.
If we want to preserve Southern tradition, culture and history we must first admit a hard truth. There is no more “South”, not in practical terms. There is no more of a South in existence today than there is a Scotland that remotely resembles the land and people my family left in 1705. We are talking more than mere subtle changes over time, everything that the South was has been paved over and replaced. Ultimately, we adopted every single tenet of the evil Yankee empire we often rail against. We are them.
One can argue with the above claim because perhaps their little pocket of the world fits with their conception of “the South” or perhaps because many of us retain some distinctive traits – those traits and peculiarities alone do not make us Southern. The entire south has gone in for commercialism, banal entertainment, and popular religion that increasingly approaches heresy. Politically we are little different than the rest of the country on things that matter, when we vote it is not for traditions or values that one might attach to the ideal of our tradition. One might try to argue that the South exists, but it is nothing more than a geographic region at this point with a few folks here and there that resemble Southerners.
Take Greenville, SC as an example. Once merely a large town, surrounded by farms and small towns, part of the textile mill boon but very Southern, there existed once even a distinct dialect amongst a certain class. Look at the area closely today. Numerous major neocalvinst, emergent, seeker-sensitive mega-churches flourish in Greenville – these teach and act in ways utterly contrary to historic Christianity, but thousands in the city attend places their ancestors would not only not recognize, but would rebuke as apostasy. Subdivisions abound, each little micro-mansion, and even less ostentatious abode, display all of the trappings of inhabitants that have sold their souls to the consumer schemes of buy, buy, buy. The frequent sightings of large trucks in driveways may give one temporary pause and the sense that real Southerners live there but that would be an illusion. Downtown Greenville has become a complete synthesis of this new hipster/bubba class, they flock there, like any major city, looking and acting only slightly different than perhaps their peers in Cincinnati, or Syracuse.
If we are to hope to preserve the Southern tradition, we must therefore expand our reach beyond people that we believe are still actually Southerners capable of understanding our words. Just as Southern music, art, and literature impacted almost everything of what came to be called American, we should also rejoice in the fact that our traditions of political thought have also diffused far and wide. The young and restless young right would not so easily see the valid base criticisms presented by their new heroes if something of the Southern tradition had not already informed them that those criticism are true.
We have always been the true resistance to the centralizers, those that would do much harm in an effort to do a little good. None of our traditions caused any of the problems we now face; problems that cause some to look for authoritarian solutions in either Marxism or Duginism.
The Way Ahead
If we are to practically preserve Southern culture we cannot merely be about speaking to the choir. Gray-headed white men are not going to fix things. We need a new organization with a new purpose, less historical, more practical theory-oriented.
(**there is and always will be a place for a “Historical Society”, the Abbeville Institute and others can fulfill that role. But if we are frank, in its current incarnation, the AI will never reach a broad audience, it will never truly preserve our culture for any but a small remnant. It has a role in the way ahead, but the grunt work must be done by something new.)
There is a tremendous void in the populism of MAGA, it is and was rudderless, based upon words of hope but lacked principles. It lacked a conservative political theory. Also, as mentioned above, the youngsters, what some have called the alt-right (a term that is less applicable now as many more mainstream voices are finding a home there), as Paul Gottfried remarked a few years ago suffered from an ideological void. They are filling that void with dangerous thinkers.
We need to fill that void with a practical conservative political philosophy that is true to our traditions. We have men and women with the talent and credentials to do this. Our traditions and the intellectuals of our history provide a template. We need merely to put it in words and a format that can be readily consumed by those in need.
There are others, intellectuals with ideas contrary to our traditions and conceptualization of history, the founding, and of principles that see the voids I describe above. The West Coast Straussians and their numerous organizations and outlets are already courting both the populists and the alt-right. We are, as we have been for years, at a tremendous disadvantage in terms of institutional support and reach compared to the Straussians, but if we do not saddle up now, if we do not carry the banner of traditionalism into the fray, nothing of who we were or any of our ideas will have any chance. Some paleoconservatives now suggest we ally with the Straussians – but how can we ally with men that are opposed to almost everything we believe, the foundational items at least?
We Must Act
As a first step, we must conceive of strategies to enter the fray. It is not my intent here to lay out a complete plan, the problem is too complex for such in this treatment. At a minimum, we need a strategy meeting that brings together folks with multiple skills (operational design, strategy, marketing, philosophy, history, communications, to name a few). Out of such a meeting, we should arrive at a phased operational approach that consists of numerous lines of effort, all building toward an objective of presenting a practical political philosophy based upon the very best of the Southern tradition as an alternative to the trash now presented to the masses.
I call therefore upon the graybeards of our movement, to send out the call for such a meeting, not a mere lunch or dinner, this will require a few days, whiteboards, sweat, arguing, and in some cases abandonment of presuppositions. We face what we called in the Army a Wicked Problem, the solution(s) will require work, just to formulate the strategy at the beginning; and ultimately that will be the easy part.
(strategy first then operationalize the strategy – all the nasty and nitty-gritty details will emerge once lines of efforts are developed)