Dixie Demagogues, continued—
But there is a deeper disagreement between these two important works, one that may help to account for the fact that Key’s book has through later years been acclaimed while Dixie Demagogues has been conveniently forgotten by all but the pros. V.O. Key spends considerable energy and effort examining the voting records of Southern Senators and Congressmen to measure the extent to which they actually voted with the Republican opposition on significant legislation. Michie and Ryhlick voiced charges that were becoming widely heard at the time, that Bourbon Democrats of the South voted with Republican conservatives to create what Florida Senator Claude Pepper described as a “Machiavellian alliance,” described by Michie and Ryhlick as “the Republocrat coalition”—an alliance that would block the nation’s road to the future in an effort to divide the ranks of labor, “keep the working man helpless and supine” for the benefit of those who would “rather turn the efforts of government to the aid of an organized money power of the nation...”(p.295) Key, by contrast, produces a persuasive collection of data to show that Southern Democrats in fact voted most often with fellow Democrats and only voted with Republicans in about ten percent of roll calls, with most of these pertaining to the question of race. “[I]t takes more than Negro baiting to win an election in Mississippi,” says Key, in one revealing footnote.
V.O. Key’s thoughtful analysis and carefully assembled data have stood the test of time. Yet what is perhaps most appealing in Dixie Demagogues, in a way that makes it seem to occupy an enduring place in the interpretive understanding of this era, is that for Michie and Ryhlick the rhetoric of the demagogues was more than misspoken language—it was indeed a way of thinking and practicing politics that was fundamentally wrong. For Key and even contemporary interpreters, the demagogues seem less like the dysfunctional representatives of failed states than clever but misguided men who otherwise were loyal, law abiding legislators who contributed much that was positive. In case after case, Dixie Demagogues cites evidence that the South’s leaders were almost invariably sympathetic with the European fascists, to the point of publicly avowed endorsement, because the South’s white supremacist system was itself a species of the same. Describing the Huey Long phenomenon as “Fascism: American Style” they assert, “Louisiana has never known democracy. A species of fascism has ruled the State since the land-holding Bourbons recaptured political control following Reconstruction days.”(p.108) At best a benevolent dictator who “gave bread” in the many forms of improved government benefits in Louisiana, Michie and Ryhlick assert that in Long’s 1935 campaign for the White House “the real strategy of the financiers who supported him and Talmadge was that the two demagogues would take away enough popular votes for the President (FDR) to ensure the election of a Republican.”(p.185) American fascism in the 1930s presented a nationwide front, of which the South’s demagogic leaders formed a decisive part.
North Carolina’s Senator Robert “Our Bob” Reynolds appears as an equally disturbing figure in this gallery of rogues. Elected in a 1932 upset race, Reynolds convinced voters that his opponent had committed “the unpardonable sin against Americanism by eating caviar” (a dangerous foreign influence).(p.5) Reynolds is portrayed by the journalist duo as an affable “court-jester” who by 1938 was taken seriously by few people even in his home state; yet Reynolds’ endorsements of various aspects of Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy were completely serious. Up until this time he had been a more or less sincere supporter of the New Deal, but as the international crisis unfolded, Reynolds showed that his incompetence as a legislator went far deeper than rhetoric. Reynolds created his own fascist oriented, anti-immigrant organization called the Vindicators, published a newsletter in the spring of 1939 which advocated “100 percent Americanism,” rabid anti-communism, the mass deportation of immigrants, and the rejection of New Deal foreign policy, along with a strict neutrality in response to the crisis in Europe. Offering himself as an “American Fuehrer,” Reynolds, according to Michie and Ryhlick, acted in concert with influential national figures, such as William R. Hearst, New York publisher William Griffin, and the Catholic radio priest and anti-Semitic demagogue, Father Charles Coughlin. In the heat of crisis in 1939, say the pair, Reynolds deliberately used his position on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to incite bad feeling among U.S. allies, France and Great Britain, by vociferously demanding the repayment of war debts. (pp.228, 238-239)
Charges such as these and others remain unaddressed by Key, who is interested in Reynolds and Senator Bailey only insofar as they exemplify his thesis about the structural weaknesses of the one-party system. Charges of fascism aimed at Huey Long are met with the assertion that Long “was innocent of any ideology other than the sort of indigenous indignation against the abuses of wealth current in the epoch of William Jennings Bryan...” In the midst of an international crisis in foreign relations associated with the Second World War, Michie and Ryhlick examine the rhetoric of the demagogues to uncover a prevailing pattern of sympathy with German and Italian fascism and an opposition to President Roosevelt. The fascism that crushed the CIO in New Orleans in 1937, the fascism of Black Belt, Alabama, a place of unspeakable oppression for African Americans subjected to virtual slavery, likewise, for the journalists, finds its parallel in a stubborn adherence to isolationism and neutrality in the face of Nazi aggression.(p.157) Unquestionably, the mood of crisis in the midst of the depression created an atmosphere that was unique to the 1930s. Millions of people throughout the world and in the U.S. were taken in by the false promises of Soviet Communism as well as the ultra-nationalist militarism of the Axis powers. Where Dixie Demagogues seems to function more as a polemic arising from a hotly contested political contest at a moment of deep anxiety for America and the world, Key writes in the midst of an postwar international crisis over communism, observing “Commonly a southern Senator is caricatured as a frock-coated, long-manned, and long-winded statesman of the old school who conspires in the cloakroom with Republicans to grind down the common man”—a stereotype that he rejects. (Key, 355).
With World War II completed and the emerging Civil Rights Movement becoming a more visible reality through a desegregated military, while encouraged by new decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court, it was apparently no longer necessary to take seriously the charges heard just ten years before. Today, however, in view of the events in national politics, the nation’s continuing fascination with empire, militarism, corporate globalization, covert and overt wars with disregard for the sovereignty of nations and the human rights of citizens at home and around the world, it would seem that old classics like Dixie Demagogues deserve a new reading, for they help us to understand where we are going by reminding us of our past. Surely Dixie Demagogues contributes yet to our understanding of regional politics. Even before the 1960s social revolution had been completed, the rise of a new conservatism helped wear off the luster of V.O. Key’s structural analysis by pointing again to the enduring substance of Southern politics. For while the structure had changed and the rhetoric had improved, there was a disturbing consistency in results.
Today we may observe a growing trend toward more and greater elements of the fascist system on the national scene, with Southern voters and political leadership at the forefront of concern. With national leaders operating from a Southern political base whose ultra-patriot style places “reasons of state” above truth and accountability, the tendency of a regime press to rubber stamp extra-legal decrees, with constitutional checks and human rights discarded, with internal and external enemies proclaimed and vilified in open public commentary, with local government and law enforcement subsumed within the larger apparatus of internal security, with obligations of treaty repudiated in favor of weapons and the rhetoric of fear, we should wonder if perhaps Michie and Ryhlick’s view of fascism in the South and the U.S. may in a sense have provided a more accurate and compelling picture, at once less materialistic and more challenging to the most basic political assumptions of the region than Key’s overwrought arguments on political party and structure.
The Great Depression followed by the Second World War for the U.S. was an unusual time, an era of crisis and reform comparable to few others in American history. For this reason above all, books such as these remain important. Both books seem to have missed important cues about the South’s future with Black voters included in the picture. Yet, Dixie Demagogues has something to say to us that seems to have been forgotten in Key’s Southern Politics. Like W.J. Cash, whose 1941 book The Mind of the South also became a classic widely heralded, the duo of thirties journalism seem to suggest that altering the structure of Southern politics was not nearly so important as the betterment of its mentality and its most basic assumptions. Today, where a two-party South clearly exists with widespread participation by Black voters and office holders, it is by no means clear that the rhetoric of Southern politics has been substantially transformed. To the contrary, it appears that as Neobourbons of the Civil Rights Era like Senators Strom Thurmond, James Eastland, and North Carolina’s Jesse Helms moved into the Republican Party, they took with them the majority of Southern white voters, and helped to launch the nation on a long term downslide into militarism and the corporate state. Their rhetoric of opposition to Civil Rights reforms was perfectly compatible with what Alan A. Michie and Frank Ryhlick described so effectively in 1939: “As a means of distracting the whites of the South from fundamental economic and social issues, the Negro has been to the Bourbons what the Jews have been to Hitler.” (p.16).
For this mysterious pair, whose careers in the public eye seemed to peter out in the years after World War II, what was alas, fatal to this book, was doubtless that it appeared more as a polemic deriving from a hotly contested political race than an objective analysis. Thus dated to a dark moment with a disturbing message, it was a book that many people wanted to forget. The South’s politics are painted with a broad brush and only a mere handful of Southern politicians escape the damning label of “demagogue”.
Yet today, Alan A. Michie and Frank Ryhlick must seem almost prophetic in their observation: “Fascism is hard to recognize when it comes wrapped in the American flag.”(p.241)
From Carolina Civic Voice, Spring 2007