The Southernication Thesis

I have previously posted about Will Wilkinson’s Density Divide. That paper was firmly grounded in research; Wilkinson reserved his more speculative observations for venues like Substack.Those observations may be–as he readily acknowledges–more speculative, but they certainly accord with what I see when I travel around the country and/or read news reports.

The linked article begins with a description of the growing uniformity of a rural America that once reflected the cultures of the immigrants who originally settled in them. Now, however, most of those differences have disappeared.

One of the puzzles of the 2016 election, and the catastrophe of the Trump presidency, is how populist white nationalism finally prevailed at a time when Americans, taken altogether, were less racist than ever. This is one of the questions I take up in the “Density Divide.” But I left out one of my favorite answers to this question largely because it’s too speculative and I didn’t have the data to prove it. My hunch is that rural white culture, which was once regionally varied and distinctive, became more uniform by becoming increasingly Southern. I call this the Southernification thesis.

The Density Divide provided convincing evidence that white ethno-nationalism worked to elect Trump, although it had failed to elect Pat Buchanan or Ron Paul, and explained that new success on the growth of  residential self-selection, which had made lower density parts of the country more homogenous, ethnocentric and socially conservative. But Wilkinson says that even though he is convinced that the density analysis is correct as far as it goes, it provides an incomplete explanation without something like the Southernification thesis. “Before it could be successfully organized politically, America’s increasingly ethnocentric non-urban white population needed to be consolidated first through the adoption of a relatively uniform ethnocentric white culture.”

What I’m still groping for is solid empirical confirmation that the Southernification of white rural America did happen and, if so, how it happened. Now, I have few doubts that it did happen and is still happening. Indeed, it’s hard to think of better impressionistic evidence than the spread of Confederate flags far from the South into all parts of white rural America.

It’s hard to dispute Wilkinson’s observation that the Civil War, and the battle between North and South, lives on both culturally and geographically. Only the geography has changed: the North, as he says, “has drifted out of the countryside and concentrated itself into our cities. At the same time, America’s rural and exurban counties have slowly become more and more homogenously Southern. The South has risen again … in rural Maine?”

I’ve seen the Stars and Bars flying from Iowa barns. You can see them at Minnesota county fairs. They pop up everywhere. In rural Idaho, Colorado, Oregon — places that weren’t even states during the civil war. [Correction: actually, Oregon became a state in 1859. I regret the error. Still…]

Wilkinson quotes David A. Hopkins, a Boston College political scientist, on the figures emerging from the recent census :

Many large metropolitan areas grew faster over the past decade than the Bureau had previously projected, with eight of the nation’s ten largest cities showing an increased growth rate compared to the 2000 to 2010 period. At the same time, most of rural America shrank in absolute as well as relative terms. A majority—52 percent—of the nation’s counties actually reported a smaller raw population in 2020 than they had in 2010.


The fundamental geographic division in American politics has traditionally been a sectional conflict setting the North against the South. The idioms of “red states” and “blue states” caught on widely after the 2000 presidential election because they could be applied to a regional divide—blue North, red South—that was already presumed to reflect the main axis of political debate and competition. But the partisan difference between large-metro and rural residents has now become much larger than the gap between northerners and southerners. 

It is difficult, if not impossible, to ignore the reality of the current urban/rural divide, and the extent to which it has replaced the North/South divisions that led to the Civil War. The question, as always, is “what do we do?” The answer to that question is made much more difficult by an electoral system that privileges the rural residents of the “new South”–a system that gives vastly disproportionate power to rural Americans who are adamantly resisting the consequences of “one person, one vote.”

We are beginning to see what Civil War between rural and urban America looks like. It is being carried out by the growing domestic terror attacks by groups like the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers and various Neo-Nazi organizations.

Who knew the South would rise again in places like rural Iowa and Minnesota…?


  1. Blood and soil are the cries of nazis who have the same motives as the Rebels in the South. As you mentioned yesterday, it’s all about race or eugenics. Feeling that white people are superior. When you combine that with nationalism rhetoric or propaganda, which goes hand in hand with the Alt-Right, well, you get the idea.

    The run on ammo is largely due to folks in the country preparing for Antifa marches to storm their property (blood and soil).

    I don’t think people understand the magnitude of money spent by the Koch’s, now just Charles, on getting his anarcho-capitalism agenda pushed through centered on Mise’s “human action” theories, where some races are “inferior” and have “offered little or no advances toward human civilization.”

    It’s all based on eugenics and the superiority of white men everywhere. The government isn’t to be trusted because they tax the white man and give that money to people of color. They take from the hard-working white man and give it to the lazy blacks.

    When you’ve been spending billions on propaganda along with these means over decades, you are going to get results. But, remember, they are spending money based on the science of “human action” or what makes us tick as humans. So what makes us take action?

    It’s quite intentional.

  2. Your reference to “one person, one vote” is more than a bit ironic as we move farther and farther away from that equation, between the electoral college and the absurd tradition of the filibuster, with people declaring this was the founder’s vision. When the Constitution was amended to cap the number of house members – really just an Act of Congress in 1929 – the original intent of proportionate representation of the House was nullified. According to the founder’s math, California would have over 1,300 representatives. While unwieldy on a day to day management level, those original proportions would likely have a very different outcome when it comes to the electoral college – i.e., something much closer to the “one person, one vote” vision.

  3. Something I wrote in 2015:
    I’m starting to realize I may be un-American. For example, I much prefer open-wheel racing to NASCAR, the series that grew out of moonshiners trying to outrun the law in the 20s. What could be more American than trying to outwit the law? I don’t much like country music, in general – or what passes for most country music these days. I’m not talking Willie or Waylon or Dolly or Patsy – I’m talking about the stuff that’s cranked out of the Nashville music machine like newspapers off an old printing press. Granted, some of it is catchy, and I understand the appeal. What I don’t understand is how country music has come to be considered (marketed) MORE American than, say, jazz or blues. After all, all three have their roots in America. Oh, wait…never mind. I think I might know why.

    I don’t think it’s a requirement that the National Anthem be sung with a twang in order to be truly patriotic. It puzzles me how singing the word “by” like the sound a sheep makes has become the gold standard. I don’t have a love affair with camo gear and guns. It’s a visceral thing; I think I actually threw up a little in my mouth when I recently passed those areas in Cabela’s. I am totally bewildered by the fascination with Donald Trump – I think he’s a crass, boorish, bullying, racist, misogynistic textbook narcissist. Not that I have an opinion.

    I don’t take the bible literally. I don’t even know what that means. I don’t equate America with Christianity, southern culture with the ‘true’ America, or ‘real’ Americans with being white. In fact, I love hearing other languages being spoken when I’m out and about. I love seeing people from different ethnic backgrounds enjoying each other’s company, especially kids and young adults. Makes me feel hopeful. I’m not sure what nationality I am; I’m really starting to question it.

  4. I’ve been reading Caste – The Origins of our Discontent by Isabelle Wilkersion, and nearly done. She holds that what we nearly all describe as racism is really Caste and her argument for this is very convincing. I am also reading White Trash – The 400 Year History of Class in America, which shows the ways that poor whites have been used and abused. But both books point out the extent to which poor white identity is defined by being “not black”. This idea is more stressed and compelling in Caste and more mentioned as an aside in White Trash. Wilkerson explicitely points out that being “not black” is such a major part of poor white identity that the success of Blacks, and more particularly Barack Obama being elected president was extraordinarily threatening to poor whites’ self identity which is to a large extent based on their place in the hierarchy, that is on being “not black” This also makes the racist disgust and hate for Obama among poor whites much more understandable. It isn’t just anger that blacks are succeeding, it’s anger that blacks are leaving poor whites on the bottom of the hierarchy.

    On confederate flags, one of the things you all are missing is the influence, especially on rural white folks, of the show Dukes of Hazard. That show, more than any other factor, made the confederate flag into a symbol of good old boys. Many rural folks say that the confederate flag represents the good old boy culture, not racism, because of Dukes of Hazard. But most rural folks are too disconnected from race and racial issues to recognize that for blacks, that flag is a symbol of not only slavery, but of being kept from voting, whipped, beaten, subjected to every whim of every white persion, and lynched. And of course some of the rural poor, especially in the South, use Dukes of Hazzard to pretend they aren’t racist.

  5. This thesis is both interesting, and scary. The idea of the homogenization of the rural and exurban parts of the country seems accurate; the idea that sections are no longer characterized, or clearly so, by the ethnicity of those former IMMIGRANTS who settled them.
    My understanding, however, is that many of the organized “thug” groups do not hail from rural areas, given what I’ve read about the employment of many of those arrested in regard to 1/6.
    We have evidence of a self-selection process going on relating to where people live that is not based, again, on ethnicity, if I understand it properly, but on choice of living in, or out of, density.
    And those who choose the latter appear to be doing so in order to avoid “them,” those of other color. This is reminiscent of the “white flight” of decades ago, that helped establish much of suburbia, I believe.
    It’s obviously much easier to accept negative stereotypes of “them,” if one has barely any contact with “them.”
    At the same time, for those who remain in cities, and witness the flight of “us” along with the resultant growing percent of “them,” the replacement thesis may seem to be a real threat.
    And, one no longer needs to be living close to those who perceive the (any) situation in the same manner, in order to have ease of communication, thanks to the amazing developments in electronic, borderless, communication.
    So, the “Blood and Soil” brigades Todd references, can work their odious, paranoid, aims.

  6. President Biden’s push to extend fast internet services to the rural parts of the country could have a huge impact on solving this problem. It should be popular with the people who already live there. It also would have the side effect of making their communities more attractive to others who don’t really like living in a crowded city but have now learned that they can work remotely. This would raise the average education level of the small town, make it easier to attract doctors and hospitals, and dilute the small-town political biases.

  7. My firm belief is that right wing radio, Limbaugh etc, Fox Spews and the others in the media are responsible for the dumbing down of America! For 30 years they have used media to skew the narrative about race and government and this is what we have to deal with now. Remember, back after the Second World War, them southerners went north to get jobs. They brought their bible thumping beliefs with them and poisoned the waters in blue states. And we let them. Shame on us.

  8. Anne, you are right, as it has become clear that the “replacement” issue is one of white folk fearing having no one else to look down upon, of being at the bottom of the barrel. Sadly, this makes sense of the old Tulsa massacre, wherein “uppity” blacks were destroyed. The simple use of that awful word, “uppity” stinks of the fear of Black folks outdistancing White ones.

  9. Take away the labels and we have 94% of Americans who want universal background checks, 70% who want all of the things listed in the “For the People Act” (why the Koch consortium has decided not to come out against it), 66% who want women to have a choice. Are we as divided as we seem, or are we only being sold another bill of goods?

  10. I live in a lake community in one of the reddest counties in the state and I will have to admit that I DO NOT see as many confederate flags as I used to. They have largely been replaced with flags that display the bizarre message: “Don’t Blame Me – I Voted For Trump”. But the intended messages behind them both is the same: “I’m White and I’m Angry”. And if you were to ask them WHY they’re angry you’ll hear them spout off a litany of things they’ve heard on FAUX NEWS or read on The Daily Caller, Brietbart, Facebook, Getr, and on and on.

    Also, I still struggle with just how wide the divide is in the urban sector of the US. There are huge swaths of predominantly white working class and poor people in all our cities right here in Indiana, including Indianapolis, Fort Wayne, and others that all reliably supported the former guy and cheered on the January 6 insurrection.

    Mayor Hoggset won the 2019 election by a landslide but he didn’t get 100% of the vote – he got 78%. Over 40,000 voters chose one of his opponents. In Fort Wayne the urban/rural divide is even more ambiguous. Tom Henry, a conservative Democrat, won a third term with 61% of the vote and 39% voted for his Trump-loving opponent. These urban elements of the GQP, taken together, likely account for the fact that we have GQP super-majorities in both houses of the General Assembly, every elected state office, and 7 out of 9 of our US House seats. Gerrymandering accounts for much of the slant but can’t explain all of it.

    And I’m always up for a new word to help explain new phenomena but I would have gone with “Dixiefication” instead of “Southernication”.

  11. Todd nails it this morning! Well done!

    The absurdity of it all is the pathetic irony that the white racist agenda supports losers, traitors and ignorant history. Celebrating the Confederacy is like drinking champagne for a sports team that finished 0-11. How is that for white superiority?

    And a s long as the freedom of speech continues without pushback, this nation-destroying idiocy of aggrieved white people will continue to rend the fabric of our society.

    I’m glad I’m old.

  12. “Who knew the South would rise again in places like rural Iowa and Minnesota…?”

    And Indiana; do not forget Indiana where the ubanites, white Indianapolis Republicans, have moved to the rural areas to avoid active Unigov governing to take advantage of separate law enforcement, fire departments, school systems and tax assessments which never became part of that single legislation enacted in 1970. The complaints about local Republican government favoring rural areas could be easily explained by taking a Sunday drive into our rural areas and through the housing developments I have referred to before. Where once our beautiful cornfields, acres of soy bean crops and working farms flourished; white “settlers” now live in the cleaner air, quieter and cleaner surroundings, away from city blight, pollution, interstates and all minorities. They have multiple vehicles, big screen TVs, computers with Internet and wifi, access to Amazon and everyone has their own cell phone to conduct all business transactions to further separate them from the lower classes. They have replaced the southern Plantation owners who governed southern states. How many of our local elected officials live in our urban and suburban areas now? The rural urbanites’ money and their votes support the Republican party here.

  13. The South rose again because they felt that they had a, not my words, wonderful new leader in Donald Trump. He is, to say the very least, antisemitic and he loathes anyone who is not, in his terms, white. As for women, well, his ignorant behavior speaks for itself and any woman who supports him should probably become a man! He let the Proud Boys, and other like organizations, feel that they finally had a leader of prominence; therefore, we now see and hear from them and about them always in the negative about anyone who does not stand with them. Look out, women, they’re coming for you so that they may put you under their rule and thumb again. I, for one, am an independent woman and I like it that way.

  14. Today I get to be “contrarian”. Once again, we are lured into “differences that are not the real difference”. That one is socio-economic. Most of the January DC “visitors” were middle class or above; some flew in on their own planes. It is the same old story, the well off ensure that government doesn’t work very well for the masses while they set groups against each other.

  15. I think AgingLGirl and Patrick answered the why this unification is happening. I believe it is the right wing echo chamber pioneered by Limbaugh and Faux News and amplified by OAN, Breitbart and all of the others that is causing this new stratification. These guys are using all of the hot button propaganda tools in the chest, racism, abortion, gun rights, anti-tax, etc… to manipulate people into voting themselves into further misery, so that they can continue to manipulate these people to vote.

    But again, generalizations are dangerous, a myriad of factors, including education and income levels play strongly in to the entire dynamic.

  16. Anne your comment reminds me of the way a family might pass down its anger Father yells at mother, who yells at the kids and then the kids yell/hit the pets.

    It is true that poor whites want to blame blacks often for their own misfortune. They seem to believe that people of color and immigrants are the only ones they can vent their anger at. Some of them are, of course, really angry with corporate bosses who have taken their jobs our of the country. I believe that this further fuels their anger at immigrants and people of color and leads them to believe their upward mobility is obstructed by those groups.

    I have heard my fellow citizens rant and rave about the unjust caste system in India while refusing to look at our own economic caste system. Over the years upward mobility has markedly diminished. The story of a poor immigrant or person of color becoming successful in America is the exception now. We have a caste system. The “untouchables” are the homeless or perhaps those whose career path takes them into skilled trades that have little to no prestige. And perhaps now, many of those who have moved to the cities consider the poor rural population as untouchables.

    My maternal grandfather was the only one from his family who escaped poverty. And why was he the only one? Rural people living in poverty have a proud identity, a culture deeply rooted in traditional values. They often fear that moving upward will change their deeply rooted values, some of them rising from Christian fundamentalism. People often remain stuck in these communities because they believe that to move upward means that they are disowning the very people who raised them. They often have a hard time adapting to the changes in mores/culture at universities located in larger metropolitan areas. Some will drop out and go home and stay stuck there i.e. Appalachia. Dolly Parton who grew up in Appalachian culture has never forgotten where she came from and yet, has managed to become open to diversity. She, however, is the exception. The majority of people in rural communities are not open to diversity, and are afraid of it. Indiana, dare I say, southern Indiana has people like those above I have described. Hence, Indiana which is made up of mostly rural communities remains very red.

    I can only hope that as the internet becomes more available to people in rural communities that their fear of diversity and change will decrease. I think it would benefit all of us if college educated people who want to live in a small town were allowed to work remotely. They might be able to open some of the minds of the people who live there.

    As I recall, Shiela, the only reason the bipartisan bill to create an independent commission to establish our new districts was blocked by one committee chairman whose name eludes me. I don’t think one person should have that much power in our legislature. It’s a threat to our democracy.

  17. Why has the south always progressed economically slower than the north?

    When I was in school. closer to the Civil War than now by far, the simple answer was that they relied on agriculture rather than manufacturing because they didn’t have the elevation differences necessary for water power and their soil was more dirt and less rock. The low population density that led to never went away, but what did was the economics of non-factory agriculture. They’ve been slowly going out of business since. That’s reached more critical levels now.

    What that means to those in the grip of it is that their culture, adapted to the realities of low population density, is at risk of disappearing. Going extinct is very hard so, being human, they have to find others to blame it on. The list of those that they hold that grudge against is long indeed. Basically, that means that they are mad at everyone not exactly like them, meaning not of their culture.

    Some of them solve their problem, rather than nurse their anger, by moving into the industrial cities (although the meaning of “industrial” has also morphed over the years from manufacturing to service providing and, more typically, international). The rest are stuck on a slowly sinking ship.

    Can those of us in their same country do anything to help them? We have. Agricultural subsidies. How much of that trickles down to those really feeling the pinch of extinction? Very little.

    Going obsolete is the nature of things.

  18. It is rather interesting how the Neo-Confederacy transplanted itself into Northern rural areas. I suspect Fear was at the root of it all. A Fear of change.

    As a Baby Boomer and true believer in the Civil Rights and Vietnam War protests, I observed a backlash among the Greatest Generation and even among my age group. The retro-grade movement appeared early on. There was a fear among the retro-grades that their beliefs were being challenged so overtly, not only in the streets by protests, also challenged by the music of the 1960’s and 1970’s and of course the sexual revolution. That old time religion of hellfire and damnation was no longer instilling fear and compliance.

    Rural America is on a steady decline, the loss of jobs and population are evident in the census statistics since the 1950’s. Young people have always moved to where the jobs are.

  19. Alternative thought > Has it ever occurred to anyone that we in the north were already southernized before the current urban-rural calcification arrived during WW II and the postwar boom and that we needed the scapegoats of racism and ignorance to cover our need to have someone to look down upon and blame for our misfortunes? Would it really make a difference if, for instance, there were no black people to look down upon? Perhaps not. Given our need to be ahead of somebody, anybody, we would have found some other vulnerable social strata to villify and look down upon in explaining our failure to attend Oxford and out-Bezos Bezos.

  20. I recommend the book “Caste” by Isabel Wilkerson. It makes lots of sense and offers another way to look at our problems of divisiveness. And in regard to the question of how the north became “southernized” I submit that it’s been there for a long time, even if underground. The KKK ran Indiana during the 1920’s, and when Indiana was settled as part of the Northwest Ordinance, blacks were not allowed to come in to the state, an end run around the requirement that states formed out of the Ordinance must be free states. A lynching occurred in Marion, IN, during the 1930’s, really not that long ago. I have to conclude that the north was “southernized” all along, it was just waiting to rear its ugly head.

  21. jan2; for an in-depth look at politics’ connection to race and active slavery in Indiana in the early 1800s, Eunice Trotter’s book, “Black In Indiana” is an excellent source of our racist history.

  22. Pete–I was reading your comment and prior to that I was thinking about how rural America and especially poor, rural White men and the women that marry them act like they have a major chip on their shoulder. I do think you touch on some things regarding the economic structures but my husband and I were talking this morning–he has his BS in accounting and finance and so his background has always been in economics and business and I am a history and social science person who works in nursing because there are jobs.

    He was just talking about how Reagan kept emphasizing how America’s economy was going to be a service economy. I remember my senior year in high school (1987) my economics class talking about how we are going to be a service economy and I am thinking–how is there money in that. My husband said the goal was to make money from money—what happened there was no longer a focus on the ‘trades’.

    At the same time trades were being devalued and in high school the focus was you had to go to college–you had to go to college to make a good living and to be something. There was also a subtle and then a not so subtle intention of stripping unions that were mostly comprised of trades/trade unions. When you were not college material or came from a family that could not afford to send you to college the choices back in my parents for men were to go to the military or to learn a trade. When I went to school there was no discussion of trades except for auto shop. Now, those who are working in HVAC, plumbers and steam fitters are making great money more than this nurse of 25 years and they are not paying $350 a month in graduate school loans. They can’t find help because trades were devalued and not a focus in high schools and no recruitment were occurring.

    So, there are a lot of pissed off, chip on the shoulder white middle aged, living in rural parts where the jobs have dried up and they have nothing to fall back on but drugs and just like impoverished inner cities there appears to be no hope, no end in sight and nobody who cares or is listening. Their gang of choice is white supremacy who have always been there, tea-party grievance-the MAGA, Trump saw them as he is aggrieved and plays the victim which they can relate to and now the GOP who has tapped into the cultural grievance and knows how to exploit them and is using it for political gain.

  23. Gerald, the history of Ant-Semitism in Europe may provide an answer about having someone to look down upon, and blame. There was more of it in countries other than Germany, before Hitler used it in lieu of having Blacks to blame.

  24. Elaine, you are on to something and we see the effects of that long and not so long ago de-emphasis on vocational trade education, so de-emphasized that unions and not government conducted such programs even during the labor-friendly New Deal days. Thus Germany, which has a robust vocational skills program, is second only to China in terms of trade surplus even though factory workers make 35-40 dollars an hour, sit on corporate boards etc. Here we are by far the world’s greatest trade losers with billions going to our competitors across the globe in negative trade losses and a horrendous code provision that delays tax liability on international earnings by American multinational corporations until such profits are “repatriated.”

    The foregoing is one of the many reasons I think the internal revenue code needs a complete redo (as well as the bankruptcy code), and if I were a first term congressman I would agitate the Democratic leadership for appointment to the House Ways and Means Committee, but Alas! I am a mere retired voter in the State of Florida under the leadership of an insane governor. I am reminded of my plight by the old joke “Other than that Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?” Tsk!

  25. Gerald, I just know Way to many lost and disgruntled white males who could not go to college. There was no focus on trades in my day. I keep saying I wish these trade unions would get into these high schools and these inner city schools and really make a connection with men and women. College has become unattainable for too many because of costs and the middle-class has essentially been wiped out.

    Biden said in the case of these chips needed for our cars and trucks made solely in Asian countries that it is now in our national security interest to have things like these chips made in America.

    I was not surprised by Trump’s election and had been saying prior to his election that people are passed. They can’t make a decent living. There is a large segment of the population that is being left behind.

    Rise in American religion extremism and savvy people exploiting the fear and the inner rage that have been festering in the towns of Terre Haute, Cloverdale, Martinsville, etc…people left in towns and left behind

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