Believing to Fit Into One’s Community — How the Culture of Coerced Conformity Was Established

The previous entry offered an explanation of how the culture of the political right in America today can get intelligent people to belief foolish things, and good people to lend their support to an evil force. The explanation focused in the idea of a community of forced orthodoxy of belief on matters of particular interest to the society’s dominant elite. Such coerced conformity of belief is made possible by socializing people into a particular kind of community culture that gives people the implicit understanding that on some matters of belief, one simply toes the line.

Where did that coercive kind of community come from? How did it come to be that in that nation “conceived in liberty,” there could emerge a cultural system where true freedom of belief was blocked by the power of the community over the individual?

Of course, some degree of conformity is part of all human societies, through coercive means and otherwise. But differences in history have molded different cultural systems in America, and these differences can help explain the prevalence of coerced conformity in the Republican world of today.

First, I have argued in a four-part series here already that the force that’s taken over today’s Republican Party is the re-emergence of the force that took hold of the South in the years leading up to the Civil War and then drove the nation into that terrible, bloody conflict.

Second, in the differences in history between the North and the South, we can find the root of the coercive community in matters of belief. For the culture and society of the South were more shaped by the workings of power than in the North for some clear historical reasons.

Every society has some inequalities of power, but in the South — with an economy based on slavery, and with the emergence of a powerful slaveholding class — the inequalities during the formative years of the region’s culture were far greater. *

By the time dominance of that magnitude was achieved in the North, in the latter decades of the 19th century with the rise of the robber barons and of industrial corporate capitalism, the culture of the Northern states like New York, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts, had already been forming for more than two centuries.

In the South, by contrast, even during the most formative period in the generations before the American Revolution, much of the South was powerfully dominated by a class that drew its power from the ownership of many slaves and vast tracts of land.

It is through “the problem of power” that brokenness first began its major reverberation in the human world, with the rise of civilization, and its consequent unregulated intersocietal system. And it is through the workings of power that much of the brokenness our civilization has called “evil” gets transmitted.

With great inequalities of power already present during the formative stages of Southern society, the dominant class was in a position to shape the nature of Southern community. Over generations, that class molded a kind of community culture that would tolerate no heresies on those beliefs that were important for maintaining (and extending) the elite’s power.

Nowhere is this insistence on orthodoxy more dramatically displayed than in the treatment of the issue of slavery during the years leading up to the Civil War.

(The enforcement of orthodoxy not only reflected a higher degree of dominance than was found in the North, but it also was focused on an institution of complete dominance and exploitation– the two elements compounding the role of the Spirit of Domination.)

It is shocking for one who has grown up imagining that the liberties granted by the Bill of Rights have been the established norms of this “land of the free” to discover how little liberty was allowed in the South when it came to opinions regarding slavery.

In his excellent book, Road to Disunion, William H. Frehling describes the

“Slaveholders’ attempts to silence critics, whether by cries of disloyalty to slavery or by lynch mobs or by gag rules or by censoring the mails or by precluding Lincoln’s appointees’ campaigning…” (p. 533)

Anti-slavery literature was effectively banned from the South. Opponents of slavery could be tarred and feathered and run out of town on a rail.

Frehling refers to the Old South’s “the Old South’s colliding goerning systems”– the one that we learn about from the Declaration of Independence, based on the “inalienable rights” of equal men and the wielding of governmental power based on “the consent of the governed,” and the other being based on that ancient principle, “The strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.”

On the issue of slavery, on which the dominant power rested, power trumped democracy: “Slaveholders particularly dreaded the impact of open debate on duplicitous slaves and suspect nonslaveholders.”

The coercive community was molded to preclude “open debate.”

The whole issue of slavery got bound up, by the pronouncements and manipulations of the powerful slaveholders, in values of Southern honor. People were taught what was required to believe, and taught also to fight to protect those beliefs from any who would challenge them.

By the time the Civil War came, the culture of enforced conformity of belief on matters central to the Slaveholders’ power was well established. In the century following the Civil War, the same enforced conformity obtained with respect to the continued system of racial oppression called “Jim Crow.”

No one who cared about being in harmony with his social world could afford to be seen as an “N-word lover.”

Yesterday’s “N-word lover” is today’s “librel.”

It is not just the individual who is controlled by the power wielded by the community. It is also the community that has been shaped through history by the wielders of great power.

A political culture that is — in large measure — built upon the culture created by the slaveholding class has substituted a different set of dogmas for the old ones.

It is not only the cultural descendants of the slaveholding class — might one consider people like Texas oil tycoons as extensions of that class? — but also the Yankee corporate powers (the cultural descendants of the old Robber Barons) have gladly utilized the brokenness in Southern culture to advance their power.

The descendants of those who were socialized to conform on matters of racial domination are now taught that all government regulation of corporations amounts to tyranny, that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by pointy-headed intellectuals they call “scientists,” that money is speech and corporations are people, that if you’re worried about your liberty just prevent any regulation of guns, that any attempt to address inequalities of wealth is unAmerican class war, etc.

Thus do the patterns of brokenness, created by the reign of power, perpetuate patterns of brokenness and extend the reign of power.

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  1. Andy this is great exposition on the roots of conservative dogmatism. Your weaving together of well researched historical perspective and spiritual/psychological sensitivity is excellent and deserves a wider audience. (I remember when growing up in Virginia that I learned in history class that the majority of Southerners didn’t even own slaves. I was dumbfounded then how the majority of a people could rush to war to save an evil system they weren’t even beneficiaries of….)

  2. Andy’s request for help is key here. That vetting MUST be done. Alas, I have no idea how to even start. For example, that was well before income tax so we don’t have archives public records of income, right? Stuff like that is what I mean by my not having much of an idea about how to even start.

    But I hope someone here does.

    If doing that validation is a ton or several of work, which I suspect it well may be, whoever is “in the know” about how to do it could perhaps act as an informal ad-hoc “project leader” and point out distinct pieces of work different people could do individually.

    Just thinking aloud / shooting from the hip / whatever with this comment.

  3. Well, maybe I overstated. The vetting MUST be done if the claim is to remain in the article. Of course the claim could be removed from the article if it can’t be substantiated.

  4. Robin M. Pettit

    Here is an article attributing the rise of the religious right to the rise of white only religious schools, or to pull a quote from the article: “Green v. Kennedy, a 1970 decision stripping tax-exempt status from “segregation academies”—private Christian schools that were set up in response to Brown v. Board of Education—where the practice of barring black students continued.”

    and here is the original article:

    Now I agree all of these things helped to energize the movement of the evangelical base but the real first organizing was even earlier around about the year 1968 or so as I have mentioned before to battle the threat of communism. Notice, all of these issues are bread and butter to the evangelical right and now the Republicans.

  5. Richard H. Randall

    Good comment Craig, to Andy’s superb piece. It would be nice to get this distributed widely, though I’d shorten the beginning a bit. The continuation of this broken spirit, and it’s relationship to the present, so well explicated by Andy, is like a thorough mental housekeeping and re-ordering to help us find where we lost our things, namely real American values!
    Andy: in looking for the Leuchtenburg quote I’d mentioned a couple of weeks ago I came upon this which I think fits well with what you are saying, and it seems very contemporary to me. From “The Perils of Prosperity,” page, 211:
    “Wherever the Klan entered, in it’s wake came floggings, kidnappings, branding with acid, mutilations, church burnings, and even murders. In the South the Klan was an attempt to use terror to preserve a social system that was swiftly changing. Half a million Negroes had had been drafted, and another half-million had migrated north, creating a new independence on the part of Negro Labor….(there was even more terror aimed at Catholics and political enemies at this time , i.e. the 1920’s Leuchtenburg gives many examples of violence against Negroes tying to vote-their homes were burned-Catholic Churches were burned and Catholic priests were murdered in cold blood. Even Protestants who supported Catholics were threatened and one mayor who refused to fire his Catholic assistant, had his house dynamited. In Alabama in 1927, the Klan ran a ticket: it won without exception. A Negro woman was beaten to death in the street: a White divorcee was punched into unconsciousness; one black man”…was beaten until he agreed to sell his property to a White man for less than it was worth.” I have not found the note of how the Klan attacked Labor (White) or white farmers/share croppers when they met with Black organizers to try to take some of the political power, so it must have come from my professor’s notes. However, the WIKI article on the “KU Klux Klan” goes into later Klan attacks on Labor, in the South, especially in Birmingham, when the Congress of Industrial Organizations in the 1940s moved to let Blacks join their union. The cowards of the Klan began dynamiting meetings, and homes of organizers, especially better well off Blacks who began to move into formerly White neighborhoods. One neighborhood became as ‘dynamite hill’ due to the number of blown up
    residences. This was in the 1940s and 50s.

  6. Re “the inequalities during the formative years of the culture were far greater”, “during the formative years” is emphasised via use of italics. So that qualifier must be important. But such formative years are not specified. So I wonder when those “formative years” were. And that’s an important question to be answered if we are to help Andy validate that claim about wealth inequality.

    It seems to me a bit of a puzzle of what those years were, even approximately. The context makes it clear that “Southern” culture, as distinct from “Northern” culture is being talked about. So, for example, would 1700 – 1750 count as formative of a distinctly “Southern” culture different from “Northern”? To me, it seems like the answer is no.

    Then again, to me it seems that, given debates about slavery even at the beginning of the Constitutional era in American history, that distinct cultures already existed, giving rise to the debates. So maybe 1700 – 1750 were in fact formative years of a distinct culture.

    The point is worth raising because Andy certainly can’t “do everyone’s homework for them” but on the other hand the articles need to be tight and self-contained enough so that an ordinary person can read, understand and believe them without onerous gap-filling. So it’s a question of finding the right balance, like just about everything in life.

    Also, I did find a few typos:

    (1) “For the culture and society of the South, were more shaped …” — no comma needed

    (2) “Frehling refers to the Old South’s ‘the Old South’s colliding goerning systems’ …” — only one occurrence of “Old South’s” is needed, also “goerning” should be “governing”.

    (3) no official spelling either way, but “librul” works for me better than “librel” does.

  7. For what it’s worth I have found that there is an an out-of-print volume from the National Bureau of Economic Research titled “Modeling the Distribution and Intergenerational Transmission of Wealth” with a chapter titled “Long Term Trends in American Wealth Inequality”. An online PDF file of that chapter is at:

    I saw a review paper on the chapter which seemed to indicate that its authors consulted original material such as tax records and legal inheritance documents such as wills to get a picture including the colonial period. Maybe something will pop from that. Or maybe not. I haven’t read it yet.

    Apparently at the top level at NBER one can access a search engine on the site’s materials, in case anyone here wants to do that and can think of some good keywords (hint … hint …)

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