Power Shift: The Rise of the Southern Rim and Its Challenge to the Eastern Establishment.
by Kirkpatrick Sale.
Random House. 362 pp. $12.95.

The notion that the various geographic regions of the United States are inhabited by people who share some distinctive interests and perspectives is familiar enough; indeed, antagonism to the cultural distinctiveness and political influence of the Northeast is a basic premise of the authentic Populist tradition (of which George Wallace, not Fred Harris, is the leading contemporary exponent). And although most close observers believe the effects of sectionalism on American politics have declined in recent decades, the changing character of the South has revived interest in the geography of partisanship. In his The Emerging Republican Majority, Kevin Phillips predicted that “the upcoming cycle of American politics is likely to match a dominant Republican party based in the heartland, South, and California against a minority Democratic party based in the Northeast and the Pacific Northwest (and encompassing Southern as well as Northern Negroes).” William Rusher has noted that the “conservative coalition,” which forms the centerpiece of his latest book, The Making of a New Majority Party, is potentially dominant outside the “Northeast and a few corridors”; and the New York Times has recently manifested a suggestive preoccupation with the consequences of the migration of people and industry out of the North into the “Sunbelt.” But none of these could really be said to duplicate or even to foreshadow Kirkpatrick Sale’s political melodrama.

In Power Shift, geography and demography give way to mysticism. Two geo-cultural “forces” are locked in a struggle for control of America’s destiny: the bad guys in white Stetsons (the “Cowboys”) and the good guys in Ivy League suits (the “Yankees”). The one force, deriving from the “Southern Rim,” is based (Sale tells us) on agribusiness, defense, advanced technology, oil and gas, real estate, tourism, and leisure. Its culture is dominated by the growth ethic and its politics by the “three R’s”: rightism, racism, and repression. Its recent contributions to the nation’s political life include Lyndon Johnson, the Vietnam war, Richard Nixon and Watergate, George Wallace, the Christian Crusaders, Barry Goldwater, and assorted other ills. “Rimsters,” as Sale calls persons who live in North and South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and the southern portion of Nevada and California, acquire from their frontier roots a love of the land, an enthusiasm for growth, a propensity for force, and the “hidebound and conservative” attitudes of the Southern Baptists—“good and evil simplism, intolerance, anti-modernism, insularity, emotionalism, and xenophobia.” Thus tainted, Rimsters veer naturally to the Right: to “virulent super-patriotism” (Sale knows no other kind), to “hysterical” anti-Communism (again, the only kind he knows), to rigid cold-war postures. The full extent of “Riminian rightism” is displayed in the U.S. Congress:

Who led the fight against a consumer-protection agency? Senators Sam Ervin of North Carolina and James Allen of Alabama. Who fought down efforts to establish stronger pesticide controls? Representative Jamie Whit-ten of Mississippi. Who stopped reform action against strip miners? Representative Craig Hosmer of California. Who spoke against federal money for abortion clines? Representative Dewey Bartlett of Oklahoma. Who protected the billboard lobby from unwanted regulations? Representative Jim Wright of Texas. Who worked to squelch any congressional control over the CIA? Representative Edward Hebert of Louisiana. Who organized the opposition to the land-use bill? Sam Steiger of Arizona. Who led the battle against the bill to limit presidential war-making power? Senators John Tower of Texas and Paul Fannin of Arizona.

Obviously, a nation in the grip of such unrelieved malevolence is in a bad way. But just in the nick of time, as Richard Nixon was on the verge of consolidating dictatorial power and establishing a fully fascist state, there began to take shape an opposition comprising “segments of the Yankee structure . . . the prestige professoriate, the big-city newspapers, the liberal politicians, the non-construction unions, the Jewish intelligentsia, the big Democratic money, even some among the stockbrokers and investment bankers.” The tradition of these enlightened forces emphasizes “intellectualism,” “wracking guilt,” and “uneasy welfarism,” and although their conscious concern over Watergate centered on lawlessness in high places, their real motivating force was to stop the Cowboy takeover.

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The number, scope, and variety of mistakes, misstatements, and distortions in Sale’s scenario greatly complicate the task of criticism. Least significant, except as symptoms of a more pervasive attitude toward truth, are the simple errors of fact: Lyndon Johnson was not a Baptist, Alger Hiss is not of “aristocratic birth,” McGovern did not lose because he “failed to cling to his natural constituency . . . but tried to blur his positions to attract more conservative Democrats,” Yale political scientist Fred Barghorn was not in Russia as a spy for the CIA, and as the Church Committee recently if reluctantly reminded us, John Kennedy was not launched on a program of détente at the time of his death, was not soft on Castro, and was not above using organized crime to achieve selected ends.

A more basic problem with Power Shift is that recent American history does not fit the simple frameworks into which Sale attempts to organize it. Richard Russell, John Stennis, George Wallace, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Jerry Brown simply do not exemplify a common culture or a common approach to public problems. Water-gate was not the work of the Rim any more than its exposure was the work exclusively of Yankee professors and journalists. As Sale himself points out, Gordon Liddy, Charles Colson, Howard Hunt, James McCord, John Dean, and John Mitchell were not Rimsters; but Leon Jaworski, Sam Ervin, and Howard Baker were. The desire to fit the facts into an inadequate theory leads Sale to twist or ignore inconvenient evidence.

But the most serious failing of Power Shift is moral rather than intellectual. Sale’s use of innuendo and his doctrine of functional guilt are reminiscent of the Moscow Trials. Thus he insinuates: “No doubt the truth about the assassination of Jack Kennedy will be a long time coming, if ever, but there is an old legal principle that can stand us in temporary stead in the meantime: cui bono—to whose advantage?—the idea that probable responsibility for an act lies with those with something to gain.” There follows further slander of Lyndon Johnson and the region of his origin. Concerning the attempt on Wallace’s life, Sale again offers slanderous innuendo:

No, there is no evidence to link this particular deed with the Nixon coterie, who proved that they were capable of practically anything short of that, but it is interesting that Richard Nixon himself was sufficiently alarmed by the possibility of such links that he immediately ordered his close aides to check on the political background of the assassin and apparently told the FBI to go slow in its investigation until such a check was made. One can even speculate, reasonably, if without foundation, that it was fear that the Democrats had tumbled onto such a link which made urgent the [Watergate] break-in. . . .

There is nothing random in Sale’s innuendo, distortion, and omission. It all has the effect of further blackening those aspects of the American tradition which Sale has marked for repudiation. Often the tainted portion seems coterminous with the whole American past. It is not only the congressmen from the Southern Rim who offend Sale’s political morality, but the entire institution of the Congress which seems to him both corrupt and corrupting. It is not only Richard Nixon’s men and Watergate which Sale rejects, but the whole sick society: Watergate reflects “not a single disease . . . not a single man” but the “ethical rot” of decades of “hysterical” anti-Communism, of seeking after empire, of mindless growth, corrupt politics, and “an ever engorging economy” which squanders the “world’s” resources and has created a “material culture manufacturing the unneeded to be sold by the unprincipled to the unwary.”

In short, we are back here to the racist, fascist, imperialist Amerika of the late 60’s. Power Shift is an unremitting assault on the dominant American political culture, on the legitimacy of its institutions, its values, and its right to persist. Kirkpatrick Sale’s perspective on American society is that of the SDS, the subject of a previous book by him, in which he observed that although not a member of that organization he had come to share “the same animus . . ., the same sense of dislocation from the nation, ultimately the same radicalization.” His present view of America, however, has been relocated within the American tradition itself, with George McGovern, Elliot Richardson, Archibald Cox, Bernadine Dohrn, Carl Ogelsby, Kirkpatrick Sale, and all the other Yankee blue-bloods on one side, and corrupt Amerika on the other.

There is nothing new in the idea that contemporary political conflict reflects fundamentally different cultural orientations and fundamentally different evaluations of the American experience. What is original in Sale’s account are first, the labels Cowboy and Yankee; second, the implication that the (good) counterculture is somehow rooted in the Yankee tradition; and third, the concomitant effort to strip that tradition of most of its historical content, as though puritanism, the work ethic, economic growth, social mobility, patriotism, and anti-Communism were all conceived in and limited to the Southern Rim.

Power Shift is a contribution to the ongoing revisionist effort of recent years to transform the political culture of the country by systematically devaluing its institutions and historical beliefs. Sale is engaged less in scholarship than in myth-making, and the reception accorded Power Shift not only testifies to the parochialism and low scholarly standards of the “informed” public, but reflects the extent to which that public has already lost confidence in the legitimacy of the American experience. The fact that this loss of confidence, recently commented upon by Henry Fairlie in these pages,1 springs less from historical failings than from a comparison with mythical perfections and utopian standards, does not render it less contagious or less deadly. In according Power Shift its coveted front page, the New York Times Book Review fuels the impression that the Times is, as Sale claims, on his side of the great cultural divide; and confirms the concern of those on the other side that the media are less a channel for communicating events than an agency for cultural revolution.

1 “Anti-Americanism at Home and Abroad,” December 1975.

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