Malcolm Gladwell has a fascinating piece in the New Yorker about the limits of southern liberalism, focusing on fictional lawyer Atticus Finch and real life governor Big Jim Folsom:
Folsom was not a civil-rights activist. Activists were interested in using the full, impersonal force of the law to compel equality. In fact, the Supreme Court’s landmark desegregation ruling in Brown v. Board of Education ended Folsom’s career, because the racial backlash that it created drove moderates off the political stage. The historian Michael Klarman writes, “Virtually no southern politician could survive in this political environment without toeing the massive resistance line, and in most states politicians competed to occupy the most extreme position on the racial spectrum.” Folsom lost his job to the segregationist John Patterson, who then gave way to the radical George Wallace. In Birmingham, which was quietly liberalizing through the early nineteen-fifties, Bull Connor (who notoriously set police dogs on civil-rights marchers in the nineteen-sixties) had been in political exile. It was the Brown decision that brought him back. Old-style Southern liberalism—gradual and paternalistic—crumbled in the face of liberalism in the form of an urgent demand for formal equality. Activism proved incompatible with Folsomism.[….]
Finch will stand up to racists. He’ll use his moral authority to shame them into silence. He will leave the judge standing on the sidewalk while he shakes hands with Negroes. What he will not do is look at the problem of racism outside the immediate context of Mr. Cunningham, Mr. Levy, and the island community of Maycomb, Alabama.
More generally, the idea here is that changing hearts and minds on the subject of race was an abject failure, that the problem has always been structural rather than personal and moral. I don’t know anything about this from the perspective of the south; I recommend reading Phil Nugent to see that.
But much the same is true of the nation’s political and media culture. There’s some notion that superficial changes like getting Glenn Beck and Lou Dobbs off the air (something I do support) would have some actual impact on things. The real problems are at a much deeper, structural level, having nothing to do with individual personalities.
As long as Jeff Immelt and Rupert Murdoch have control of what does and doesn’t go on television, we’re going to see a lot of pro-corporate propaganda masquerading as journalism, no matter whether Chris Matthews or David Gregory has some kind of “change of heart” about this or that issue.
Update. If my point seems unclear here, let me put it more simply: just as pre-Civil Rights racism in the south wasn’t about a few racist nuts in this or that small town, our current political/media environment isn’t about a few birfers on CNN. I’m all for getting the birfers on CNN off the air, but they’re a symptom, not cause.