Last week, I addressed a question raised by a reader: why do most Southerners not believe in science? I asked my TTU colleague Laura Smith, an expert in the history of medicine, what she thought. She basically said that, historically, Southerners have been no more or less likely than anyone else to believe in science, but that there is an enduring stereotype that they do not – in large part because of the Scopes “Monkey Trial” in Dayton, Tennessee, a century ago. I agree with that assessment. I would also argue that the religious fundamentalism that led to Tennessee’s state law against teaching evolution at that time and the furor that arose when someone did, was not specifically Southern. There was a fundamentalist wave sweeping the whole country, in the 1920s, largely as a reaction against the rapid post-WWI social changes of the “Jazz Age,” as evidenced by the extraordinary popularity of evangelists like Billy Sunday. And remember, the prominent retired politician who volunteered to serve as prosecutor in the Scopes case, William Jennings Bryan, was not a Southerner. He was from the Midwest. Nevertheless, journalists from other regions (most significantly, H. L. Mencken ,of New York) used the Scopes Trial to portray Southerners as backward, superstitious idiots and to reinforce the “hillbilly” stereotype.
However, it is true that there has been a slow, yet dramatic, shift among conservatives in recent decades to disbelieve not only science but facts in general. This is a relatively new phenomenon in its present form. Since a large majority of Southerners are conservative, this can initially make it seem like a Southern thing, but it is just as true in every region of the country nowadays. And it was not always the case. Throughout most of the 20th century, liberals and conservatives, while they might disagree strenuously on policy matters, at least agreed on what the empirical facts were. The big question is, when and how did that change?
I think a few factors got the ball rolling, one as early as the 1960s, but I’m going to save that one and focus first on a couple from the 1990s. The first of those was the proliferation of hyper-partisan news and opinion outlets on talk radio and cable television, due to the fact Reagan ended the FCC Fairness Doctrine, in 1987. This meant that, for the first time in most people’s lifetime, you could tune in to political news that was tailored solely to your belief system, without hearing an opposing view. Conservatives like Rush Limbaugh benefited from this a lot more than any liberal pundits did. By the end of the 90s, most people were on the internet where there was even more opportunity to be isolated in your own chosen bubble of perceived reality. Bill Clinton’s sex scandal in the late 90s drove more people than ever to cable news channels, and Fox in particular flourished. Clinton did not help, by the way, with his metaphysical attempts to writhe out of his scandal by saying, under oath, “It depends on what the word ‘is’ means.” However, no one then supported that excuse.
The 1960s factor I mentioned earlier was the Nixon strategy, crafted by aides like Lee Atwater and Pat Buchanan, which historians call the “Southern Strategy.” This was the effort to reach out to racists angry about civil rights progress – without seeming to be reaching out to them, but rather by “dogwhistles”… phrases that the intended audience clearly understands, but which offer “plausible deniability” and say that the reality of their meaning isn’t “real” at all. We’ll come back to that soon.
Cable news, the internet, Nixon, Clinton. It really sounds, so far, like either side was as inclined to move away from objective facts as the other. So why do I argue that it was ultimately conservatives who did so? What was the tipping factor? Turns out, it was science.
-Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history professor at Tennessee Tech. His words do not necessarily represent TTU.