Everyone's whistling Dixie these days

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"Hold on to your Confederate money, boys - the South will rise again!" But the wry old southern joke is not altogether a joke any longer. More than 150 years after Robert E Lee's surrender at Appomattox court house, with a man from Arkansas starting his second term in the White House, it looks as if the South won the Civil War after all.

A third of a century ago, when the civil rights movement was transforming the society of the southern states, everyone assumed that the South was a backward, vestigial region. As a young reporter, I interviewed Martin Luther King and other leaders of the peaceful revolution. In places such as Oxford, Mississippi, and Selma, Alabama, I witnessed the ferocious violence with which an angry minority of southern whites resisted change. I watched as George Wallace and other southern leaders shouted, "The South says never!"

At the time, everybody - northern whites, southern blacks and even most southern whites, as well as foreign journalists like me - took it for granted that the South would have to become more like the rest of the country. In some ways, of course, it did. Legal segregation died. Within years, prosperous blacks were sitting down to lunch and diving into swimming pools with whites. Strict taboos disappeared, unlamented, overnight.

The South got richer. In 1940, President Roosevelt set up a national commission to investigate what he called "the nation's number one economic problem" - the South. Economically, the Deep South was then an under-developed country inside the body of the most developed country on earth. Standards of housing, transport, health and, above all, education were the lowest in the country for whites, never mind blacks.

By the late 1960s, the South was becoming the Sunbelt. Gleaming towers rose in the business districts of southern cities. The spreading suburbs of these and other southern cities, with their handsome houses at low prices, their sunshine and their golf courses, offered a standard of living for executives that was the envy of counterparts in New York or Chicago.

In the 1940s, the 11 states of the Confederacy had about a quarter of the people of the US. Now they account for a rough third of the national population, and more if you count the southern migrants who thronged to California.

In other ways, however, something quite unexpected has happened. The rest of the US has become more like the South.

The southernisation of American culture is pervasive. Nashville, not New York's Tin Pan Alley, is now the capital of the music business. Country music, once the whining music of the southern white working class, is everybody's music now.

Professional sports, especially golf, baseball, football and basketball, which through television have a huge influence on popular culture, are largely dominated by southerners, including southern-born blacks such as Michael Jordan, the ultimate basketball superstar.

Southern religion is triumphant. The once-mainstream Protestant denominations - Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists - are all losing membership. Southern evangelicals, including the once-despised Pentecostals, are on the rise, and the Southern Baptist Convention, originally the whites-only church of the defeated South, is growing fast in numbers and power. The religious right is southern in origins and largely run by southerners such as Pat Robertson and Ralph Reed.

Politically, the domination of the South is both visible and profound. The President comes from Arkansas, the Vice-president from Tennessee. The Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, comes from Georgia, and most of his most prominent lieutenants are southerners, too. When the job of majority leader of the Senate fell vacant a few months ago, the two candidates for the powerful job were the two senators from Mississippi - Trent Lott (who won) and Thad Cochran.

Twenty-five years ago, Mississippi accents sounded like a broken banjo string in political Washington. Now the President of the United States likes to sneak out of the White House to eat catfish and collard greens in what would once have been a contradiction in terms - a smart southern restaurant, called Sweet Georgia Brown.

The grip of the South over national politics goes back, paradoxically, to the civil rights revolution. Before the 1960s, the South was a one- party region. The great majority of white southerners could never forgive the party of Abraham Lincoln for winning the war, freeing the slaves and billeting the Union army in their home towns. So they were "yellow dog" Democrats - they'd vote for a yellow dog, so long as he was a Democrat.

Now, from the 1960s on, all that has changed. It was the northern Democrats and "the Kennedys" who had violated the southern way of life. (People forgot that President Johnson, who did most for black rights, was a southerner himself). Black southerners began to vote, and they voted Democrat. The middle classes from the azalea-clad suburbs began to vote Republican. Now, 30 years on, the reversal is almost complete. Most white southern males vote Republican and call themselves conservatives.

The switch has had a dramatic effect on national politics. Until the 1960s, Congress was controlled in theory by a Democratic majority but in reality by a conservative alliance between Republicans and southern Democrats. Now conservative southerners dominate the Republican majority, while to dispel the dangerous impression that they are the party of blacks, minorities and women, the national Democrats have had to move to the Right, picking southern leaders such as Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and (probably next) Al Gore to lead them.

The consequences of the southern hegemony are immense, both for America and for the world. The New York Times's correspondent in Atlanta, Peter Applebome, points out in a new book, Dixie Rising, that the prevailing bitter hostility to Washington and to the federal government - hard for foreigners to comprehend - has come about at a time when politics are dominated by southerners. But this attitude is hardly surprising when you recall that most southerners were taught at their mother's knee to mistrust the federal government and that Washington was the capital of the enemy.

Above all, race, once the subterranean subtext of all politics in the South, now lurks in the background of all American politics, In the North today, as in the South before the civil rights upheaval, politicians have learned to speak in an elaborate code of racial allusion. When they denounce "welfare queens" driving around in Cadillacs, everyone knows they mean black women. When people talk about crime, they mean largely black crime. And the South has persuaded much of the rest of the country to adopt its harsh code of capital punishment (largely for blacks) and long prison terms.

The implications for the rest of the world are not easy to predict. The South, as a region that exported oil and cotton, coal and rice and tobacco, was traditionally internationalist. But it was also "nativist" and deeply suspicious of foreigners. The rise of the South will not make the American government more patient with the complicated goings-on of international politics - still less with the un-American, and un-white majority of the United Nations.

A funny thing is happening, though. More than four million blacks left the bad old South to go north. Now, starting with the most highly qualified, some of them are going home. And I think I can understand why.

Southern culture may be provincial, but - properly packaged - it has its universal appeal, as Coca Cola and country music, southern fried chicken and cowboy fashions have all proved. As writers and story-tellers, preachers and politicians, southerners have a way with words.

Above all, they have the advantage over their fellow Americans that they have experienced both defeat and guilt. They know what it is to fight bravely and still lose. And they know what it is to be wrong. Now the New South is trying to show it has learned the lesson that the way to win in the long run is not to say "Never!" but to change.