The Hard, Cold Politics of Neo-Confederacy

Even as a lot of conservatives advanced dumb revisionist histories whereby no Republican had ever expressed sympathy for the Confederacy and its symbols, RealClearPolitics’ Sean Trende offered a clear-eyed analysis of the politics of the matter in recent decades, and while I don’t agree with all his conclusions, it’s a breath of fresh air.

Long story short: Trende argues that the “flag” controversy became a big deal during a relatively brief period when the older downscale rural white southerners who care about it were up for grabs (at least in non-presidential contests) between the two parties, and is now coming to an end because Democrats have lost them and Republicans can now take them for granted.

Because Democrats no longer see any electoral payoff in talking to guys with Confederate flags in the back of their pickup trucks, they no longer have any incentive to make even weak gestures toward keeping the flag around. Progressives are freed from their need to keep up their awkward dance with rural Southerners for the sake of maintaining some degree of power in the South (a dance that dates back at least to FDR’s reluctance to endorse anti-lynching laws). Polarization has forced them – and freed them – to explore new paths to power.

At the same time, it’s important to realize that most prominent Southern Republican politicians have roots in either the suburban or old establishment Democrat wings of the party. I doubt if Nikki Haley or Bobby Jindal grew up with much affection for the Confederate flag. The same goes for Mitch McConnell – who entered politics in Jefferson County (Louisville), an old Union town whose Republicanism was strong enough that it almost voted for Herbert Hoover in 1932.

The examples Trende offers of this dynamic include one with which I am very familiar: Zell Miller coming out for a “flag” change in 1993 and then losing badly among white rural voters in 1994. Cause and effect are not easy to untangle here, however. Miller was already going to lose a lot of support in rural North Georgia in 1994 because in 1990 he benefited enormously from a “native son” effect–North Georgia had rarely produced governors in a state long dominated politically by South Georgia “black belt” pols–that would not appear a second time. He also had an alternative strategy for a majority, based on his education initiatives, and in fact, he won in 1994 because some of his rural losses were offset by suburban gains. All of this is consistent with Trende’s theory that “polarization” eventually took the “flag” off the table, but real politicians had real risks and decisions to make.

As for Trende’s idea that neither party has had any interest in defending the Confederate heritage once Battle-flag-loving rural whites died off or became part of the GOP “base,” I think he misses the broader resonance of neo-Confederate ideology, which isn’t just about battle flags and whistling Dixie. As I argued at TPMCafe earlier this week, all sorts of notions associated with the Confederacy, from absolute state sovereignty and absolute private property rights to a hostile/paternalistic attitude towards African-Americans, remain active elements of hard-core conservative ideology. That they may now fly under the different, red-white-and-blue flag of “constitutional conservatism”–complete with the tricorner hat of the Tea Party–doesn’t change that.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.