How Polarization Weakened Confederate Flag Support

How Polarization Weakened Confederate Flag Support
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If you had sat down with me last Friday and offered a million opportunities to guess what the political reaction to Dylann Roof’s act of racial terrorism would be, I would never have come up with “the collapse of state- and corporate-sponsored Confederate nostalgia.” We have, after all, had numerous acts of racial violence and gun violence in the past few years, which have spawned discussions of a broad swath of issues: Stand-your-ground laws, the justifications for rioting, the scope and effects of privilege and inequality, gun control, sentencing reform, police brutality . . . but not the Confederate flag.

Perhaps more importantly, I’ve witnessed various attempts to remove the flag from statehouses during my lifetime. Few have ended well.  While there are successes, the shortened political careers of David Beasley and Roy Barnes, along with the near-end of Zell Miller’s in 1994, had led me to believe that the flag was not going anywhere anytime soon.

So why now?  Part of it is generational replacement.  It may seem hard to believe, but the last Civil War general did not die until the 1930s. Carter Glass was 7 when the Civil War ended; he was a United States senator into the Truman administration. The last witness to Abraham Lincoln’s assassination died in the mid-1950s.  The point is, even for people born in the 1920s and 1930s, the Civil War was not simply an abstraction. It was something their parents and grandparents told them about, and many of these folks were still voting in the 1990s and 2000s. But people who have even secondhand contact with the Civil War are now increasingly rare, which really has relegated the Confederacy to history (even if its sympathizers do persist). The youngest people who fought for Jim Crow as adults are in now in their mid-70s, if they are still around at all.

Oddly enough, however, the most important factor in removing the flag is probably our increased political polarization.  To understand this, you have to understand the nature of political coalitions in the South. Simply put, the people who cared most about the Confederate flag – lower-income rural whites (this is too broad, but accurate enough for our purposes here) – were not really a reliable part of the Republican coalition until recently.

The various Republican parties in the South have their genesis, generally speaking, in some combination of three groups: “Mountain Republicans,” mostly in Tennessee, North Carolina, and Virginia, whose loyalty stretched back to the Civil War; middle-class suburbanites, many of whom had moved from the North; and former Democrats from the conservative, establishment factions, but only in states that had a Democratic Party that suffered ideological divides (a lack of such divide is part of why Arkansas was so slow to realign).

Lower income, populist whites were swing voters. They often voted Republican at the presidential level, but when they formed coalitions with minority voters and urban liberals at the state level, Democrats won. These voters’ continued support for Democrats in state legislatures kept most Southern state legislatures in Democrats’ hands into the 2000s. 

You can see the power of these voters by comparing a few maps: Georgia Gov. Zell Miller’s (D) 1990 win to his much narrower 1994 win; Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes’ (D) 1998 win to his 2002 loss; or South Carolina Gov. David Beasley’s (R) 1994 win to his 1998 loss. All of these governors made attempts to reduce the prominence of the Confederate flag in their states, and while all of these governors had other problems, there is little doubt their efforts on the flag played a role in changing voting patterns in the rural portions of their respective states.

In other words, until fairly recently, poor rural whites were the key to winning in the South. So the parties competed over them, and very little happened with the flag. But in the past few years – and generational replacement is playing a part here as well – the South has become increasingly polarized, along with the rest of the country. Rural whites have begun voting Republican from the top of the ticket to the bottom, and Democrats have either written off the region or looked to form coalitions of minorities, urban liberals and suburbanites rather than of minorities, urban liberals and poor whites.

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. 

This isn’t true across the board – Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, who initially defended the flag, grew up in a rural small town in his state – but for the most part, I don’t think most Republicans in leadership positions ever had much use for the Confederate flag beyond political calculations.  With rural whites now largely polarized into the Republican column, Southern Republicans no longer have to go hard after their votes.  If anything, they need to watch their flanks in the suburbs and in the business wing of the party, and so it is now more natural for them to move against the flag.

Polarization has, generally speaking, made lawmaking more difficult on the national level. But this, at least, is one instance where it has probably greased the skids.

Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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