Governor Terry McAuliffe announced Tuesday his plan to phase out the Confederate battle flag from Virginia’s license plates.
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McAuliffe, a longtime Democratic power broker, joins Republican Governor Nikki Haley of South Carolina, who announced Monday she would push to remove the flag from government buildings in the Palmetto State.
The two states are part of a growing movement to end official displays of the stars and bars throughout the South – including a call by the Republican speaker of the Mississippi House to get rid of the flag – following last week’s massacre at a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, apparently perpetrated by a 21-year-old white racist who identified himself as the “Last Rhodesian.”
The removal of the battle flag (which, pedants never tire of pointing out, is not the national flag of the Confederate States of America) is being widely described as a vital turning point in American history, the beginning of a serious national conversation, which is almost certain to be followed by meaningful comprehensive reform and an end to business as usual.
It’s also widely expected to be a net negative for Republican politicians, who are by turns guilty of not taking racism seriously, of trying to change the subject after the Charleston killings, of being linked with people who are linked with alleged shooter Dylann Roof, of being insufficiently zealous in their outrage, of mischaracterizing the killer’s motives, of refusing to admit the crime was terrorism as well as falsely trying to claim it was terrorism, and so on.
Republicans are taking “a pass on the Confederate flag” and “stammer[ing] and stumbl[ing]” over the issue. Republican “cowardice” is “staggering,” and the party’s complicity in the perpetuation of southern racism extends to such unlikely accomplices as Republican South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, the first black senator elected in Dixie since the end of Reconstruction, and Scott Walker, who governs a state closer to Canada than to Tara.
Far be it from me to accuse anybody of using a tragedy to score some cheap political points. When the black president of our hopelessly racist nation waits almost 24 hours to push for European-style gun control and takes the opportunity to become the first chief executive in recent memory to use the n-word in public, who are we to doubt his sincerity? When Democrats redirect the national conversation to a flag, they are undoubtedly speaking from deeply held beliefs – in stark contrast to Republicans who are also calling for the flag to be removed, but too late, dishonestly, and with a vain quality that suggests the affectations of a hammy actor.
Do not be fooled by the notable absence of any widespread popular demand that state houses retain a flag that is best known to most American adults as the logo on Bo and Luke Duke’s “General Lee” Dodge Charger. Pay no attention to universal public horror over the crime – the kind of thing we are being told (falsely) does not happen in other countries. Avoid the shooter’s own manifesto, which repeatedly laments how few people he can find who agree with his views. Don’t be misled by pettifogging conservatives. It should be obvious to anybody with eyes to close that Dylann Roof was egged on by racist Republican politicians, whose stranglehold on our irredeemably bigoted country make such violence inevitable.
There is one complication in the journey toward consciousness of Republican white supremacy. The actual Confederacy, as even casual students of history know, was entirely under the control of the Democratic Party. The dominance of Democrats goes beyond familiar tropes about “Dixiecrats” and Abraham Lincoln’s status as the first Republican president. The Confederate Congress did not observe party affiliations, and minor parties were relatively robust in the Civil War period, while the actual politics of the Confederacy have received little attention from historians. Nevertheless, to the extent the party affiliations of Confederate politicians can be ascertained, they are remarkable.
All 27 senators in the second Confederate Senate, and at least 62 of the 106 members of the Second Confederate Congress, were Democrats. So were Confederate president Jefferson Davis and vice president Alexander Stephens. This, by the way, was after the elections of 1863 and 1864, when southern voters reacted to disastrous battlefield results by slightly weakening the Democratic Party’s stranglehold. Nor does the Democrats’ practical, rather than symbolic, support of the Confederacy end at the border. After his lousy generalship nearly lost the war for the Union, George McClellan went on challenge Lincoln in the 1864 presidential election, promising to “defeat NEGRO EQUALITY” and bring about an “Honorable, Permanent and happy PEACE!” And he ran as a Democrat. (McClellan’s successors having finally started to win the war, he lost the election.)
Students of history would say that this is ancient history. Since those days, the Democrats have reinvented themselves as the party of racial progress, while Republicans have become a party dedicated exclusively to the suppression of women and minorities and the denial of global warming. The flag of Dixie, by contrast, has never been purged of its association with slavery and racism.
But you could just as easily make the opposite argument. Polities where the Democrats enjoy one-party rule today include basket cases like Detroit, where African Americans endure some of the worst living conditions in the country, and creative-class playgrounds like San Francisco, whose black population was purged in the period of urban renewal. The stars and bars, by contrast, have been drained of any real political meaning through countless iterations in movies, Avalon Hill board games, and Molly Hatchet T-shirts. You might even say practical damage to a group of people is more important than symbolic disrespect.
It’s important to avoid such ideas. At the end of that train of thought we might conclude that criminals are responsible for their own behavior, that there is no free speech in a license plate, that there is virtually no tolerance for public racism in the United States and very little evidence of much tolerance for it in private, and that there is not a lot of difference between a Republican and a Democrat.