National Review’s Deroy Murdock published a piece on Friday about Democrats “creating and owning” the Confederate flag, and frankly, I’m surprised it took the conservative magazine so long. I largely expected a piece along these lines much earlier in the week.
“My hope is that by removing a symbol that divides us, we can move forward as a state in harmony,” Governor Nikki Haley (R., S.C.) said Monday, in the aftermath of the terrorist massacre perpetrated by über-racist Dylann Storm Roof.Haley, a rising Republican star, is correct to lower the Confederate flag. It has reflected Democratic racial oppression since it was stitched together in 1861, and has been hoisted by Democrats ever since. Just as Republicans – led by President Abraham Lincoln – valiantly crushed the Democrat-run Confederacy, Republicans proudly should banish the Stars and Bars to private property and history museums. They also should remind Americans that Democrats waved this frightful banner until very recently.
It’s an oddly defensive piece given that no one seems to be accusing Republicans of having created the Confederate battle flag. Rather, National Review – which has its own deeply unfortunate history on matters related to race and civil rights – seems eager to remind the public that, several generations ago, the Deep South was dominated politically by conservative white Democrats before it was dominated politically by conservative white Republicans.
Which is true, though forcing these battles into a contemporary partisan frame is more complicated than the right likes to admit.
This tends to come up about once a year, usually when Republicans are in a sensitive position related to race, so I suppose it’s time to revisit our once-a-year discussion about the parties, the region, and the transformation that unfolded in the middle of the 20th century. This time, however, let’s add a twist to the conversation.
The Democratic Party, in the first half of the 20th century, was home to two broad, competing constituencies – southern whites with abhorrent views on race, and white progressives and African Americans in the north, who sought to advance the cause of civil rights. The party struggled with this conflict for years, before ultimately siding with an inclusive, liberal agenda.
As the party shifted, the Democratic mainstream embraced its new role. Republicans, meanwhile, also changed. After “Dixiecrats” began their exodus in 1948, and in the wake of LBJ signing the Civil Rights Act in 1964, the Republican Party welcomed segregationists who no longer felt comfortable in the Democratic Party. Indeed, in 1964, Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater boasted of his opposition to the Civil Rights Act, and made it part of his platform.
It was right around this time when figures like Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond made the transition – leaving the progressive, diverse, tolerant Democratic Party for the GOP. It was also around this time that states like South Carolina began extending state support to the Confederate battle flag as a means of intimidation and opposition to the civil rights movement.
In the years that followed, Democrats embraced their role as the party of inclusion and civil rights. Republicans, meanwhile, became the party of the “Southern Strategy,” opposition to affirmative action, campaigns based on race-baiting, vote-caging, discriminatory voter-ID laws, and politicians like Helms, Thurmond, and others.
For National Review and other conservatives, the underlying point has some merit: Southern Democrats were, for generations after the Civil War, on the wrong side. Practically all of the major segregationists of that era were known as Dixiecrats for a reason.
The problem, however, is with the relevance of the observation. Which matters more in contemporary politics: that segregationists were Southern Democrats or that segregationists made a new home in the Republican Party in the latter half of the 20th century?
Democrats have no reason to ignore this or sweep history under the rug: they eventually got it right, and dispatched the segregationists to the GOP, which welcomed them in the party fold and slowly turned the Deep South into the Republican Party’s strongest region.
In 1960, Democrats controlled literally 100% of the governors’ mansions, senators’ seats, and state legislative bodies in the South. In 2015, Democrats control literally 0% of the governors’ mansions, senators’ seats, and state legislative bodies in the South. (On this point, the analysis didn’t include Virginia or Florida.)
Now, if history ended in 1960, National Review would have a credible argument to make. But it’s the 55 years that followed that include the salient chapters in the regional history book.
National Review would have people believe it’s the Democratic Party – the current one – that somehow “owns” the Confederate flag because white supremacists who left the Democratic Party once championed the symbol. By any fair measure, it’s a hard argument to take seriously.
But here’s the twist: if it would make conservatives feel better, perhaps everyone should just play along. Sure, in reality, it’s the left and their Democratic allies pushing the hardest for the immediate move away from Confederate symbols, but if it would set the right’s minds at ease, we can all just pretend, as National Review does, that this ugly mess is Democrats’ fault, and the nation can stick it to those rascally Dems by taking down the Confederate battle flag.
That’ll show the party that’s celebrated civil rights – which is to say, that’ll show the party that used to be home to Dixiecrats.
So, is it a deal?
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Partisan games with the Confederate flag aren't worth playing