When the subject of the white South’s unattractive record in the field of race relations arises, one of the facts you’re certain to encounter is that it was the Democratic Party’s fault. The Democrats were the party of slavery, and then of segregation, while the Republican Party was founded in opposition to slavery, and provided much of the support for civil-rights legislation in the 20th century. As Rush Limbaugh has put it, “Bull Connor and these guys are all Democrats.” This is true.
What’s not true is the implication that the parties still hew to their original roles. When northern liberals began to take control of the Democratic Party’s civil-rights agenda in the middle of the 20th century, white southern conservatives began to rebel, eventually realigning with the Republican Party. This is the point conservatives either fail to acknowledge, or else vigorously deny. (For instance, National Review’s Kevin Williamson has assailed what he calls “the popular but indefensible belief that the two major U.S. political parties somehow ‘switched places’ vis-à-vis protecting the rights of black Americans” as an “utter fabrication with malice aforethought.”
So we have a disagreement over which party ought to bear the legacy of slavery and segregation. Republicans insist it ought to be Democrats, out of partisan continuity, and Democrats insist it ought to be Republicans, out of ideological and demographic continuity.
Given their investment in this argument, you would think Republicans would be eager to divest themselves from the symbols of slavery and segregation. But far from it. Democrats are the most eager to remove the confederate flag, a symbol of slavery and treason that was revived in the 20th century as a symbol of resistance to civil-rights legislation. And while many Republicans oppose the flag, numerous conservatives continue to defend it, or to call the opponents of those symbols annoying, haughty busybodies.
Limbaugh, forgetting that the confederate flag is the symbol of Democrats like Bull Connor, decries the campaign to it as a vicious conspiracy to discredit the Republican Party:
This effort to have the battle flag of northern Virginia removed is really an attempt to segregate and isolate the entire South and to sort of Alinsky it. You know, the Rules for Radicals, you seek the target, you isolate it, you attack it, humiliate it. This flag represents what the left believes is the last remaining Republican electoral stronghold in terms of presidential politics, and that would be the South.
It is almost as if the modern Republican Party is the heir to the political traditions of the conservative white South.