New public-opinion findings from the Public Religion Research Institute and E Pluribus Unum confirm a counterintuitive phenomenon that is becoming hard to ignore or deny: Affection for the insignia and monuments associated with the Confederate States of America is not at all confined to the southern states that once formed a seditious compact to defend slavery. As white (and especially rural) conservatives nationwide have begun to share stereotypically southern feelings of racial grievance, support for maintaining memorials to the Lost Cause of white supremacist laws and institutions has spread as well. The Atlantic’s David A. Graham succinctly summarized the takeaways:
Where things get interesting is when the survey measures support for reforms, whether destruction of these markers or removal to a museum: Across race, party, and education levels, numbers diverge, but views about reform are nearly identical in the South and in the rest of the country. Nearly identical portions of southerners and Americans elsewhere (22 percent versus 25 percent) back reform, and nearly identical portions oppose it (17 percent versus 20 percent). The remainder are split between leaning one way or another, again closely mirrored. In other words, non-southerners feel the same way about Confederate monuments that southerners do.
Graham hits the nail on the head: “The South is no longer simply a region: A certain version of it has become an identity shared among white, rural, conservative Americans from coast to coast.”
This can be confusing unless you understand that “neo-Confederacy” — the aggressive defense of the monuments and “heritage” of the Confederate States of America — is not really about Civil War history at all. Most of the monuments were built long after the war when Jim Crow laws were being aggressively imposed and defended. The heyday of the famous Confederate battle flag was in Jim Crow’s final days in the mid-20th century, when southern states were attaching it to state flags and white supremacists (very much a mass movement at the time) flourished it at every opportunity.
I know this because the high point of the neo-Confederacy coincided with my own childhood in small-town Georgia. No high-school football game was complete without a performance of “Dixie.” The dominant radio station in a nearby city called itself “The Big Johnny Reb.” Georgia required no front license plates, so many vehicle owners used that spot to display a cartoon rebel holding the battle flag and declaiming, “Hell no, I ain’t forgetting!” None of this was really about history. It was about defending segregation, under assault from the federal courts and eventually Congress, and insisting on racism against Black people as the essence of regional pride. It was contemporary, not an exercise in nostalgia.
But neo-Confederacy seemed to be dying out until quite recently when it became part of the cultural-political uprising that gave the country President Donald Trump. As I noted when Trump blessed the defenders of Confederate monuments in Charlottesville in 2017, the 45th president and many of his supporters essentially revived the neo-Confederacy as part of its demand to “Make America Great Again”:
In the blink of an eye, the backlash to acts of simple racial decency began. It was not confined to Donald Trump’s campaign, but in many corners of the right, hostility to “political correctness” — defined as sensitivity to the fears and concerns of, well, anyone other than white men — became a hallmark of the “populist” conservatism Trump made fashionable and ultimately ascendent.
And so the relatively uncontroversial movement to get Jim Crow era Confederate insignia and memorials out of the public square and back into museums and history books suddenly faced renewed opposition — not just from the motley crew of open white supremacists who viewed the 45th president as their hero, but from politicians who saw a broader constituency for a brand-new era of white backlash.
In effect, the white backlash to “political correctness,” and the notion that America still has some work to do in recognizing and atoning for racism, has appropriated neo-Confederate symbols — just as it has appropriated Christianity, the U.S. armed forces, and “Americanism” itself. It’s a crowning irony that the MAGA movement has adorned itself most of all with the red-white-and-blue insignia of those who fought and died to crush the actual Confederacy, whose ghosts live on in the resentments of angry conservatives from sea to shining sea.
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