When Republican leaders across the South suddenly demanded the removal of Confederate symbols from public places this past week, it wasn’t because they’ve only now realized that lionizing a long-ago slave-owners rebellion is wrong.
Days after the massacre of nine parishioners at a black church in Charleston, S.C., Governor Nikki Haley — with other leading South Carolina Republicans at her side — called for the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the grounds of the state Capitol. Then, a dam broke: US Senator Mitch McConnell criticized the statue of Jefferson Davis at the Kentucky state house. Mississippi’s Republican House speaker urged that the rebel emblem be stripped from the state flag. GOP legislative leaders in Tennessee joined an effort to get rid of a bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan leader.
In some quarters, this seismic change in official GOP sentiment looks like too little, too late — worse yet, like a calculated effort to change the subject away from gun control.
In fact, this moment represents a significant display of political spine for a Southern GOP establishment that’s tolerated lots of neo-Confederate nonsense for years. Over time, any episode that shows Republican pols how to defy a fanatical single-issue interest group, such as the Sons of Confederate Veterans, is a plus for the gun debate as well.
For Republicans who see the official display of Confederate nostalgia for what it is — a throwback to an ugly history, and a way of telling African-Americans who’s in charge — going along with it anyway isn’t just craven. It’s humiliating.
So says South Carolina state legislator Doug Brannon, who came out for removing the flag and described his passivity up to now as a form of emasculation. “I just didn’t have the balls for five years to do it,” he told a reporter.
Every political culture has unwritten rules that reward conformity; there are fiscally or socially conservative Democrats in Massachusetts who’d surely register as Republicans in any of 40 other states. In much of the South, the political landscape bears the imprint of wily segregationists like Alabama’s George Wallace and South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond, and of a subsequent generation of politicians who built careers on coded racial appeals.
Today, some Confederate flag supporters remain true believers. Yet existing policies can’t survive without the acquiescence of moderates and business-oriented conservatives who know better.
On a variety of issues, though, political taboos can lose power quickly. Support for strict marijuana prohibition is withering fast. Same-sex marriage, a wedge issue for social conservatives across the country in 2004, now enjoys plurality support even in Texas, according to a recent poll conducted for The Texas Tribune.
When the main thing sustaining a policy is elected officials’ fear of breaking with the crowd, shifts in the public mood can sweep it away with surprising force. On Tuesday, South Carolina state Senator Paul Thurmond — Strom Thurmond’s son — called the Confederate flag a “symbol of racism and bigotry” and said he was proud to support its banishment.
This isn’t cynicism; it’s the sound of an elected leader choosing his or her own conscience over conventional wisdom. And it can happen on other issues.
Support for certain forms of private gun ownership runs deep in the United States, and the National Rifle Association wields far more power than the Sons of Confederate Veterans. But the maximalist version of gun-rights ideology now dominant in Washington — which rejects virtually any restrictions on the sale of firearms or ammunition to anyone — is a minority view with outsize influence, one that’s plainly pushing Republicans in Congress to take positions far more extreme than they otherwise would.
Over the years, Confederacy buffs in South Carolina, an early primary state, have cowed not just local lawmakers but also GOP presidential candidates. Arms don’t stay twisted forever, though. After initially offering wishy-washy responses to questions about the flag, the likes of Scott Walker and Rick Perry effusively praised Nikki Haley’s decision, which provided them with considerable political cover. “Profiles in convenience,” sniffed a headline in Slate.
But if convenience helps banish Confederate symbols from public places, we could use more of it. The sudden turnabout on the flag offers welcome proof that an unreasonable niche group can only dictate terms for so long.