It was a strange, remarkable, and hopeful moment. Flanked by legislators from both parties the Governor of South Carolina called for the Confederate flag to finally be removed from its revered place on the statehouse grounds.
Republicans have been granted a rare political gift, a window of opportunity to assert our independence from a repugnant element of the party’s base. Governor Haley’s gesture, though it is merely a gesture, creates the potential for Republicans to finally delegitimize a range of political expression that has thwarted efforts to build good public policy and capped the Republican Party’s potential national influence.
Unfortunately, the party’s leaders are unlikely to seize this moment. After decades spent pandering to a shrinking racist fringe the party has purged or demoted almost anyone who possesses the intellectual insight, the sympathy, or even the language required to expand the party’s appeal. Haley’s action is unlikely to help the GOP in 2016.
Nevertheless, we may have passed a watershed. Thanks to this symbolic move and the subtle but significant realignments it will generate, an emerging bloc of Republican political figures may be emboldened. Haley’s decision to take down the flag may set younger Republicans free from intimidation by the far right fringe.
Encouraged by a new freedom to speak frankly about the Confederate flag, we may finally muster the courage to be honest about the rest of our racial heritage. Younger Republican politicians have an opening now to condemn racism in a meaningful way and distance themselves from the politics of the Dixiecrat era. Dogwhistle politics has kept Republicans in a box, unable to acknowledge any of the four inescapable realities that dominate politics in our time. Coming to terms with heritage in a courageous, honest manner could put the Republican Party back on a path to leadership and put the country on track for a very promising new century.
Republicans still win elections, especially elections that are local and concentrated in the South and the rural west. That’s not enough to remain relevant nationally. More importantly, the ways that racism distorts Republican policy templates make it impossible for the party to serve the public interest, even when and where we win.
There’s a reason that violent racist groups like Stormfront came out in support of Ron Paul instead of Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. There’s a reason why members and leadership in the Council of Conservative Citizens gravitate toward Republican candidates now, repudiating their past support for Democrats. There’s a reason that the map of likely “red states” mirrors a certain political map from 1860. We have to reexamine those reasons and confront their meaning.
GOP stances on issues as widely separated as gun control, education, health care, social services, taxes, crime and transportation are warped beyond usefulness by ingrained, unquestioned racism. We can’t have nice things because a significant bloc of the voting population worries that those things might fall into the hands of filthy, mooching “others.” Pandering to racists has made the GOP complicit in the dismantling of a model community values once considered vital to conservatism.
We vehemently deny that reality while carefully constructing policies that retain our appeal to racists. Reality is merciless. Our potential as a country will remain dampened until Republicans wrestle internally with that flaw and build pro-business, market oriented policies that are stripped of their deep-seated racist distortions.
There will be resistance to this process. Those with the strongest emotional attachment to notions of white supremacy are likely to get noisier in the next few years. A sustained attack on the legitimacy of Neo-Confederate politics will not go unchallenged. Republicans, even those who chafe at the demands of the paranoid fringe, will face a powerful temptation to hedge, equivocate, and pander.
The Confederacy with all that it stands for is part of your author’s heritage as much as anyone else’s. Heritage is not legitimacy. My ancestors were fine people. Those fine people fought against the United States to continue to a system of horrific oppression. They didn’t end their fight when the war was lost.
That’s a complex, messy story. That’s where American reality slips loose from American myth. I’m doing no one any favors by continuing that miserable legacy in the name of my “heritage.” We will all be better off when we place our myths in perspective.
Governor’s Haley’s decision and her very visible gesture in support of that decision offer a unique opportunity. We have a political opening to place that heritage inside a wider, truer picture. Old times there are not forgotten. Nor should they be. Perhaps we will muster the courage to remember them honestly and break their power to warp our future.