Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in Politico Magazine. We reprint in part here.
Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House and the Union triumphed in the Civil War. Yet the passage of a century and a half has not dimmed the passion for the Confederacy among many Americans. Just three weeks ago, the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) appeared before the Supreme Court arguing for the right to put a Confederate flag on vanity license plates in Texas. Just why would someone in 2015 want a Confederate flag on their license plate? The answer is likely not a desire to overtly display one’s genealogical research skills; nor can it be simplistically understood solely as an exhibition of racism, although the power of the Confederate flag to convey white supremacist beliefs cannot be discounted.
Rather, displaying the Confederate flag in 2015 is an indicator of a complex and reactionary politics that is very much alive in America today. It is a politics that harks back to the South’s proud stand in the Civil War as a way of rallying opinion against the federal government—and against the country’s changing demographic, economic, and moral character, of which Washington is often seen as the malign author. Today’s understanding of the Confederacy by its supporters is thus neither nostalgia, nor mere heritage; rather Confederate sympathy in 2015 is a well-funded and active political movement (which, in turn, supports a lucrative Confederate memorabilia industry).
For many, the initial attraction to the history of the Confederate States comes from an interest in ancestry and history, yet for others the lure is to a narrative that, replete with recognizable symbols and characters, offers (some) Americans the opportunity to understand themselves as historically distinctive. Add to this the attractive traits of heroism and an underdog struggle against numerical odds, plus a mantra that the Confederacy in the 19th Century fought to preserve all that was good and right about the America of the Founding Fathers, and a potent imaginary political world emerges.
Quantifying the degree of sympathy and support for this neo-Confederate vision is tricky. An SCV article in 2013, for example, stated that the organization had 30,000 active and 65,000 inactive members, the latter being presumed to “share many of our same concerns and opinions.” National surveys, as they aim for a representative sample of U.S. adults, likely under-represent the extent to which the Confederacy still resonates in the South and among whites. A 2011 opinion poll conducted for CNN, for example, found that 23 percent of people were still sympathetic to the Confederacy. Although the poll is unclear on where these people lived, just 54 percent of those surveyed felt that slavery was “the main reason” for secession by the Confederate states.
In the same year, the Pew Research Center found even less support for the understanding that the Civil War was “mainly about slavery” (38 percent, with a similar number of those polled stating that it was “appropriate for public officials today to praise Confederate leaders” (36 percent). The Pew survey further discovered that people who self identify as white and “southerners” were considerably more likely to hold pro-Confederate views: only 13 percent of that demographic saw the Confederate flag as negative, compared with 30 percent having a negative view of the flag in the overall survey. More recently, in 2014, the Biloxi-Gulfport Sun Herald reported a poll that found 29 percent of Mississippians would support a new Confederacy if there was a Civil War today; 50 percent would stay loyal to the United States of America; and, 21 percent were undecided. This support for the Confederacy in Mississippi was primarily from whites, men, and Republicans, and the numbers had the Sun Herald’s political blogger “Crawdaddy,” concerned: “I know there is some anti-federal government sentiment out there, but I was surprised it was this strong. But, even more than that, I was surprised that question even has relevance in this day and age.”
So what makes this Confederate politics so attractive? To adherents, today’s Confederate ideology exposes falsehoods in mainstream accounts of U.S. history and offers to reveal “the truth,” which has supposedly been suppressed by “East Coast elites” and “liberal academics” pandering to ethnic minority pressure. According to this narrative, the Civil War was not fought over slavery but rather because the Union and President Abraham Lincoln acted without regard for the Constitution to accumulate power. Confederate sympathy offers an ideology that explains why life in America is not what one expected it to be, why Spanish is increasingly heard in towns across the country, why despite working hard one never seems to get ahead, why African Americans have recently occupied highly visible leadership positions as attorney general, secretary of state and, of course, president. It is a politics of victimization, a sentiment that political correctness and anti-discrimination laws constrain right-thinking and hard-working people, and that for 150 years America has strayed from its preordained and righteous path.