When South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, quickly supported by Sens. Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott, called for removal of the Confederate Battle Flag that flies on the Statehouse grounds in the wake of national protests following the terrorist attack on Emanuel AME Church, it represented an inflection point in the complicated relationship of the Republican Party with the Lost Cause of the Confederacy. It’s been especially complicated in the state that initiated the Civil War, and where for decades the dominant figure in the GOP was the party-switching former Dixiecrat candidate for president, Strom Thurmond.
Each in their own way, Haley, Graham and Scott have represented a turn away from the Dixiecrat inheritance of the S.C. GOP, composed, as in other southern states, of a sometimes uneasy coalition of business interests and transplants with culturally conservative former Democrats and their faithful descendents. Scott is the most obvious symbol of change; he was first elected to Congress by defeating Strom Thurmond’s son in a Republican runoff. Graham is a more subtle departure from the norm, consistently advocating bipartisanship on domestic policy issues and exhibiting some ideological flexibility.
Beyond her gender and Indian-American background, Nikki Haley has long been a symbol of intraparty change. She first ran for governor in 2010 as a “conservative reform” candidate standing up to the “good-old-boy network” in SC Republican politics. Like her mentor, former Gov. Mark Sanford, and also her policy beneficiary Tim Scott (whom she appointed to Jim DeMint’s Senate seat in December 2012), and Jim DeMint (now president of the Heritage Foundation) himself, Haley has represented an effort to replace culture-based neo-Dixiecrat Republicanism with a rigorous across-the-board ideological conservatism. While Graham might (at least in the context of South Carolina) be described as a “moderate” on domestic issues, nobody would apply that term to Haley or Scott, and certainly not to DeMint or Sanford.
What makes the Confederate Flag saga especially interesting is that while the ascending right wing of the SC GOP is not all that culturally attached to the Old South and its symbols, its affinity for inflexible “constitutional conservatism” makes it congenial to neo-Confederate hostility to the federal government. This is true of “constitutional conservatives” everywhere, who are forever advancing ideas such as the right of secession and the radical restriction of federal court jurisdiction long thought to have been buried with the Confederacy and Jim Crow. Sen. Rand Paul is a superlative example of the cross-winds buffeting “constitutional conservatives.” He seems genuinely passionate about expanding the Republican Party’s appeal to African-Americans, even as he struggles to accept the constitutionality of basic federal anti-discrimination laws.
In South Carolina, it’s been easy for conservative politicians like Nikki Haley to pay lip service to the anti-centralist and illiberal tradition of the Confederacy, even though it has to feel alien to her own background and identity, since warmed-over Dixiecrats are natural allies in her obsessive efforts to make her state a union-free Eden for “job-creators.” But push comes to shove, her loyalty is to the same Golden Calf of unregulated capitalism worshiped by Scott Walker, not to the regional aristocracy of the Old South. And so when the Battle Flag becomes a source of acute embarrassment to the state and an obstacle to economic development, down it comes, without a lot of discussion. “We do not need to declare a winner and a loser here,” she said in announcing her new position.
It’s not exactly a great profile in courage for these South Carolina Republicans. Back in 1993, when Gov. Zell Miller created a firestorm by proposing to eliminate Confederate Battle Flag elements from the Georgia State Flag (disclosure: I worked for Miller then, and helped draft the major speech on the flag that made history while failing to sway the legislature), Rep. Newt Gingrich, then on the brink of his apotheosis as chief engineer of the Republican Revolution, instantly supported the change.
That may seem surprising given Gingrich’s reputation as a symbol of the southern takeover of the national Republican Party. But for all the talk about southerners infecting Republicans everywhere with their atavistic racial views and their crazy religion, the creation of a truly national and ideologically conservative GOP did require some accommodation in Dixie. Taking down Confederate flags is one of them, resisted but eventually accepted even in South Carolina (Mississippi is now the last holdout). The true Confederate spirit, however, will live on, not just in the South but every time and place when conservatives resist equality for those people and demand a constitutional right to thwart democracy and perpetuate privilege.
Ed Kilgore is the principal blogger for Washington Monthly’s Political Animal blog, Managing Editor of The Democratic Strategist, and a Senior Fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Earlier he worked for three governors and a U.S. Senator. He can be followed on Twitter at @ed_kilgore.