The United States of Confederate America

Several years ago, I was driving on a rural road when I came up behind a pickup truck with a Confederate-flag sticker on the back window. This isn’t such an unusual sight in some parts of the United States, but this instance surprised me: The truck had Pennsylvania plates, and the road was in Gettysburg, where an invading force of tens of thousands of Confederates, formed to defend Black slavery, arrived in summer 1863 on a pillaging expedition.

But though the Civil War was a battle between two regions of the country, sympathy for the Confederacy is no longer confined to states that seceded and border states. Support for Confederate symbols and monuments now exists across the country, following lines of race, religion, and education rather than geography. This is one of many ways in which 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. That’s one takeaway from a new survey about Confederate symbols from the Public Religion Research Institute and E Pluribus Unum.

“We’ve had hints of this in the ways that campaigns get run: It used to be that all politics are local, and it’s seeming more like all politics are national,” Robert P. Jones, the president and founder of PRRI, told me. “When you look at the predictors on Confederate monuments, they are much more about race and partisan affiliation and education levels than they are about region.”

Some of the survey’s findings are unsurprising: Southerners are more likely to report Confederate monuments or displays of the flag in their community; Black southerners report especially acute awareness of such monuments. White Americans are more likely than Black Americans to see Confederate symbols as expressions of southern heritage rather than racism.

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.

This would surely come as a surprise to the men who professed fidelity to state and region above national identity when they sided with the Confederacy in 1861. But it’s the product of a dynamic in which white, rural Americans around the country have adopted the culture of white, rural southerners. This is only one piece of the region’s heritage, a rich, cosmopolitan, and multiracial mix that has shaped the entire country’s music, food, and culture, though it is also the one that has become the go-to stereotype of the region’s identity.

The journalist Will Wilkinson, who is from Iowa, wrote about this in his Substack newsletter last summer, recalling how during his childhood, driving from Minnesota to Missouri would produce a spectrum of cultural signifiers and regional drawls. No more: “Everywhere it’s the same cloying pop country, the same aggressively oversized Ford F-150s, the same tumbledown Wal-Marts and Dollar Generals, the same eagle-heavy fashion, the same confused, aggrieved air of relentless material decline. Even the accents are more and more the same, trending toward a generalized Larry the Cable Guy twang.”

You don’t have to agree with Wilkinson’s verdict on contemporary Nashville music to accept the overall picture he paints. He pins the blame for this on cable, but the culprit isn’t just news channels but also sports. There’s a reason that the SEC football guru Paul Finebaum is now a national television personality on ESPN.

One product of this southernification is that you can now find rebel flags hanging in states like Michigan (which lost 13,000 sons in service of the Union cause), Ohio (31,000), Wisconsin (11,000), and Pennsylvania (27,000). Other, less malign signs of the same sort of cultural homogeneity include the ease of finding a country-music station on FM dial pretty much anywhere in America, or the popularity of NASCAR around the country (the racing league claims that its fans are roughly proportional to the population of the U.S. by region, and four of its top 10 markets are in the upper Midwest). In 2020, NASCAR banned the Confederate flag.

Affinity for the Confederacy inside northern states isn’t an entirely new phenomenon. The post–Civil War lost-cause ideology, along with things like misbegotten paeans to the nobility of Robert E. Lee, took root far outside the South, a testament to the power of intellectual ideas to succeed where muskets and rifles could not. The Southern Poverty Law Center’s inventory of Confederate memorials and monuments includes a surprising number outside the South. A plaque celebrating Lee in Brooklyn (yes, that one with the Dodgers and the tree growing and the hipsters) was removed only in 2017; in August, a Pentagon commission reported on KKK imagery at West Point, the military academy.

Southernization coincides with a geographic sorting in the United States. Not long ago, there were Democrats in both rural and urban areas and in every region of the country; the same was true of Republicans. But now Democrats are largely extinct as a political force in rural areas throughout the country, and few and far between in statewide offices across the South. Republicans, meanwhile, are wholly marginalized in almost every large city and have vanished from the Northeast. The GOP is a mostly white party; overwhelming portions of Black voters cast ballots for Democrats. The result is that the backbone of the Republican Party is a group of Americans who are white, rural, and conservative; many have lower educational attainment that Democrats (though not necessarily lower income), and they typically identify as evangelical Christian.

The heydays for erecting Confederate monuments came at times of white backlash to Black demands for rights, both in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and then again during the civil-rights movement. The current support for Confederate monuments is another instance of white backlash to social change. As the political scientist Ashley Jardina has noted, the election of Barack Obama, the first Black president, helped birth a wave of what she calls “white identity politics.” Trump, in turn, harnessed that wave to sweep himself into office.

Jardina finds that white identity politics doesn’t necessarily require racial animus, but it’s also clear that Trump and many of his followers do harbor racial animus. The PRRI-EPU study finds that, at the very least, people who do not believe that structural racism exists are much more likely to support Confederate monuments. That helps explain how the U.S. ended up with a Queens-reared, longtime-Manhattan-dwelling president wrapping himself (metaphorically) in the Confederate flag and praising Lee.

“If we look back to the primaries for the 2016 presidential election, Trump won both Mississippi and Michigan, and with this mantra of ‘Make America great again,’” Jones said. “I continue to think the most powerful word in that mantra is the last one, because it harkens back to this nostalgia for a white Christian America that has Confederate overtones.”

This nationalization doesn’t apply just to rural Americans; urban Americans are also more similar to their urban peers halfway across the country than to those who live only a few miles out of town. I’ve written before on the tensions between conserative state governments and progressive local populations in cities across the South. Where regional gradations once existed within the parties, white voters in southern urban centers are more likely to hold political views that parallel those of white urban voters elsewhere in the country. In a state like North Carolina, where roughly half of adults were born out of state, white urbanites aren’t just more like their northern counterparts; there’s a good chance they moved from there. Despite this homogenization across rural and urban areas, stark differences in politics and quality of life manifest across blue and red states depending on which population dominates, as my colleague Ronald Brownstein wrote this summer.

One product of the divide among white voters is a big split about views of the Confederacy between the parties. Only 1 percent of white Republicans want Confederate monuments removed, but 16 percent of white Democrats do—nearly identical to the 17 percent of Democrats overall who support removal, though still less than the 28 percent of Black Democrats who do. In North Carolina, where many urban centers have seen Confederate monuments torn down, demands for change have been powered in part by a coalition of Black from-heres and white come-heres.

Where fights over monuments have broken out, their defenders have often fallen back on the old argument that the statues and plaques and flags are symbols not of racist hate but of heritage and regional pride. This argument has always had its flaws. The heritage is not that of Black southerners, and you seldom hear them defending the Confederate flag. (Per the PRRI-EPU survey, just 16 percent of Black Americans see the flag as a sign of pride, not racism, versus half of Americans overall.) But the heritage argument is even harder to credit when support for Confederate symbols is as strong in states that fought to preserve the union. The South is everywhere now, and so are its worst political pathologies.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *