After Dylann Roof gunned down nine parishioners at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, people of conscience all over the United States agitated for the removal of the Confederate flag from public venues like the South Carolina state house. Governor Nikki Haley signed the bill into law, and it looked like we might be seeing the beginning of real change in race relations in the United States. Flags are merely symbols, but what they represent is powerful stuff. Apologists for the old Confederacy say that the flag is merely about traditional Southern pride, but that dog whistle rings about as true as the Civil War being only about states’ rights. (The right of states to do what? To permit slave ownership!) But as soon as that battle flag came down, right on schedule came the backlash that emphasized how hard a cold civil war is still being fought.
White Nationalism, which had become like the old racist grandparent that we shake our heads about (“you’ll have to excuse Gramps, he comes from a different time…”) suddenly came roaring back to the mainstream. Conservatives that dislike Donald Trump may call him a “typical New York City liberal” as a form of mockery, but he is sure embracing the Confederacy as his base. His candidacy has attracted the Confederate flag-wavers, the racists, the haters, and even David Duke himself. The element of the Tea Party that nursed race-based resentments emerged like palmetto bugs from the woodwork, free to vent their collective spleen to an approving wink and nod from their blowhard hero. At the time of this writing, the Deep South is still very much blushing red for Trump.
Trump’s current polling results aren’t the only map that shows the old Confederacy as a cultural bloc. Have you noticed that the South is still a very special region? I mean special in the sense of educational achievement (low), health (bad), obesity (high), poverty (prevalent), economic mobility (low), corporal punishment for students (virtually all of it that occurs in the U.S.), life expectancy (below average), and several other sad characteristics. It’s almost as if they are a country within a country. A country that still, really, would prefer to have won the Civil War (“War of Northern Aggression”).
Ken Burns on Face the Nation: 150 years after Civil War, America is not post-racial.
The Confederacy may have dissolved as a rebel state and active warfare may have ceased when Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, but that doesn’t mean the Civil War ended. There’s a strong argument for the idea that traditional war, where two opposing sides duke it out until one side is defeated, is not a good model for what happened in 1865. Instead, a better model is Iraq: invasion, shock and awe, mission accomplished, a failure at “nation” building, and then a committed insurgency. That insurgency is active even now, and is visible in the culture war, government obstruction, discussion of “second amendment remedies,” voter suppression, and the rhetoric of violence in our national political conversation. The cold civil war occasionally threatens to heat up.
If the newly freed refugee slaves had actually received their “40 acres and a mule” (in the form of redistribution of captured plantation land and sick or injured Union army livestock that the former slaves could rehabilitate and keep), instead of a quick reinstatement of the South’s aristocratic class to something like their former glory in houses built with forced labor, could history have been different, as Doug Muder wonders in his piece Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party? Perhaps the turnaround of fortune and righting of wrongs would have echoed down through the decades, giving us a political process that allowed us to put the past behind us and truly reunite.
We have to deal with the country we have, though, not the country we wish we had, and in the present, the cultural divide may be too long-lived and tenacious to ever fully bridge. It’s not hard to imagine a time in the not-too-distant future when our differences and deep wounds get the better of us, and our nation falls apart along cultural and political lines, for real this time. Relocalization can bring a kind of freedom, like opting out of a destructive economy to embrace local and regional differences. If the United States, which is really a collection of regions as different as oil and vinegar, were to crumble under the social strain of climate change, migration, and peak resources, it may well solve some of the endemic political problems we now struggle with. Under these circumstances, I wouldn’t expect the policies enacted in the former Confederacy to please northern liberals, but neither would a socially progressive Northern agenda please the South. The trouble with freedom is often tolerating what other people do with theirs, isn’t it? Would it be worth this price, to end the cold civil war?
Battle for the White House (This electoral college map may change over time.)