Monday, January 12, 2009

Putting the Lee-Jackson Holiday discussion in its proper context

Like a lot of you, I've been following the very lively discussion of the Lee-Jackson Holiday over at Bearing Drift. I think Jim Hoeft's original post and its associated comments are now required reading for Virginia's political bloggers, and I think it could be read with profit by Virginia's politicians, political reporters and political activists of both parties. On its face, Mr. Hoeft's post is about a proposal to rename (and re-purpose?) Lee-Jackson Day into a "Virginia Heritage Day" that celebrates all aspects of Virginia history. The response to Mr. Hoeft's proposal has been intense, to say the least.

I think what some of the commenters on this subject have been dancing around is whether or not Lee-Jackson Day is "code" for something else. Some argue passionately that it is merely an observance meant to show respect for two men who have been described variously as great warriors and Christians.

Others, who may not be especially well represented on this website, may see memorials to the Old South and the Confederacy as "coded" appeals to racism, segregation, Jim Crow, and other aspects of the Old South that are not remembered with fondness by certain groups. It was no coincidence that the symbols of the Confederacy made a massive return to popularity among Southern Whites during the period of Massive Resistance to school integration and the general desegregation of Southern Society. Nor was it a coincidence that the Republican Party's Southern Strategy emerged shortly after the Civil Rights and Voting RIghts movements won important victories in Congress and the Supreme Court in the late Fifties and early Sixties.

This issue has special relevance to the Republican Party at this particular moment in time, and Jim Hoeft is right to call attention to it, however obliquely. When the Southern Strategy was first instituted by Goldwater and Nixon, it paid real dividends to the Republican Party. The "Solid South" rapidly changed from a Democratic stronghold to a Republican stronghold, and was key to Republican political success from Nixon through George W. Bush.

But the cost-benefit analysis of continuing the Southern Strategy has suddenly and radically changed. There seems to have been a significant shift in the American public's perception of racism and racists. If you had asked a White Southerner about his racial attitudes in the late Sixties, you would very likely find that racist attitudes were not only common and accepted, they were actively asserted with pride. Southern racists committed crimes of startling violence and were acquitted by all White juries who tacitly condoned the use of racist violence to maintain the status quo. Now, in the first decade of the 21st century, attitudes have changed.

Ask a White Southerner the same question about their racial attitudes and you would be far less likely to find someone expressing overtly racist attitudes. Being a racist in today's society carries a stigma that most people do not want to bear. Racism still exists, but it is mostly covert, not overt.

Basing political campaigns on a racist subtext, even a covert "dogwhistle" racism, has abruptly ceased to yield electoral victory for the Republican Party. What does the future hold for the GOP? It's hard to say. The GOP could shrink and become a regional party based in the South, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming and Alaska and maintain it's reverence for symbols tainted by past association with racism. To me, that seems the most likely outcome. Or the GOP could discard the Southern Strategy and make a new, more broad based appeal on the basis of conservative ideologies–though whether this would be social or fiscal conservatism is anyone's guess.

To conclude, the central problem for the GOP going forward is the failure of the Southern Strategy. Arguments like the one surrounding this poll and petition are really arguments about the future direction of the GOP and whether it can shake itself free of the symbols of the Southern Strategy.

Head over to Bearing Drift and make yourself heard in the comments, the poll, and the petition.

No comments: