After the tragic events in Charleston, Republican leaders have backed efforts to remove the Confederate flag from the grounds of the Capitol in South Carolina. There has also been a move among once-supporters of Confederate symbols to take down monuments and other public markers of that era.
Why the change in position? I think one reason is the politics of the flag before the shooting.
In April 2011, Pew did a survey that included several questions on the Civil War (it was the 150-year anniversary of the start of the war). One question asked how people felt when they saw the Confederate flag — was it a positive, negative, or neutral reaction?
Here’s the surprise in the poll: Most people, including conservative Republicans living in the South, did not feel positive toward the flag. The majority of Americans — black, white, Republican, Democrat — felt neutral.
The flag and other public symbols of the Confederacy were never important to the typical Republican voter. Nationally, the GOP had more negative than positive feelings toward the flag, with 6 in 10 neutral. Even among Southern Republicans, only 27 percent said they felt positive toward the flag. A majority (55 percent) felt neutral, and 17 percent felt negative toward it.
Only a minority of conservative Southerners really, really cared about the Confederate flag. For a GOP lawmaker, a vote to remove the flag in South Carolina would be a vote that would anger a key constituency with little benefit. The politics were made more toxic because flag supporters have seen the push to remove the flag as coming from outsiders, liberals, and the NAACP. The only time that Republicans could justify changing the flag and other symbols was in the face of economic boycotts that made the fight too costly, literally.
The Charleston shooting changed the politics of the flag not because Republicans moved on the issue but because politicians were finally able to move where most Republican voters already were.
The Pew poll revealed something else worth noting. In Southern states and only Southern states is there a racial divide over the flag. Both there and in other regions of the country, there are two major predictors of how people feel toward the flag. The first is education (more education, more negative feelings). The second is ideology (conservatives are more positive). In the South, however, blacks have a more negative reaction toward the Confederate flag than whites do. In other words, the flag has a particular racial meaning to people living in the South.
The debate over the Confederate flag is symbolic. Removing the flag is the least — the very least — the South Carolina Legislature can do in response to the shooting. It is, by definition, a symbolic act. It won’t change the lives of anyone, for good or ill.
That said, as a symbolic act it may mean a change in the politics in South Carolina and other Southern states. This is the point in history in which leaders in both parties can finally remove monuments to the Confederacy erected by segregationists. This isn’t a bold move. It simply means telling a vocal minority that they no longer are in control.