Sean Trende, Real Clear Politics:
If you had sat down with me last Friday and offered a million opportunities to guess what the political reaction to Dylann Roof’s act of racial terrorism would be, I would never have come up with “the collapse of state- and corporate-sponsored Confederate nostalgia.” We have, after all, had numerous acts of racial violence and gun violence in the past few years, which have spawned discussions of a broad swath of issues: Stand-your-ground laws, the justifications for rioting, the scope and effects of privilege and inequality, gun control, sentencing reform, police brutality . . . but not the Confederate flag.
Perhaps more importantly, I’ve witnessed various attempts to remove the flag from statehouses during my lifetime. Few have ended well. While there are successes, the shortened political careers of David Beasley and Roy Barnes, along with the near-end of Zell Miller’s in 1994, had led me to believe that the flag was not going anywhere anytime soon.
So why now? Part of it is generational replacement. It may seem hard to believe, but the last Civil War general did not die until the 1930s. Carter Glass was 7 when the Civil War ended; he was a United States senator into the Truman administration. The last witness to Abraham Lincoln’s assassination died in the mid-1950s. The point is, even for people born in the 1920s and 1930s, the Civil War was not simply an abstraction. It was something their parents and grandparents told them about, and many of these folks were still voting in the 1990s and 2000s. But people who have even secondhand contact with the Civil War are now increasingly rare, which really has relegated the Confederacy to history (even if its sympathizers do persist). The youngest people who fought for Jim Crow as adults are in now in their mid-70s, if they are still around at all.
Oddly enough, however, the most important factor in removing the flag is probably our increased political polarization. To understand this, you have to understand the nature of political coalitions in the South. Simply put, the people who cared most about the Confederate flag – lower-income rural whites (this is too broad, but accurate enough for our purposes here) – were not really a reliable part of the Republican coalition until recently.