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The United States of Confederate America

Support for Confederate symbols and monuments follows lines of race, religion, and education rather than geography.

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 than 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.”