Why it was so easy for Republicans to flip on Confederate flag issue

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Following the tragic events in Charleston, Republican leaders have backed efforts to remove the Confederate flag from the Capitol in South Carolina. There has also been a move among once-supporters of Confederate symbols to take down flags, remove monuments, and remove other public markers of the Confederacy.

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 of all stripes–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 six-in-ten neutral. Even among southern Republicans, only 27 percent said they felt positive toward the flag. A majority (55 percent) felt neutral toward the flag. Another 17 percent felt negatively 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 to 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. In both southern states and other regions of the country there are two major predictors of how people felt 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. In other words, the flag had 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.

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