04.08.105:16 AM ET

The GOP's Confederate Madness

Virginia Gov. McDonnell’s embrace of Confederate History Month is more than just a bizarre retreat from his party’s civil-rights roots. Matthew Yglesias on why it’s the path to political suicide.

The observation that today’s Republican Party is no longer the party of Lincoln is a cliché in progressive circles. But I’d always sort of assumed that actual Republicans didn’t see it that way, and still saw themselves as in some sense the heirs of the original mid-19th century GOP. Until Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell declared Confederate History Month, that is.

Doubts first began to surface in my mind back in early March, when Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-NC) not only suggested that Ronald Reagan should be on our money (standard issue wing-nuttery) but specifically said he should replace Ulysses S. Grant on the $50.

Grant, the second Republican president, was for a long time poorly rated under the influence of white supremacist historiography, but is by any reasonable measure one of the finest presidents of American history. The Grant administration suppressed the Ku Klux Klan, passed visionary civil rights legislation—and, tempered by the president’s wartime experience, sought to mitigate the viciousness of frontier relations with Native Americans. As Frederick Douglass wrote: “to Grant more than any other man the Negro owes his enfranchisement and the Indians a humane policy.” He was also the key military architect of Union victory in the Civil War. Not a bad record, and not achievements you’d think modern day conservatives would be eager to overlook or disparage.

How is it possible that it takes political pressure to get McDonnell to acknowledge that slavery was both bad and an important factor in sparking the Civil War?

McDonnell’s odd executive decision this week proved me wrong.

During the 2009 gubernatorial campaign, McDonnell’s opponent Creigh Deeds tried to paint him as an extremist culture-warrior out of step with modern-day Virginia. McDonnell painted an image of himself as a pragmatist who’d focus on the economy and running the government. McDonnell won the argument and the election.

And then he declared that Virginians should spend April reflecting on their Confederate history.

In McDonnell’s defense, he’s not the first Virginia governor to decide that a violent conspiracy to defy the laws of the United States in order to further the principle that white people should hold black people in bondage is worthy of celebration. But McDonnell’s predecessor didn’t proclaim a Confederate History Month and neither did the governor before that. In other words, for eight long years Virginia went on with no Confederate History Month and suffered no apparent ill effects.

But then along came McDonnell with his call for Virginians to “understand the sacrifices of the Confederate leaders, soldiers, and citizens during the period of the Civil War.”

How nice of them. But what about the 30 percent of Virginians who, as slaves, didn’t qualify as citizens? Well, McDonnell didn’t have anything to say about that. Indeed, he didn’t see fit to mention slavery at all. In his initial response to criticism on this point, McDonnell argued that “there were any number of aspects to that conflict between the states. Obviously, it involved slavery. It involved other issues. But I focused on the ones I thought were most significant for Virginia.”

Again, though, the slavery aspect was clearly significant for Virginia’s slaves. It was also evidently significant enough to the architects of Virginia’s attempt to withdraw from the union that their Ordinance of Secession cites the fact that the federal government “perverted” its powers “not only to the injury of the people of Virginia, but to the oppression of the Southern slave-holding states.”

Late in the day on Wednesday, McDonnell finally came to his senses, apologized, and added a paragraph to his proclamation that comes out decisively against slavery.

All this, of course, plays out against the backdrop of the ongoing farce of Michael Steele’s tenure as chairman of the Republican National Committee. Fairly obviously picked in a moment of panicky post-election desperation to show that some of the GOP’s best friends are black, Steele’s tenure has been marked by gaffes, incompetence, and now scandal involving the use of party funds at strip clubs. And yet Steele, as if right out of a conservative caricature of how liberals think the world ought to work, is apparently immune from firing on the grounds that the GOP can’t afford to do without its token black guy. Meanwhile, ambling deeper south than Virginia, it seems that Republican governors in Georgia and Mississippi have also been issuing Confederate-honoring proclamations with no mention of slavery.

How has it come to pass that a political party literally founded in order to oppose slavery has come to celebrate a rebellion sparked by its own ascension to the White House? How is it possible that it takes political pressure to get McDonnell to acknowledge that slavery was both bad and an important factor in sparking the Civil War? The regional realignment of the parties over the past 40 years is a well-known phenomenon, but this is something more like a total psychic makeover with the GOP trying to wipe its founding figures out of the history books and feigning ignorance about its own origins as a political party.

This is a striking and underrated shift from the Nixon or Reagan eras when the conservative movement managed to appeal to southern voters while also carrying states like California and New Jersey. Now even more moderate-looking rising stars like McDonnell seem curiously captured not only by conservative ideology but by idiosyncratic folkways of the white south that strike the rest of us as somewhere between bizarre and offensive. With America as a whole becoming less white, and southern states becoming ever-more populated by migrants from the north, this seems like a sure path to political suicide.

Matthew Yglesias is a fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. He is the author of Heads in the Sand: How the Republicans Screw Up Foreign Policy and Foreign Policy Screws Up the Democrats.