Lately I’ve been trying to make sense of modern politics. You may say I would have a better chance at making self-changing baby diapers — and I’d do more for world happiness. But I’m not alone in my quest.
In a time when the old rules are broken — now Democrats are tough on Russia and Republicans opposed to free trade — we want to know what the new rules are and who wrote them.
I’ve considered a few of the theories out there, like this one arguing that “back of their the class” Americans are unhappy with “front of the class” compatriots. There is the coasts vs. the heartland theory. The cities vs. the suburbs. Much attention has been paid to working-class whites — and clearly they helped put Donald Trump over the mark. There is the theory of racial animosity. Plenty of allusions to Nazi Germany.
But none of these quite explained it for me, because I thought I understood white people — my people. I grew up in a small farm town in the Pacific Northwest. I worked as a reporter for years in beautiful parts of America that are about as rural as it gets. I came from a family of old-school Irish Catholic Democrats, clans of loggers and postal workers. I grew up around farmers, went to state schools, worked in the reddest of red states and now work in the capital of true-blue Washington state. I thought I knew the politics of middle America as well as anyone. But I had to be wrong, because what I saw happening seemed downright foreign.
And then one day I went to see my son at school. He’s in one of the poorest grade schools in the area, with one of the most diverse student bodies in a county of more than 250,000. It’s not far from our home parish, a pleasant blend of Korean, Chamarro, Latino and European Catholics.
And parked on the street next to the elementary school was an SUV with a little Confederate flag sticker on its window. It seemed to me as out of place as running across the old flag of the U.S.S.R. That flag was 2,900 miles from the
Confederate capital of Richmond, in a state that didn’t exist during the Civil War, and only 11 miles away from an uber-liberal college that made national headlines when students threatened a professor who challenged their diversity events.
The sticker said “In Memory of those who fought.” And my first thought was, in memory of the people who fought against US? The people who shot at my people? Those who fought against America and American values?
And then it occurred to me. This is the thing we’ve been fumbling around for — the actual paradigm of modern American politics. I thought of the political views of this new order of Trump voters:
- Anti-labor union
- Protective of old industries
- Suspicious of academics and universities
- Nationalist, not internationalist
And I thought, if Jeff Davis were alive today, that would be his platform. Not that I knew much about the former president of the Confederate States of America. But the general impression of Confederate ideology lined up more closely and more accurately with modern politics than any other theory I’ve come across.
What spurred me to action, however, came weeks later. In New Orleans, they removed Confederate statues. This came to my attention through social media, not through fellow westerners, or southerners, but a friend in the Midwest — whose family I know served in the Union Army — who decried the attempt to “erase history.”
And I thought, I think white people in the North — right where Donald Trump won his election — are identifying with the downtrodden Confederates. I should look into this.
Welcome to the Confederate Identity Project.