The scene of perhaps 200 confused, yelling white people gathered at the grounds of the World War II Memorial and the White House was indeed stirring. The most notable antecedents of these Tea Party dingbats, the Confederate revolutionaries who rebelled against the federal government from 1861-65, would be proud to see their torch being carried by such valiant souls.
On October 13, 2013, this group of motley rebels convened on Washington D.C., carrying the Confederate battle flag, of course, to complain about the World War II monument and other federal sites being closed due to the Republican-led shutdown, which started over Obamacare, then descended into a mindless brouhaha of conservative hen pecking. Leading these fearless warriors was Sen. Ted “Filibuster, but not Really” Cruz, the de facto figurehead of the shutdown itself. Sarah “Caribou Barbie” Palin, former half-term governor of America’s largest welfare state, tagged along — because why not. Despite being rallied by Senator Cruz, the guy who engineered his party’s shutdown of the federal government, the Tea Partiers blamed the shutdown on President Obama — because why not.
In keeping with a grand tradition of Tea Party obtuseness with regards to U.S. history, the crowd thought that waving the Rebel flag in Washington D.C. was the appropriate symbol to air their most recent in a vast list of petty grievances. One guy shouted something about “freedom!” Others cheered. Problems were solved. Just kidding.
Even if this most recent coughing up of reactionary Tea Party hair balls wasn’t quite as majestic as the sight of thousands of ragged, butternut Rebels lined up in the heat of a Gettysburg afternoon, the intent to subvert the federal government was still there. The Tea Party protesters brought the Confederate flag to their latest public tantrum because for well over a century, the stars-and bars has served as a symbol of white, conservative, reactionary protest against federal policies that might benefit anyone but white, conservative reactionaries.
The history of the Rebel battle flag — an emblem which never actually flew over any Confederate state house but nonetheless became the enduring symbol of the southern attempt to establish a breakaway slaveholding republic — is complicated to say the least. But while the flag has stood for a variety of specific historical causes in the nineteenth, twentieth, and now twenty-first centuries, the thread of white racial grievance runs through all of them.
In his book, The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem, historian John Coski explains that despite its use as the symbol of a treasonous rebellion, the Rebel banner is a deeply American symbol because it has embodied deeply American traditions that range from the admirable, to the shameful, to the downright odious. Some of these traditions, such as states’ rights, remain enshrined in the Constitution. Others, such as slavery, used to be enshrined in the Constitution, but were expunged when the southern rebellion failed to make slavery a permanent institution in the 1860s. Other traditions, such as institutional and cultural racism, have, since the Civil War, been inextricably linked to states’ rights when it comes to the Confederate flag. This is why, despite the fact that those who still wave the flag claim that it represents patriotism, the flag will always invoke themes of the domination of one racial group by another.
The Tea Partiers wave the flag in 2013 because they are well aware that the flag, since the Civil War, has stood as a symbol for white American reactionary stances against the agency of minority groups. Whether those groups are racial, political, or cultural matters little, since all pose a threat to conservative power structures threatened by change. In the 1860s, the flag stood witness to Confederate armies formed to win the independence of a breakaway nation that, in the words of Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens, made slavery and white supremacy the cornerstone of its existence. The Confederacy was the most significant conservative reactionary movement in U.S. history, but it was by no means the last, and the flag outlasted the nation it symbolized.
When the Confederacy lost its bid for independence, the flag continued to serve as a symbol of white southern Democratic defiance to northern, Republican-led Reconstruction. During the Jim Crow era, it flew over a racially segregated New South terrorized by white lynch mobs. In the early twentieth century, the Second Ku Klux Klan adopted the flag as a symbol to promote its yearned for anti-black, anti-Catholic, anti-Jewish, anti-Communist utopia, and because Americans well outside of Dixie shared the Klan’s reactionary ideals, the Rebel flag became as a much a national symbol as it was a southern one. During the 1960s, white segregationists — the direct cultural ancestors of the long-extinguished Confederates — took the flag into battle against the Civil Rights movement.
As John Coski explains, although the flag flew in different eras and for slightly different causes, in each instance it symbolized a unifying theme of conservative reaction to minority agency, usually directed against African-Americans:
The Confederate flag’s meaning in the 1960s was logically and historically consistent with its meaning in the 1860s – as a symbol of opposition to the employment of federal authority to change the South’s racial status quo.*
For modern right-wing groups like the Tea Party, the Rebel flag continues to serve as a reactionary emblem. Indeed, Tea Partiers need not be foaming-at-the-mouth racists to employ the flag. While true racist groups like the KKK and various neo-Nazi skinhead organizations have adopted the stars-and-bars to serve their own ends, the mainstream Tea Party right uses the flag to protest federal policies that they believe will unjustly reward various “taker” minority groups at the expense of “maker” taxpayers.
Charges of racism are often brushed aside by Tea Partiers who will defend its use as a mere expression of patriotism. And, on one level, they have a point. Coski notes, for example, that “the Confederate flag modifies the U.S. flag, defiantly symbolizing constitutional ideals and, for an untold number of people, social and cultural values they believe that modern America has rejected.”* Thus, the flag waving World War II Memorial protesters can reasonably argue that they aren’t racists in the vein of Confederates of the 1860s or “Massive Resistance” pro-segregationists of the 1960s. Nonetheless, Tea Partiers, like the aformentioned groups, are conservatives who promote policies that reject federal government intervention that will aid minority groups — especially blacks and Latinos — at the perceived expense of ruling whites.
Try as they might to escape the racist symbolism of the flag, the Tea Party can neither escape the flag’s historical meaning nor deny the reactionary stances at the heart of their political ideology that led them to embrace the flag in the first place. They can’t have their tea and drink it too.
Nor is patriotism a justifiable excuse for flying the Rebel flag. As Conor Friedersdorf explains in an excellent piece for Atlantic, blind, reactionary patriotism is a dangerous ideology that has resulted in much bloodshed in the modern era. Patriotism has been exploited by “patriot-baiters” like Ted Cruz and Sarah Palin to rally the support of gullible moops like the Tea Party for shallow political goals. Throughout the country’s history, Friedersdorf writes, “millions of Americans have betrayed the ideals of the Declaration in various ways. Almost always, those bad actors did so while waving the flag, posing as patriots, or viciously impugning the patriotism of their critics.”
The Tea Partiers at the World War II Memorial used the Confederate flag for that very same reason: to pose as patriots while explicitly denying groups of their fellow Americans equal access to the federal government by shutting down that government when it appears to be working against their preferred goals. Conservatives who claim that the Rebel flag symbolizes “patriotism” and “freedom,” not racism and injustice, ignore the long history in which the flag has been used in the service of the latter, not the former. After all, it’s that history that makes the flag appealing to them, even when cognitive dissonance makes them blind to that fact. The Tea Party seems content to continue a sad — if unfortunately American tradition — in which the Rebel flag will continue to serve a cause that should have died with Robert E. Lee’s surrender in 1865.
See John Coski, The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005), 294-95.