Situational awareness is a good thing – originally a military term used in the training of fighter pilots in World War I and the first rule in air combat ever since. Know where everyone is, friend and foe, and note what they seem to be doing, or you’ll get yourself killed. The rest of the military now uses the term too, as do football players – know what play the other guys are likely to run – and basketball players – know who’s open in the corner. Everyone uses the term now, a fancy way of saying that those who know what the hell is going on around them will succeed. Now there are multiple definitions – “the combining of new information with existing knowledge in working memory and the development of a composite picture of the situation along with projections of future status and subsequent decisions as to appropriate courses of action to take” or “the continuous extraction of environmental information along with integration of this information with previous knowledge to form a coherent mental picture, and the end use of that mental picture in directing further perception and anticipating future need” or “adaptive, externally-directed consciousness that has as its products knowledge about a dynamic task environment and directed action within that environment” or “what you need to know not to be surprised.”
That last definition will do just fine, but of course it’s always possible to misjudge the situation. Things have always been the way they are. There are certain things you can rely on. Just before Obama was elected to his first term, John Meacham wrote that now-famous column warning Obama that America was really a center-right nation and Obama had better be careful. If Obama won, which Meacham thought might not happen, Obama would have to govern from the center. Forget Obamacare and all the rest. America wouldn’t stand for it – and everyone believed Meacham, or at least cited him. That became the conventional wisdom.
Meacham was wrong, but he was describing the America he saw, one where everyone said they were a conservative, even if they weren’t. The word sounded good. No one had called themselves a liberal in decades. But Obama got his Affordable Care Act, and won a second term too. The situation was not quite what it seemed, although in the 2010 and 2014 midterms the Republicans, and particularly their Tea Party cohort, cleaned up. Congress would be rigidly conservative and heavily Republican. The situation was mixed. Meacham had been half-right.
In 2008, Michael Lind was saying Relax, Liberals. You’ve Already Won:
Three great accomplishments defined midcentury American liberalism: liberal internationalism, middle-class entitlements like Social Security and Medicare, and liberal individualism in civil rights and the culture at large. For four decades, from 1968 to 2008, the counterrevolutionaries of the right waged war against the New Deal, liberal internationalism, and moral and cultural liberalism. They sought to abolish middle-class entitlements like Social Security and Medicare, to replace treaties and collective security with scorn for international law and U.S. global hegemony, and to reverse the trends toward individualism, secularism and pluralism in American culture.
And they failed. On every front conservatives have failed, completely, undeniably and irreversibly.
That doesn’t explain how the Republicans managed to win big in the two midterms of the Obama years, and clean up at the state and local level for all eight years. Someone’s situational awareness is faulty, or the situation was always politically ambiguous. There was no defining moment that made everything clear – Obama’s stunning election was followed by unprecedented Republican obstructionism, including a government shutdown. The government pretty much stopped working. No one “won” anything. The Republicans were fine with total gridlock and the Democrats couldn’t do a thing about it. We’ve had a stand-off for the last six-and-a-half years, save for Obama’ first two years when the Democrats held the House and Senate too. That made Obamacare possible. That was a small window that closed. That would never happen again.
That’s the situation, and it relied on one key factor, which Matt Lewis explains in his new book, Too Dumb to Fail – with the subtitle “How the GOP Won Elections by Sacrificing Its Ideas (And How It Can Reclaim Its Conservative Roots)” – written because he’s a frustrated conservative:
Regardless of his ethnicity, I think a young urbanite who manages his stock portfolio on his smart phone and then orders an Uber should be a conservative. And he might – if when he thinks of “conservative” he pictures someone like AEI president and author Arthur Brooks – someone who is sophisticated, tolerant, and thoroughly modern. But he won’t if he associates that word with an image of, say, a fat, intolerant redneck.
That’s the problem:
The injection of Southerners into the Republican coalition – a coalition they ultimately came to dominate – couldn’t help but change the image of the GOP. There were racial, cultural, political, and even religious implications. Republicans captured the South, yes, but the South also captured the GOP. There were no doubt many salutary benefits to this arrangement – most obviously, an electoral boon that lasted for decades. But it also guaranteed we would eventually see a day of reckoning.
That would have to come:
You’ve probably heard of The Southern Strategy, but might not know exactly what it means, or how the Republican Party allegedly employed it. The Southern Strategy, As Mike Allen defined it in the Washington Post, “described Republican efforts to use race as a wedge issue – on matters such as desegregation and busing – to appeal to white southern voters.”
Whether or not you accept that this was an intentional strategy, or just how things shook out, this much is true: Around 1964, the once reliably Democratic South started to become a Republican stronghold. We may differ about what this means, and about whether the GOP deserves culpability for stirring up racial animus in order to achieve it.
Racial animus was stirred up either way, and it was useful, and that changed things:
Let’s take George W. Bush, the most successful Republican politician of the post-Southern Strategy, post-Reagan era. After losing a Congressional race, George W. Bush (possibly as a reference to a much worse George Wallace line) vowed “never to get out-countried again.” This was smart politics for Bush, who ultimately went on to become President of the United States, but it helped reinforce the image of a Republicans as someone who, well, looks and talks like George W. Bush. (I realize that Texas is often considered more Western than part of the “Deep South,” but you get my point.)
This brings us to today. As we all know, the demographics of the country are changing rapidly. The electorate is rapidly becoming less white, less rural, and better educated. Yet the GOP is still culturally synonymous with, well, white, rural, less-educated southern whites, who remain a major pillar of the party’s support. And so you get to the point where guys like Scott Walker and Rand Paul spend a week ducking questions about whether the Confederate flag should be flown on government property… in 2015.
So here’s what the GOP has to figure it out: how do they continue to get the Bubba vote while shedding appeals to the cultural symbolism of the past? How do they sell their conservative ideas about free markets, strong national defense, and conservative family values to 21st century Americans?
The seeds of this challenge were partly planted when the GOP became the de facto party of the South – with all the good and bad that that entails.
Matt Lewis has some situational awareness. The situation has changed. Even if it might destroy the Republican Party, it’s time to write off the Bubba vote. The South will not rise again. It’s time to tell Bubba that the Civil War is over. It ended this week:
What began as scattered calls for removing the Confederate battle flag from a single state capitol intensified with striking speed and scope on Tuesday into an emotional, nationwide movement to strip symbols of the Confederacy from public parks and buildings, license plates, Internet shopping sites and retail stores.
The South Carolina legislature, less than a week after nine parishioners were shot to death in a black church in Charleston, voted overwhelmingly on Tuesday to debate removing the Confederate flag from its State House grounds.
In Charleston, the board that governs the Citadel, the state’s 173-year-old military academy, voted, 9 to 3, to remove the Confederate Naval Jack from the campus chapel, saying that a Citadel graduate and the relatives of six employees were killed in the attack on the church.
And in Mississippi, the state’s House speaker, Philip Gunn, a Republican, called for taking a Confederate battle cross off the upper corner of his state’s flag, the only remaining state banner to display the emblem.
“We must always remember our past, but that does not mean we must let it define us,” Mr. Gunn said in a statement that stunned many in Jackson, the capital, and was seen as adding a highly fraught issue with statewide elections there this year. “As a Christian, I believe our state’s flag has become a point of offense that needs to be removed,” Mr. Gunn said.
For decades, images of the Confederacy have been opposed by people who viewed them as painful symbols of slavery, racism and white dominance, and supported by those who saw them as historical emblems from the Civil War, reminders of generations-long Southern pride. Yet the new calls, after the church massacre last week, came with surprising force and swiftness. The demands straddled lines of partisanship and race, drawing support even from Southern conservatives who for years had defended public displays of the flag as a matter of regional pride. The movement also reached far beyond the political sphere, and beyond the South itself.
In Minnesota, activists demanded that a lake named after John C. Calhoun, a senator and vice president from South Carolina who was a proponent of slavery, be renamed. Amazon and eBay announced on Tuesday that they would no longer allow the sale of Confederate flags and similarly themed merchandise, joining Walmart and Sears, which had already done so. And messages were painted on Confederate statues in Charleston; Baltimore; and Austin, Tex., that read: “Black Lives Matter.”
“To see all of this happening, all of a sudden, it speaks of some fundamental change in the country,” said Kerry L. Haynie, a political scientist at Duke University.
The situation is entirely new:
On Tuesday, the vote in the South Carolina legislature was procedural, allowing lawmakers to consider a bill, not yet introduced, in the coming weeks. But in a legislature that had previously resisted passionate calls to remove the flag, its passage by huge margins was a watershed. Senator after senator invoked the memory of the Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, a pastor and state senator who was killed in the church. His Senate desk was draped in black cloth, a single white rose atop it.
The motion to consider a bill on the flag carried by a unanimous voice vote in the Senate, though one senator, Lee Bright, a Republican, said he would vote against removing the flag. In the House, the vote to take up the flag issue was 103 to 10.
“Our ancestors were literally fighting to keep human beings as slaves, and to continue the unimaginable acts that occur when someone is held against their will,” said State Senator Paul Thurmond, a Republican, explaining that he would vote to remove the flag.
“I am not proud of this heritage,” said Mr. Thurmond, the son of Strom Thurmond, the former governor and United States senator who was a segregationist candidate for president in 1948.
Bubba isn’t happy with that:
As proposals emerged to remove Confederate imagery in state after state, members of Confederate veterans’ organizations voiced concern about the flood of demands and said they felt misunderstood. The Confederate statues, the battle flag, even the naming of streets were a matter of remembering family members who had fought in the Civil War, they said.
“This is a feeding frenzy of cultural cleansing,” said Ben Jones, the chief of heritage operations for the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a Tennessee-based group. “It’s hysteria – we just want to fly this flag for family, for Grandpappy. This whole thing is basically insulting and demeaning our respect for our ancestors.”
Some opponents of removing all Confederate symbols from public places also tried to draw a distinction between flying the battle flag at a capitol, and displaying a statue or naming a park to commemorate individual soldiers. “People are calling for removing monuments and boulevard names in the name of racial sensitivity? Where does this end?” said Mr. Jones, who was a member of the United States House of Representatives and an actor on “The Dukes of Hazzard” television show. “This is just dividing people like crazy.”
But there was no stopping this:
The president of the Kentucky State Senate, Robert Stivers, a Republican, said in an interview that in light of the Charleston killings, he believed that a statue of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy and a native Kentuckian, should be removed from the Capitol rotunda in Frankfort. The statue is near a larger one of Abraham Lincoln, a proximity that made him uncomfortable, he said.
Leaders in Washington, too, weighed in. Senator Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, the minority leader, called for the Confederate flag to be removed from the grounds of the South Carolina State House, but declined to take a position on the mascot of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas: the rebel, whose nickname is “Hey Reb.”
“I believe that the Board of Regents should take that up and take a look at it,” Mr. Reid said at a news conference.
Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, the majority leader, also suggested that the Jefferson Davis statue should be moved.
“I think it’s appropriate, certainly in Kentucky, to be talking about the appropriateness of continuing to have Jefferson Davis’s statue in a very prominent place in our state capital,” he said. “Maybe a better place for that would be the Kentucky History Museum, which is also in the state capital.”
This was a collective final admission – the Civil War was fought to preserve an economic system based on slavery, by white supremacists, against the duly elected government of the United States, which didn’t think either was a good idea. That is treason, and they lost. Ta-Nehisi Coates offers a complete compendium of what these guys said about why they did this and opens with this:
This afternoon, in announcing her support for removing the Confederate flag from the capitol grounds, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley asserted that killer Dylann Roof had “a sick and twisted view of the flag” which did not reflect “the people in our state who respect and in many ways revere it.” If the governor meant that very few of the flag’s supporters believe in mass murder, she is surely right. But on the question of whose view of the Confederate Flag is more twisted, she is almost certainly wrong.
Roof’s belief that black life had no purpose beyond subjugation is “sick and twisted” in the exact same manner as the beliefs of those who created the Confederate flag were “sick and twisted.” The Confederate flag is directly tied to the Confederate cause, and the Confederate cause was white supremacy. This claim is not the result of revisionism. It does not require reading between the lines. It is the plain meaning of the words of those who bore the Confederate flag across history. These words must never be forgotten.
He ends with this:
The Confederate flag should not come down because it is offensive to African Americans. The Confederate flag should come down because it is embarrassing to all Americans. The embarrassment is not limited to the flag, itself. The fact that it still flies, that one must debate its meaning in 2015, reflects an incredible ignorance. A century and a half after Lincoln was killed, after 750,000 of our ancestors died, Americans still aren’t quite sure why.
At least the war is over now. The Republicans just now collectively admitted it had been a bad idea in the first place and the North had been right all along, and won the thing anyway. And with that they threw away a big chunk of their base. They have just walked away from the South. The situation has changed dramatically.
As for George W.Bush and that “country” thing, Grady Smith suspects that may change too:
This cultural shift that finds southern institutions acknowledging that the Confederate flag evokes painful and divisive memories of slavery and rebellion will inevitably manifest itself in country music, a genre often associated with the symbol. For decades, country and southern rock concerts have been among the easiest places to see the Confederate flag still waving, and the banner has remained an occasional lyrical touchstone in mainstream country songs right up until today.
A number of songs in Hank Williams Jr’s repertoire point toward the revival of the antebellum south, including his 1982 track The South’s Gonna Rattle Again, which includes the declaration: “You can bet I’ll brag on that rebel flag.” And Blake Shelton’s 2010 release Kiss my Country Ass opens with the line “Tearin’ down a dirt road/ Rebel flag flying/ Coon dog in the back.” …
More than in lyrics, though, the Confederate flag has thrived as a fashion statement and staging accessory in the live-country experience. It’s become a winking symbol of southern and rural credibility. Redneck Woman singer Gretchen Wilson would flash it on the screen behind her at the peak of her popularity in the mid-2000s. Colt Ford, who wrote Rick Perry’s new hick-hop campaign song, wore Confederate flag boots during at least one show as an opener for Florida Georgia Line in 2013. Trace Adkins donned a shiny Confederate flag earpiece during a live TV performance in 2012.
That may change as these folks develop more situational awareness:
This points to the popularity of southern rock icons Lynyrd Skynyrd, the purveyors of Sweet Home Alabama, who have famously displayed a gigantic Confederate flag on stage for many years. (Kid Rock, who samples Sweet Home Alabama in his song All Summer Long, does the same.) In a TV interview on CNN in 2012, though, the band claimed they no longer wanted to fly the Confederate flag on stage. “Through the years, people like the KKK and skinheads kinda kidnapped the Dixie or southern flag from its tradition,” guitarist Gary Rossington explained. Fans were not happy. Facing a backlash from their fan-base, Lynyrd Skynyrd reneged on their decision and announced that they would continue to fly the Confederate flag because, “[We] are all extremely proud of our heritage and being from the south.”
The “heritage, not hate” ideology is a thorny but understandable perspective for a generation of artists over a century removed from slavery, but that doesn’t mean that the Confederate flag isn’t still a politically and emotionally charged symbol. Brad Paisley learned that the hard way two years ago – with a song about a Lynyrd Skynyrd shirt no less. Accidental Racist, Paisley’s eyebrow-raising duet with LL Cool J, turned both men into temporary internet punchlines despite the song’s good intentions to convey the complex relationship of white and black southerners and their history. Accidental Racist earned jeers and holier-than-thou think pieces from just about every corner of the web for lines like “If you don’t judge my do-rag/I won’t judge your red flag” that appeared to minimize the burden of slavery to a laughable extent. Paisley never performed the song live and quickly moved on to a party-hearty follow-up album and since then no major country star has attempted to broach the subject of race in song – except perhaps Garth Brooks, with his hokey dud People Loving People.
Smith sees this:
Frankly, I don’t believe that any major country artists will be photographed proudly waving Confederate flags anytime soon – there does seem to be a decisive shift away from association with Dixie as an innocent tribute to the South. But it does mean that, moving forward, there are thoughtful decisions that must be made by country stars regarding the flag when it comes to their staging, their music videos, their lyrics, and even their boots. Whether they keep the Confederate flag in their song lyrics or up on stage, country stars will have to acknowledge that doing so can no longer be viewed as a coy statement, but instead as a declaration.
These country stars will have to develop more situational awareness. What should have happened in 1865 finally happened in 2015 – the Civil War actually ended. That’ll take some getting used to.