How did the party of Lincoln become the party of the Confederate flag?
It happened in stages.
Almost every state that voted Republican in 1896 voted Democratic in 2000, while almost every state that cast its ballot for the Democratic candidate in 2000 had voted Republican in 1896.
There were states that didn’t trade places. Oregon voted Democratic in both elections, while Indiana, Kentucky, North Dakota, New Hampshire and Ohio voted GOP in both.
But in general, the states of the Confederacy, rebelling against Lincoln in the Civil War, were solidly Democratic and have become solidly Republican.
Within a relatively briefer time frame there has also been a shift.
As recently as 1992, there was little difference between Democrats and Republicans on the Confederate flag. Sixty-one percent of Democrats and 75 percent of Republicans saw it as symbol of Southern pride rather than of racism. By 2015, what was a 14-point gap between the parties ballooned to a 36-point difference.
However, those changes were concentrated in just one party. In 1992, 75 percent of Republicans saw the flag as a symbol of Southern pride, compared to 78 percent in 2015 — hardly any movement. By contrast, while 61 percent of Democrats in 1992 rejected an association between the Confederate flag and racism, by 2015 that number shrank to 32 percent.
Results are quite similar with respect to the propriety of displaying the Confederate flag. In 1992, there was a 7-point difference between Democrats and Republicans on whether it was all right to display the flag; it exploded to a 40-point gap in 2015.
The long-term trend in shifting state coalitions is perhaps easier to explain.
It wasn’t the economy, stupid. New York and Connecticut were rich cosmopolitan states when they voted Republican in 1896 and when they voted Democratic in 2000, while the South was relatively poorer when it voted Democratic in 1896 and Republican in 2000.
Moreover, Republicans were allied with big business in both elections and Democrats with ordinary people.
Civil rights was the impetus for change.
The party of Lincoln prosecuted the Civil War, in part to end slavery, but beginning in the 1940s, and with increasing force over time, Democrats became associated with the civil rights struggle, while Republicans opposed the movement.
As a result, white Southerners moved to the GOP and African-Americans to the Democrats.
As late as 1956, fewer than 10 percent of whites in the Deep South identified themselves as Republicans. By 2000, Republican identification had risen to more than 60 percent.
Explaining the shift in Democrats’ attitudes toward the Confederate flag since 1992 is more speculative, but it would seem to herald increasing sympathy for their African-American co-partisans, who have long regarded the Confederate battle flag as a sign of racism.
It could also reflect the increasing social polarization around partisanship. As I documented here before, partisans increasingly see their opponents in more hostile terms.
Whatever the political mechanism, those who see the Confederate flag as a symbol of racism have the stronger historical case.
In the nearly 100 years between Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender of his flag to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and 1956, the Confederate flag made few appearances (Mississippi’s 1894 flag being an exception).
In 1956, Georgia redesigned its flag to include the Confederate emblem as demonstration of opposition to the Brown v. Board of Education ruling on desegregating schools.
South Carolina followed six years later; the next year, George Wallace hoisted the Confederate flag in his “Segregation now, segregation forever” campaign for governor of Alabama.
While South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and some Republicans have responded appropriately of late, that Lincoln’s party has become the prime defender of the Confederacy is not just an irony, it’s an embarrassment.
Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the minority leader of the Senate and the Democratic whip in the House.