The big Confederate statue fight
Political pundits like to think they can micromanage national debates. They can’t.
On Tuesday, Donald Trump said that some of the people marching with neo-Nazis were “very fine people”. By Thursday, Trump shifted to talking more about monuments to the Confederacy—and so did many Democrats. And that drove a whole lot of people nuts, including several Republican anti-Trumpers who were quite sincere about it. Why, they wanted to know, were Democrats accommodating Trump’s preference for focusing on something that a majority of the nation supports when only a very tiny fringe is with Trump’s insistence on treating Nazis and their opponents as equals?
I understand their frustration, but the anti-monument Democrats have a better sense of the practical politics of the moment (the question of whether removing Confederate monuments is either correct or important is a separate one that I’ll return to below).
On the one hand, Democrats could, let’s say, unite more fully with all opponents of Nazis and other extremist hate groups and against Trump. But to what purpose? No matter how awful, Trump’s comments will inevitably fade from the headlines—just as his misogynistic and bigoted remarks during the campaign did. With first-rate messaging and activist coordination, perhaps a few more weak Trump supporters could be peeled off, pulling down his approval numbers a few more percentage points. Then again: perhaps not. Is anyone in the 38% of Americans or so who currently approve of Trump’s performance as president persuadable on this particular point? Either way, a month from now this episode will be ancient history and there’s not very much anyone can do about it.
And at the same time, it’s not as if Democrats can wave a magic wand and prevent Trump from talking about statues of Confederate “heroes” and other memorials even if they wanted to. Even unpopular presidents retain some agenda-setting abilities, after all, and it’s not as if the question of monuments was entirely irrelevant to the events in Charlottesville or wasn’t already part of a continuing debate in many cities and states. Democrats could choose not to engage, of course, but they can’t make the question entirely disappear.
Timing, also, is everything. Perhaps I’d reach a different conclusion if this were August 2018, or especially late October 2018. But we’re 15 months away from the midterms. Sure, presidential popularity matters in the interim, but short-term fluctuations aren’t as important. Anti-monument Democrats are giving up very little by attempting to use this flare-up as an opportunity to win on the issue.
What of the polls that show their position is unpopular? Don’t they mean that a high-profile fight over Robert E. Lee would wind up empowering Trump?
I doubt that very much. Anyone who cares strongly about Robert E. Lee statues and Jefferson Davis Highways—on either side—is already almost certainly a strong supporter or opponent of Trump. Most people don’t have strong feelings (much less the kind of feelings that move votes) about Confederate monuments. In the short term, in fact, it’s probably just as likely that associating the Confederacy with an unpopular president could hurt the popularity of the monuments as the possibility that Trump would benefit from the issue.
Meanwhile, for those who do believe monument removal is important, the national attention amounts to a second opportunity (after the Charleston shooting in 2015) to take action—which is already happening. It’s hard to tell those activists to pass on the chance for action in return for some vague possibility of future electoral benefits. And it’s unclear they’d listen to such pleas.
What of the question of whether removing old monuments can be thought of as public policy success, and not just symbolism? I think it can.
As Jamelle Bouie argues, the fight over the Confederacy and how to remember it is in fact a fight over whether only white people are really full citizens of the US. Because strong democracy depends on full citizenship for all people in a polity, these questions are fundamental. And quite practical, too, since those who are not admitted to full citizenship are inevitably going to be far less influential than those who are. White supremacy is, at its core, incompatible with democracy—and so public displays supporting such a system are corrosive to US democracy. That’s not only a question of public policy, but fairly obviously a very important one.
There’s also a larger question raised by this furore: should Democratic opponents of Trump try to accommodate conservatives and others who agree with them about the president but not much else? Absolutely not. Just as the reverse is also true: Democrats who oppose Trump should not expect everyone else who opposes him to drop their own policy agendas in order to join a broader anti-Trump alliance.
Nor should such an alliance reject latecomers, even those who are very late and have a lot of explaining to do. Save that explaining for history; for now, the only question for admittance to the anti-Trump camp should be, well, opposition to Trump. It’s true that means that Trump opposition is probably not the basis for any governing coalition. But if Trump is the threat to democracy and the nation that many believe he is, just reducing his influence and eventually booting him from the White House is sufficient. Bloomberg View
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist.
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