Southern Comfort
from The Nation -- February 5 2001

Once again, the Civil War has sparked a contemporary political controversy. Two of President Bush's Cabinet nominees--Attorney General-designate John Ashcroft and the prospective Secretary of the Interior, Gale Norton--are being asked to explain their praise of the Confederacy.

In a 1996 speech to a conservative group, Norton likened her struggle to preserve states' rights to the Confederate rebellion, saying, "We lost too much" when the Union triumphed. Ashcroft, in a 1998 interview, lauded the magazine Southern Partisan for defending "patriots" like Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis and called on "traditionalists" to vindicate the Confederate cause against charges that it represented a "perverted agenda."

What is it about the Confederacy that appeals to so many modern-day conservatives from the party of Lincoln? Neither Ashcroft nor Norton appears to have family roots below the Mason-Dixon line. Ashcroft was born in Chicago, raised in Missouri and educated at Yale. Norton grew up in Colorado. But what is interesting is how conservatives who feel themselves heritage-deficient gravitate to a romanticized memory of the Old South--a usable past that conveniently omits slavery and Jim Crow.

During the 1950s, many conservatives responded favorably to Southern white resistance to desegregation. Moral conservatives saw the white South as a last bastion of traditional Christian civilization in a nation pervaded by individualism and secularism. Many libertarians insisted that federal action to secure civil rights threatened local autonomy, displaying an amazing indifference to the historic denial of blacks' rights by state and local authorities. Then in 1964, Barry Goldwater, who opposed that year's Civil Rights Act, carried five Deep South states, demonstrating that Republicans could strike electoral gold by appealing to white voters' resentment over black gains. Since then, white Southerners have become the backbone of the party's electoral strength.

Over the past two decades, Southern Partisan has carried articles defending apartheid, denying that slavery is contrary to Christian values, calling Lincoln a greater tyrant than George III, insisting that "Negroes, Asians, and Orientals...Hispanics, Latins, and Eastern Europeans have no temperament for democracy" and lamenting that immigration is undermining the "genetic racial pool" of the United States. Yet Ashcroft is hardly the only conservative to identify with the magazine. The advisers and contributing editors listed on its masthead have included Russell Kirk, a founding father of modern conservatism, and Republican politicians like Pat Buchanan and North Carolina Congressman David Funderburk.

Most Republicans appeal more subtly to white Southern voters. Ronald Reagan opened his 1984 campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil rights workers were slain; George W. Bush sent a message by speaking at Bob Jones University. Lauding the Confederacy is part of this symbolic politics.

No one claims that Ashcroft or Norton wants to restore slavery. But at the very least, their statements reflect a remarkable tone-deafness to how praise of the Confederacy is likely to be received outside conservative ranks. They tell us something about the restricted boundaries of the world of modern conservatism.

When it comes to the Civil War, Bush's Cabinet is a house divided. Ashcroft and Norton could benefit from a conversation--perhaps on Lincoln's Birthday--with Secretary of State Colin Powell. To Ashcroft and Norton, the South equals the white South, which equals the Confederacy. Blacks are not real Southerners, the region's white Unionists did not exist and slavery--the "cornerstone" of the Confederacy according to its vice president, Alexander Stephens--had nothing to do with the Civil War. Norton describes slavery as a "bad fact," legal parlance for an irrelevancy that inconveniently muddies the judicial waters, like smog on a day when a corporate polluter is defending itself in court.

Powell, on the other hand, has lectured eloquently about the contribution of black soldiers (nearly all of them Southern-born) to Union victory and the centrality of emancipation to that era's history. He could teach his colleagues something about the complexity of Southern history and the real meaning of the Civil War. Not that he is likely to be asked by the members of Bush's new Cabinet.