The fist Confederate statues were monuments to victory in a war of Southern aggression. Defeated at Appomattox, Southern whites regrouped by organizing terrorist militias and ransacking the region’s newly biracial local and state governments. As the North soured on Reconstruction and white Republicans finally abandoned the freed slaves, Southerners completed the “Redemption” of the old Confederacy with the imposition of a slavery-esque system of apartheid. Up went the statues to celebrate Dixie’s revenge.

All the while, white Southerners framed their aggression as an act of cultural self-defense. Propagating vile stereotypes about Black men, Southern Redeemers portrayed their restoration of white supremacy as a noble act of defense against supposedly rapacious African Americans and an oppressive carpetbagging horde. The reality that whites were the revisionist force in this contretemps was actively denied by key propagandists of the so-called Lost Cause. And with the complicity of Northern historians, the white South maintained this lie about the course of their history until very recent times.

Oppression marketed as a fight against oppression is something we see today. Like the Lost Causers so many of them have on the family tree, conservatives across America have taken to a self-image as warriors engaged in a desperate battle to keep their way of life intact amidst an onslaught of cultural aggression. They would have other Americans believe that conservative white people merely want to be left alone, and would rest happy in their homesteads if left-wing radicals would relent. In fact, conservatives are the aggressors.

The conservative quest for revenge started in the most Southern of the northern states, Mike Pence’s Indiana. There, Governor Pence shepherded to passage a “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” that created a license to discriminate against LGBTQ people. Pence, like other religious conservatives, portrayed the so-called RFRA as a safety net against commands that evangelicals violate their personal religious beliefs. But RFRA was really an establishment, or reestablishment, of a dormant privilege to refuse services to people toward whom a given business owner felt social animus. It was an act of special pleading for conservative Christians and an attack on ordinary gay people who simply wanted to be treated as equals.

A potential rival to Pence for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination is Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. DeSantis, a committed right-winger, has sharpened the spear of conservative aggression to a fine and deadly point. Unprovoked by anything real, DeSantis and his allies banned the teaching of LGBTQ-related subject matter in early elementary school. The so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill singled out LGBTQ families for exclusion and stigma, a clear act of political targeting. DeSantis has followed up his homophobic education policies with even more brutish applications of state power against social liberalism. These attacks have, in fact, become the basis of his esteemed reputation in conservative circles and the foundation of his rumored presidential campaign.

Social conservatives do not just want a reprieve from cultural change. They want, rather, to reclaim and reshape American culture in a way that reflects religious conservatism and a strong white hegemony. If they only sought unbothered autonomy, they would seek out compromise with progressive activists. But like the Southern boys who sang “Dixie” when Woodrow Wilson was finally elected, conservatives want an American that is theirs, and theirs alone.


Get the latest posts from PoliticsNC delivered right to your inbox!

You have Successfully Subscribed!