What Shocking New Polls on Republican Attitudes Toward Slavery, Interracial Marriage Say About the Modern GOP

Once more the Republican Party showed us who they are and have always been. It would seem that "the past isn't dead. It isn't even past."

Yesterday, the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War, CNN released a poll that showed that 25 percent of the general public and some 40 percent of Southerners sympathize more with the rebellious Confederacy than with the Union. And in a particularly revealing inversion of the historical record--more than half of the Republicans surveyed believe that slavery was not the cause of the Civil War.

Not content to merely support an insurrection against the duly elected government of the United States, 80 percent of the Republicans surveyed by CNN also expressed admiration for the leaders of the South--a cabal whose allegiance to white supremacy was most tellingly summed up by the Vice President of the Confederacy's sentiment that its, "...foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man, that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based on this great physical, philosophical and moral truth.”

Echoing the Tea Party GOP's neo-Confederate longings, last week an equally troubling bit of polling data was released which highlighted how the Right-wing yearns for a return to “tradition” and the “good old days” in the Age of Obama.

Public Policy Polling surveyed self-identified Republican voters in Mississippi. They were asked a series of questions regarding issue positions and their likelihood of voting for a given Republican presidential candidate in the 2012 race. Among their findings: apparently, race still matters to the good Tea Party GOP voters of Mississippi, with 46 percent of the respondents indicating that interracial marriage should be illegal. And in good news for Sarah Palin, those who supported her were significantly more likely to oppose marriage across the colorline.

For students of race and public opinion these findings should not be surprising. While there has certainly been a clear and demonstrable shift in white Americans' racial attitudes, racial animus and old fashioned bigotry have moved from the "frontstage" (enshrined in law, seen as virtues and not sins) to the "backstage" (in private, shared only with other like minded folks, or when a person believes that no one is listening).

Racism and white supremacy certainly exist as social forces in 21st-century American life--where they are now more structural than interpersonal--yet the paradox remains that the expression of racist values and thoughts will result in one being thrown out of the public square.

Beyond some superficial and feigned shock and awe at the fact that a significant percentage of self-identified, die-hard Republican voters do not believe that interracial marriage should be legal, these findings are made truly significant when placed into a broader context. The election of Barack Obama and shifts in America's racial demographics have caused no small amount of cognitive upset, racial paranoia, and bizarre behavior that goes well beyond mere partisanship and enters the realm of crazy talk on the part of the Tea Party GOP.

Since the ascendancy of Barack Obama to the highest office in the land, America has been a collective witness to the theater of the absurd. The standing bargains and consensus politics that came out of the Civil War (and which cost the lives of 2 percent of the U.S. population, some 600,000 people) are now fodder for Republican candidates to play political football with. It is no longer the exclusive province of the fringe militia and late-night talk radio crowd to speak about secession, states' rights, nullification, the revoking of birthright citizenship, and armed rebellion as necessary and real solutions to our political dilemmas. No, these are positions that are casually offered by leading Republican figures such as Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann and others.

Not content to destroy the consensus politics that came out of the 19th century, the Tea Party GOP is also targeting for destruction the progressive gains of the 20th century and the civil rights movement. In the Age of Obama when white conservative demagogues claim Dr. King as their own and talk out of both sides of their mouths while screaming about how white people are "oppressed," they are signaling to an inversion of reality in which one of the greatest sins in this country's history was not the enslavement of black folks and the regime of Jim Crow. In this reframing, the sin is implicitly made how everyday people dared to challenge white (male) privilege, power and control over all things formally "American."

When Republicans such as Rand Paul suggest revoking the Civil Rights Act, they are taking one more step in a grand plan that seeks to destroy the social safety net in this country, and to rewrite the understanding that the State has an obligation to protect its citizens and to ensure the general welfare. As opposed to thinking of these events in isolation (or as "merely" about race), they are part of a bigger political universe that is linked to the destruction of unions, the removal of any limits on the ability of corporate actors to influence democracy, and austerity policies that balance the budget on the backs of the working, middle classes, and poor while continuing a massive (mal)distribution of wealth upward to the top 5 percent of earners.

In total, the politics of race and white racial resentment--be they manifest by hostility to Muslim and Arab Americans, naked xenophobia against Hispanics and Latinos, the birther movement, or efforts to rewrite Texas history books and to ban ethnic studies--as played by the Tea Party GOP are the miner's canary that speak to a bigger game.

Styles make fights. The base of the Tea Party GOP, as typified by Mississippi Republicans and the party faithful’s longing for the Confederacy, is moved and motivated by race baiting both gross and subtle (for example, through the coded language of "American exceptionalism"). If the field of potential Republican presidential candidates in 2012 offers any indication, the Tea Party GOP will continue to rest their chances on how well they can motivate this racially resentful base.


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