Spend enough time among historians in twitter land and you will eventually come across a thread about the Conservative commentator, Dinesh D’Souza. D’Souza comments on a wide range of issues, but he is one of the most vocal proponents of a narrative that seeks to challenge how we think about the evolution of the Republican and Democratic Parties in the twentieth century. The argument goes something like this.
Historians have tended to point to a gradual realignment of African Americans from the Republican to Democratic Party beginning in the 1930s and continuing through the 1960s. In the late 1960s, early 70s the Republican Party refocused efforts on a “Southern Strategy” that sought the support of white southerners in the former states of the Confederacy. That shift helped to solidify the Democratic Party as the party of civil rights and widespread African American support. According to D’Souza this is a myth. I am not going to go into too much detail here, but what you need to know is that according to D’Souza the Democrats have always been the party of white supremacy going back to the antebellum period, through the Civil War and Reconstruction and into the twenty-first century. In short, there was no party realignment. The Republican Party has always been the true political party of civil rights and racial equality.
Needless to say the historical rigor behind these claims is flimsy at best and easily debunked. I recommend Kevin Kruse and Julian Zelizer’s newly released Fault Lines as well as Leah Wright Rigueur’s The Loneliness of the Black Republican. Historians on twitter have made it a sport to ‘dunk on D’Souza’ in response to these ridiculous claims.
Apart from the obvious historical fallacies contained in such an interpretation, the obvious problem is in explaining why Republicans have overwhelmingly supported not just protecting Confederate monuments, but passing laws preventing local communities from deciding which monuments to maintain and which ones to remove or relocate. Why is the political party that according to D’Souza has always been perfectly aligned with the emancipationist legacy of the Civil War and the commitment to the Radical Republican vision of Reconstruction the same party that wants to preserve monuments erected during the height of the Jim Crow-era that celebrate disunion and a slaveholders’ rebellion?
This obsession with protecting these monuments and memorials was reinforced for me after reading Victor David Hanson’s piece earlier today at National Review. Hanson is a noted Conservative historian and author of The Case For Trump. It’s a poorly argued piece beginning with his failure to distinguish between history and memory/commemoration and his decision to equate the vandalism and removal of Confederate monuments with the destruction of religious monuments by ISIS. Nowhere does Hanson mention that in most localities public conversation has been the order of the day nor does he mention state laws preventing removal in places where monuments/memorials have been vandalized.
But what is truly revealing is that Hanson fails to mention other instances of monument removals that I have no doubt he supports. Perhaps the best example is the destruction of the Saddaam Hussein monument in Baghdad by the United State military. More to the point, I would love to know what Hanson’s thoughts are regarding the often violent destruction of monuments celebrating communist leaders like Lenin and Stalin in former Soviet-bloc countries at the end of the Cold War.
Does Hanson equate these instance of removal and in many cases destruction of monuments with the actions of ISIS? How about the removal and destruction of monuments celebrating the Nazis at the end of the WWII? I suspect I know the answer to this question.
I’ve grown bored and suspicious of the Republican position that the legislation is necessary to protect history. This, of course, is a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose that monuments and memorials serve. They are not history lessons, but representations of what individuals/organizations chose to remember and commemorate about the past.
The commitment to preventing communities from making these crucial decisions must ultimately be understood as reflecting just how far this Republican Party has moved away from the principles that guided Lincoln and the Republicans through the Civil War years.