McConnell’s impossible centrism

[UPDATE AND COMMENT: I wrote this essay yesterday – from Europe – before Governor Nikki Haley’s press conference at which many prominent South Carolina Republicans joined her in calling for the removal of the Confederate flag from the statehouse grounds. At the time I was somewhat unsure that the political shift described in the essay was real. In fact I far underestimated the case. The shift was much larger and faster than I expected.

I still believe that the larger points of the essay are highly relevant, and that the political question for Glenn McConnell remains. As for how Haley’s press conference affects the three options described at the end of the essay, I would say: option (1) has become even more costly and less plausible; (2) has become more likely but less likely to bring public credit; and (3) has become less costly only if the legislature quickly gets to 2/3 supermajorities, taking the question for McConnell quickly out of play.]

 

The memorial services are the easy part, rituals demanded by the barest measures of human decency. The emotions they unleash may seem painful, but ultimately they are too comforting, because they too easily convince ourselves that we have done something right. It is right to memorialize, but memorializing is not yet doing. To do something is to make a change in the world, and the world is not going to be changed without resistance. That is the hard part.

What to change in response? Again we naturally seek the path of least resistance. Dylann Roof was an isolated young man with racist ideas and a gun. The rational political response would be to take away his gun, because without the gun, his racist ideas would have gone nowhere. His friends laughed at his ideas, but they knew well enough to take away his gun, though not long enough. But in America, there is massive resistance to this kind of rationality. It will be difficult to construct the incremental regulation that would deny a gun to just the right set of people to have included Roof, who until last week was no violent criminal. No guns for people who creep out workers at malls? The plain truth is that Dylann Roof should not have had a gun because no private citizen should have a gun. But America is far from ready to legislate on the basis of that truth.

If not the gun, then, we are left with just the isolation and the racist ideas. But those penetrate so deeply into the organization of our social life that addressing them is beyond any particular political measure. The best we can do is to try to formulate particular political responses that might address them in particular ways. Between the expressions and the structural causes of racism and social isolation, we are always going to choose the expressions, the easier path. In this case, the expression was obvious. It is the Confederate flag that Dylann Roof displayed, and that South Carolina still flies outside its statehouse. On the path of least resistance, the first political response to these murders is obvious: that flag has got to come down.

In just the past few days, it has become clear that this is what public opinion demands. Every Republican presidential candidate has been hounded on the campaign trail, and true to intellectual form, they have evaded and equivocated at every turn. Only Mitt Romney, who is not running and hopeless at pretending to be Southern, managed anything like forthright opposition to the flag. But not one Republican managed any defense, either. Their position is that South Carolina, as a state, should decide, and do the right thing. As for what the right thing is, well, that is not for them to say. (Dylann Roof also had to decide the right thing to do, and it is not hard to say that he chose wrongly.) These responses are hardly morally edifying, but they are politically instructive: defending the flag is beyond the pale. Even in South Carolina, no legislator has (yet) said that it needs to stay up. This may well change, but for right now taking down the flag has become the political equivalent of attending a memorial service: the very least we can do.

In itself, this shift in political opinion is a very positive thing. For no one, however, does is pose a bigger problem than the president of the College of Charleston, former state senator and lieutenant governor Glenn McConnell. At the memorial service at the College’s basketball arena, a speaker called for the removal of the Confederate flag, the audience rose to its feet in approval, and McConnell remained seated on the stage. The question now is whether and how he can get up again.

***

Everyone knows that McConnell is deeply and personally identified with the Confederate flag. It was the focus of national attention when he was a candidate for the presidency of the College last year, and those news stories have been revisited this week. McConnell is a Civil War re-enactor who has appeared publicly in Confederate costume. He owned a store that sold Confederate paraphernalia. He strongly defended the value of the flag in the debate that resulted in the political compromise that moved the flag from the statehouse dome to its current position on the grounds. (By many accounts, the new position is more prominent than the old.)

But it is very important to understand that as proud as McConnell was of the flag in that debate, he is just as proud of the compromise to move it. For that compromise was symbolic of the political identity McConnell has staked out and cherished. In the context of South Carolina state politics, he is a moderate Republican. He has consistently positioned himself as a reasonable alternative to more conservative Republicans. He talks often of small government, but he is more likely to be expressing his opposition to religious intrusion in public life than to taxing and spending. He was elected to his Senate leadership position with a combination of moderate Republican and (mostly) Democratic votes. He points out time and again that he worked with African-American legislators to craft the flag compromise, and that it included an African-American history monument on the statehouse grounds. His centrism, which crucially includes good relations with African-American legislators, is crucial to his political and personal identity.

The notorious problem with centrism, however, is that it can be indifferent to political content. Beyond the Confederate flag, there is no area of policy that McConnell is particularly identified with, despite his long years of legislative service. His politics just is his centrism, which is ultimately defined for him by others to his left and right. My friend Franz Schneiderman long ago identified this kind of position as “dogmatic moderation”: you adopt your political positions not because you have reasons for the policies you favor, but merely because those policies lie between those of the left and the right. Centrists tend to believe that there is real virtue in the mean between the political extremes, but that kind of position, which is very much McConnell’s, can lead to two disastrous consequences.

First, it can easily happen that the position of one of the extremes represents not partial political truth, but an entirely unreasonable view. In that case, not siding entirely with the other side is moral and intellectual cowardice. Jon Stewart has made a very good living satirizing the dogmatic moderation of journalists who covered conservatives’ claims about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the scientific uncertainty over global warming as if they were possible contributions to political truth as opposed to lies and distortions, specifically crafted for political gain.

Second, the political ground can easily shift, so that what used to be the mean between the extremes becomes a far from moderate position. In that case, the centrist has to make a difficult and perhaps impossible choice. Keep your position, and you no longer appear as a moderate. Change your position, and it appears that you have no independent convictions.

In the case of Glenn McConnell and the Confederate flag, both of these conditions now obtain. State Senator Darrell Jackson has been clear about his view of the earlier compromise: he supported it as the best he could get, but it did nothing to alter his conviction that the flag is a symbol of racism and ultimately will have to come down. For the other side, the claims of “heritage,” there is nothing intellectually respectable that can be said. The Confederate flag returned to public life in the late 1940s and after, as a symbol of Southern resistance to integration. In this context, it is inseparable from racism, and to pretend otherwise is to engage in an intellectually bankrupt fantasy. Now that McConnell is the president of a university, and one that depends crucially on the tuition dollars of students from the North, he cannot make any case in support of the flag.

And in the context of South Carolina politics, the outcome of the earlier compromise is no longer the moderate position. McConnell is not accustomed to having Republicans to his left, but on the flag issue, that is exactly what has happened. A Republican legislator has introduced a bill to take down the flag. If McConnell opposes the bill, he will be a hard-right and not a moderate Republican.

***

So what is McConnell to do? He would seem to have three options.

The first, which I regard as the least likely, is to renew and redouble his support of the flag, and come out clearly as an opponent of the bill to take it down. To do that would be at odds with his carefully crafted centrism, and would renew and redouble all the student and faculty opposition that attended his candidacy for president of the College. There would seem to be too much personal and political cost down that road.

The second, which will still not be easy, would be to make a kind of political conversion, and come out in favor of the removal of the flag. As Claire Curtis has pointed out to me, this would not have to involve a complete reversal: McConnell could say that he and other people of good will still personally value the Confederate flag in a non-racist way, but that the verdict of public opinion is now clearly different, and that he does not want to continue to offend African-Americans. This kind of hedging is not quite intellectually respectable, but if it were consistently framed as involving a statement of merely personal conviction, it would likely be good enough – especially because the shifting of his political stance would generate strong positive support in the national media and on campus.

The third option is to stay where we are now, where McConnell is another Republican politician who does not want to talk about this issue, who would rather move on to other things. He can say, like them, that he is the president of a university and no longer a legislator who will be making a decision about the flag. The problem with this option, of course, is that it is a version of Homer Simpson’s characteristic thinking: “My plan is to hide under some coats and hope it all works out.” Glenn McConnell’s first year at the College of Charleston has been largely successful in no small part because he did not have to talk about the Confederate flag. Now, everyone wants to talk about it. There is only so long that McConnell can remain silent, before his version of centrism becomes impossible.

Comments

  1. Scott Peeples says:

    I don’t think Option 2 would be all that hard for him, politically. He can get away with the requisite hedging. It would be hard personally, because he loves the flag. But his political instincts have got to be screaming for Option 2: he doesn’t have to answer to hard-core conservative voters anymore, and that’s soon going to be all that’s left on the pro-flag side. Meanwhile, he needs community, faculty, and student support in his role as College President. Honestly, I think his head is telling him to jump on the flag-removal bandwagon, but his heart is whistlin’ “Dixie.” I don’t know how else to explain his silence. Thanks for the thoughtful analysis, Larry.

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  2. David Parisi says:

    This is a very welcome and level-headed analysis, thanks. I agree with Scott though: I suspect Option 2 is the most pragmatic, and easiest for him politically. But I think Scott’s right about the heart issues at play in all of this. I assume we’ll have a better sense of how things are going to play out after the BoT meeting this afternoon– this has to be a tricky issue for them to navigate as well, no idea about how the individual members feel on this issue.

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  3. Gorka Sancho says:

    Great analysis Larry. The BoT met, and positioned themselves with the majority and vaguely condemned the flag, but though McConnell appears in the pictures, he has still not said anything. I very unfortunately think he is going for #3 and does not care about losing the support of the College, though I cannot believe as an old politician he does not jump at #2 and save the day. Friday’s funeral is the next upcoming deadline….

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  4. Bob Podolsky says:

    And then there is the 4th option, acquiescing to the removal of the flag under the condition that all other objectionable symbols and honors remain off limits, and that it remain acceptable to continue to offend African Americans in other ways.

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    • Larry Krasnoff says:

      I admit that I never thought of option (4), because I was thinking about political reality. The political reality is that opponents of the flag have been acknowledged to be in the right. The other side – which is now supposed to be McConnell’s side, too! – just won this one. They don’t have to give up anything in return. The reconsideration of other Confederate symbols, some of which are already coming down in other states, will imply a whole series of independent political battles, all of which will have to be argued about separately.

      To maintain his centrist political identity, McConnell in his statement cut an imaginary deal with imaginary political opponents. But the deal is a fantasy, because in this case, centrism had become impossible. I could not have asked for a better illustration of the point.

      Full text of McConnell’s statement here

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