Flag games in America

It might seem a small issue in a year when Donald Trump is the Republican presidential candidate, but a vote last Thursday in America’s House of Representatives is very revealing about the state of party politics.

The vote was on an amendment offered by Representative Jared Huffman, a California Democrat, to a defence appropriations bill, which read as follows:

None of the funds made available by this Act may be used to implement section 8(d)(2) of the Department of Veterans Affairs National Cemetery Administration Directive 3220 of November 22, 2005.

It was carried, 265 to 159, with nine not voting. The bill will now go to the Senate.

The reason this matters is that the disapproved section of the cemetery directive is the one that allowed veterans’ cemeteries, under certain conditions, to fly the flag of the Confederacy, a practice that will now effectively be forbidden.

Display of Confederate flags has been a totemic issue for a long time in the United States, but it acquired special significance last year after the massacre by a white supremacist at a church in Charleston, South Carolina. That clearly changed a number of minds, and led the South Carolina legislature to finally stop flying the Confederate battle flag.

Among those undergoing a change of heart have been the House Republican leadership, which allowed Huffman’s amendment to come to a vote and voted in favor of it.

But they were the minority in the Republican caucus. While Democrats were almost unanimously in support (just one voting no and six not voting), Republicans split almost two to one against the amendment, 158 to 84 (with three not voting).

So if this had been treated as a party line vote, the way parliamentary business is done in Australia, the amendment would have been defeated, with the majority of the majority party solidly against it.

As you might have guessed, the regional breakdown is also revealing. Here are the Republican votes by region*:

  Yes No
Mid-West 22 30
North 19 12
South 14 100
West 29 17


Of course, if any issue were going to reveal a regional divide, this would be it. Nonetheless, it captures the fact that the south is the driving force in today’s Republican party, and that in the rest of the country it is, if not quite a mainstream organisation, at least more of an approximation to one.

Views will differ on the merits of the change; there are clearly people with no political axe to grind who sympathise with the idea that fallen soldiers should be able to rest in the shadow of the flag they fought under. To others, it will seem perverse that a country should spend its taxpayers’ funds promoting the symbols of an army that fought against it.

But only in a narrow sense is this an argument about cemeteries. The debate has become a broad cultural confrontation, in which the Confederate flag – once proudly waved as a banner of states’ rights – is being seen more and more in its original role as a symbol of slavery, treason and white supremacy.

In an election year, and in a country where minority voting strength is constantly increasing, that doesn’t sound like a winning platform. But not all Republicans realise that yet.


*Note: as usual, you can get slightly different results by varying the regional boundaries, but they don’t change the basic picture. I’m counting Kentucky, Oklahoma and West Virginia as south, Maryland as north, Missouri as mid-west and Kansas as west.


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