A political opportunist.

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Catch of the Day: The Flag Was No Fluke

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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A Catch to political scientist Hans Noel at Mischiefs of Faction, who adds to what we've learned this week about why the removal of Confederate flags and other symbolism became the dominant response to the massacre in Charleston, South Carolina.

From the beginning, many have wondered: Why the focus on the flag? It might be nice, but it's just (some said) symbolic politics. Gun-control advocates, in particular, saw it as a diversion -- yet another lost opportunity to draw attention to their cause.

As Noel explains, however, this is a lesson in how politics works and doesn't work. When a problem suddenly arises, it isn't simply a matter of having various politicians, interest groups and ordinary citizens get together to innovate to come up with solutions. Instead, political actors devise policies first, and then look for opportunities to carry them out.

In this case, getting rid of official state support of Confederate symbols has been a policy many Democrats and others have advocated for years. It was ready to go when the opportunity presented itself. 

And there is a political party component to this. Parties are coalitions of activists, organized interest groups, politicians and others. Choosing which policy to work for in response to a particular crisis is a function of coalition politics within the party.

For the Democrats in this case, two elements were likely decisive. First, blacks as an organized political group are simply more central to the Democratic coalition than are gun-control advocates, and therefore have a clear advantage in intra-party competition. Second, for the politicians who support both gun control and black voters (as an organized group), a resolution on the flag seemed attainable while an emphasis on regulating firearms only promised more frustration and no victories.

On the Republican side, coalition internal politics mattered, too. Remember when Republicans worried, after the 2012 election, about a reputation for intolerance? Flipping on the flag may have seemed, as many have pointed out this week, to be the path of least resistance. Southern voters who like Confederate images may be a significant group within the Republican Party, but they aren't organized like Christian conservatives opposed to gay marriage or the anti-immigrant movement.

So here's what you get if you put together the activists and organized groups with longstanding agendas; the politicians who may be looking for ideas to shop while also always worrying about the next election, and the ever-shifting party coalitions. What looks from the outside like a seemingly random response to a random event can be seen as the outcome of the hard work and professionalism of large groups of political actors faced with a particular political context and set of incentives.

Nice catch!

  1. Ta-Nehisi Coates has been good on this point on Twitter (see for example here) over the last week. 

  2. For why electoral incentives may have made this possible, see Joseph Lowndes at the Monkey Cage; I discussed why this might (might!) affect Republicans more than they realize.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net