Notes on Political Culture and Heritage in Virginia

April 16, 2010

Aristocracy and Political Culture

Many have seen the rightward turn of Virginia’s government as a rebuke of the Obama administration.  Although Obama was the first Democratic candidate to win Virginia since 1948, his 2008 win and Mark Warner’s ascent to the Senate were followed by the 2009 election of conservatives to state offices, most importantly governor and attorney general.  Before getting excited or depressed, it is useful to remember recent history: Virginia elects its governors the year after presidential elections; for thirty years the party which won the presidency has gone on to lose the gubernatorial campaign.  McDonnell’s victory is no more a rebuke of Obama than Doug Wilder’s 1985 win was a rebuke of Reagan’s ’84 landslide victory. 

There are many possible reasons for this unique factoid of Virginia politics.  Maybe (and I’m contradicting myself here) it is related to backlash; but then the backlash would happen with every single election.  Perhaps it is related to excitement: many Obama supporters were “worn out” from 2008 did not come out to support Deeds in 20009, while McCain backers were worked up over the 2008 loss and came out for McDonnell. 

I think, however, that to understand these shifts you have to look at Virginia’s political culture and the performance of leadership in The Old Dominion.  Historically, Virginia has favored political leaders who project an aristocratic bearing and connect themselves to Virginia’s memorial culture of genteel manners and purpose all the while embracing a business-friendly political agenda. 

Perhaps the most successful performance of aristocracy comes from Doug Wilder.  The grandchild of slaves, a child of Jim Crow, and the first African-American to be elected governor of a U.S. state, Wilder presented himself as mannered and almost aristocratic leader.  This often put him at odds with Richmond’s African-American community, a tension which was most visible when he worked in local government in the 1970s and 1980s and was often at odds with local Civil Rights leaders on grounds that stretched from the political to the personal and often included criticisms rooted in the class divisions of African-American identity.  This public performance of elitism was married to a fiscally conservative agenda which Wilder cultivated in the 1960s, when he worked outside the civil rights group The Richmond Crusade for Voters and alongside the Chamber of Commerce group Richmond Forward.  As a “post-racial” conservative Democrat, Wilder anticipated and then flourished under neoliberalism, an economic logic which has long found a clear articulation in Virginia. 

Of course, Wilder is but one example of Virginia’s political leadership.  The Republican politician George Allen has cut a similar though divergent path.  Allen is a prime example of the conflicted performance of Southern aristocracy that has marked Virginia’s contemporary political culture.  Allen is not Virginian by birth; he moved to Northern Virginia from Los Angeles as a teenager (his father was a successful coach of D.C.’s NFL franchise).  Much like George W. Bush, another Republican transplant to the South, Allen’s political rise was defined by a cultivated performance of “country” identities: cowboy boots, big hats, horse-riding, good-ole-boy charm.  He married this faux-folksy charm to an agenda which was marketed as “compassionate conservatism” but which is perhaps more correctly extreme neoliberalism.  He was very much a rising star of the Republican party and, in many circles, was seen as an ideal candidate for the White House.  But, behind this veneer lay a more problematic identity: at a 2006 reelection event Allen was caught on tape using an obscure slur to describe a man of South Asian descent; in the wake of this event stories began to arise which described Allen’s past use of similar slurs, his display of Confederate battle flags and nooses in his legal office and the Governor’s office, and, on occasion, his clear articulation of bigoted sentiments.  These accusations enabled Jim Webb to seize momentum and take Allen’s seat in the U.S. Senate.

We have in Virginia two models for post-racial, neoliberal leadership, both of which stress Southern masculinities.  Wilder succeeded by presenting himself as an aristocratic and admonishing the working class members of his coalition.  Allen succeeded by merging that aristocratic identity with a good-ole-boy charm.  His immediate and swift decline came when he broke the codes of political conduct and engaged directly in the kinds of race-baiting and antagonism which have long been suspect in Virginia.  Although the home of the Confederacy and long a bastion of Southern “values”, Virginia has historically defined itself as the most gentle and benign of Southern states.  The history of Virginia is a history of positioning against the harsh, violent, and dangerous slavery of the deep South and the cold, calculating industrial might of the North.  The types of race-baiting and racial antagonism and overt violence common to the Jim Crow south was not as widely accepted in Virginia, or other upper-South states.  Rather, its harshly segregated society was built upon subtle codes of conduct and masculinity and a military culture of aristocratic leadership.  Former Senator John Warner is a fine example of the removed, aristocratic manner and military bearing of the Virginia aristocracy.  Allen, I suspect, fell from grace because he was seen to be a bigot in the most grace-less manner.

At the same time, I suspect that Allen’s loss has much to do with the man against whom he was running for re-election.  Jim Webb is a remarkable figure for his record of military service and his accomplishments as a writer and politician.  He is not the only exceptional military veteran in the U.S. Senate.  But, unlike John McCain or John Kerry, he has never sought out or carried the trappings of wealth or prestige.  Although an officer who served in high civilian positions in Reagan’s Department of Defense, he has consistently and effectively presented himself as a soldier.  This is not merely performance—he doesn’t simply don a jumpsuit and lead pep rallies on aircraft carriers.  Rather, Webb is a military man through and through who has the bearing and intelligence common to officers of high rank.  Why does this matter?  Well, I suspect that Allen’s fall came about because the mask he had chosen, that of a good-ole-boy, was pulled aside and he was exposed an imposter who used a folksy demeanor to push through policies which benefited the wealthy at the expense of the working class.  Webb, however, was legitimately a descendent of Virginia’s Appalachian Scots-Irish immigrants who was committed to working class values and concerns.

While Virginia’s senators are both Democrats—Webb is joined by the moderate, technocrat Mark Warner—its visible political leadership includes McDonnell and Representative Eric Cantor.  Cantor, interestingly, is the lone Jewish Republican on Capitol Hill and a Chamber of Commerce-type who, as Dana Milbank put it, has to “ride the tiger” of culture warriors who are often anti-Semitic.  And, McDonnell was elected to office by downplaying his extremist social views on gender and sexuality.  Both dance the thin line between aristocracy and populist rage. 

Aristocracy, Populism and Virginia Heritage

My central concern and frustration with this revivification of Confederate Heritage Month is that it ignores the realities of modern Virginia and speaks to a subset of the population.  There has been ample, thoughtful coverage of the declaration.  I especially like Jon Meachem’s piece from the New York Times for its clear explanation of the historical uses of Confederate heritage as a cultural tool for white supremacy.  I would add that in these many historical instances, Virginia’s brand of historical identity leaned to heroic and mythic forms and avoided the overt populism of Southern Heritage in the Deep South.  To cite one, minor example, during the Civil War Centennial many Southern states ceremonially flew the Confederate Battle Flag in official settings; in some states, it was simply left up at the end of the centennial and became entrenched—for a rich explanation of this history in South Carolina see K. Michael Prince’s Rally ‘Round the Flag, Boys; for a general history see John M. Coski’s The Confederate Battle FlagIn Virginia, however, the centennial was marked by the display of the Confederate national flag, or the Stars and Bars, a much less recognizable emblem which many mistake for the Texas state flag.  [EDITED ON TUESDAY APRIL 27TH REMOVING MISSTATEMENTS/MISTAKES.  PLEASE SEE COMMENTS SECTION]

Additionally, Eugene Robinson’s recent editorial is a strong and powerful articulation of the absurdity of Haley Barbour’s defense of McDonnell.  As both pieces point out, McDonnell’s initial statement endorsed an outdated view of the Confederacy which emboldens separatist ideologies and white identity politics which are inherently and historically anti-Black.  In its insensitivity and its inducement to a false heritage, McDonnell has engaged in the subtle race-baiting common to Virginia history; he has not overtly endorses Confederate Heritage as white heritage; he maligns Black history with a nod to whiteness. 

But while Confederate Heritage month is divisive and offensive to all of us who are sensitive to the histories of slavery, Jim Crow and the African-American freedom struggle, it is equally, if not more, problematic and divisive for how very removed it is from the lives of the vast majority of Virginians.  Celebrating the Confederacy without exploring and acknowledging slavery is not only lazy and bad history which offends a significant portion of Virginians; it places at the heart of communal, memorial identity a moment and a conflict which is far removed from Virginia’s dynamic, global economy and society and which builds upon and exacerbates Virginia’s commitment to aristocratic, military identity.

Despite the South’s mythic and historical agrarian past, the South is today a suburbanized, sprawling, global space.  Like most of the South, Virginia is dominated by its metropolitan centers.  In terms of population and economy, Northern Virginia is the preeminent region within the state; and, the connected sprawls of Norfolk, Richmond, and Charlottesville constitute a second, closely linked urban conglomerate.  In both spaces military, government, and high-tech industries drive the economies and attract diverse populations with roots in other regions of the U.S. and, more importantly, other regions of the World.  The Confederacy and the Civil War are in many ways completely irrelevant to the lives of technocrats or bureaucrats in Alexandria, Dominican or Salvadorian communities in Arlington, or Vietnamese and Korean communities in Fairfax. 

Just as significantly, the coded political message of celebrating the Confederacy—the enshrinement of states’ rights—strikes me as at best irrelevant and more likely totally hypocritical to a state which so mightily depends upon the federal government.  Perhaps only Maryland has a higher percentage of federal employees or contractors among its residents.  And, Virginia is, quite literally, home to some of the most important and most respected of American’s military installations.  The state is intimately connected to the nation state, its founding myths, and its modern political economy.  It is simply asinine to presume that secession would be a viable or attractive option in a state so dependent upon the federal government and in which so many serve their nation with honor and distinction.

It is important to point out that Virginia has a proud military heritage which is reflected in the state’s official commemorative culture.  The Pentagon is, of course, adjacent to Fort Myer and Arlington National Cemetery.  And, though Arlington is a relic of the Confederacy and the Civil War it is, along with Memorial Bridge and the Lincoln Memorial, at the heart of a commemorative network which enshrines national reunification and the emancipation of slaves.  Arlington, of course, was built on the grounds of a plantation which had been owned by the Lee and Custis families and, as such, has ties to George Washington and Robert E. Lee, who have long been the twin pillars of Virginia traditionalism.  That traditionalism obscured their status as slaveholders and emphasized their aristocratic, principled leadership and their commitment to the common good.  The myth of Washington depends equally upon his heroism as a soldier and the modesty he exhibited in guiding the U.S. into republican, not oligarchic, government.  And, Lee’s mythology emphasizes his leadership, his aristocratic identity, and, most importantly, his work in building a peace to repair the nation.  These myths tragically ignore their slaveholding and gloss over the reaffirmation of whiteness and masculinity as standards for citizenship which they did so much to defend.  More importantly, Lee and Washington are celebrated as aristocratic models of masculinity.  Their cults, thus, have historically articulated the rightness and justness of a social order in which aristocratic leaders wisely and bravely guide the masses.  On the other side of this narrative are the melancholic and lyrical images of the honorable, if meager, lives of common soldiers.  This mythic evocation of heroic leadership and honorable soldiers which obscures or ignores the realities of slavery depends upon and furthers constructions of citizenship in which the most important border is the imaginary border drawn around whiteness, not the material and economic border between the working class and the landed gentry.  Not only did Washington and Lee own slaves; they were leaders from a select privileged class of landowners and other economic elites who profited from the labor of and took advantage of the white working class. 

Reforming Virginia Heritage

Let me quite clear: as a child of Virginia and a cultural historian, I have an immense respect for and admiration of the riches of Virginia’s past.  But, for that heritage to speak inclusively and productively to all Virginians it needs to be reformed away from simplistic notions of Confederate and colonial heritage; and, it must recognize the state’s great cultural and temporal diversity.  Certainly, a starting point is an increased recognition of the role slavery and the removal of Native Americans played in Virginia’s early history; along with that shift in emphasis, the lives of African-Americans, Native-Americans and working class whites needs to be a component of any space for Virginia history.  This inclusion of social history has long informed the site museum at Colonial Williamsburg and other heritage spaces.  It should be the standard.

More importantly, Virginia could revolutionize national heritage by moving away from narratives of American (and Southern and Virginian) exceptionalism.  Colonial sites could and should locate the Virginia Colony within the First British Empire.  Spaces dedicated to slavery could and should emphasize Virginia’s place in the Black Atlantic and its ties to other plantation colonies.  And, though the Old Dominion has a rich 18th and 19th century heritage to build on, there is no reason narratives of Virginia heritage cannot celebrate other moments in its past.  For example, Northern Virginia has much to celebrate in its recent acceptance and celebration of immigrant communities, many of them made up of refuges.  Arlington was not just Lee’s home and the site of a military cemetery; it is also the place in which many Vietnamese found refuge in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

4 Responses to “Notes on Political Culture and Heritage in Virginia”

  1. Maureen Says:

    Great reflections Matt. Just the other day, my husband and I were talking about how many people were really missing the point about the Confederacy month issue. You nailed the history, politics and present problems, while giving Arlington the appropriate nods 🙂

  2. Matt,

    I read your analysis of Virginia’s recent political history and the flap over Bob McDonnell’s proclamation with great interest. Your observations are mostly right on the mark.

    My eyes did widen, though, when I saw your passing reference to the Confederate battle flag flying “unmolested” at the Virginia Historical Society. (In candor, I should say that I am the president and CEO of the VHS.) Just to clarify, we do not fly the battle flag outside our headquarters, and it hangs inside as part of a display that dates back to a period in which our building was home to a different organization.

    You hit the nail on the head when you wrote of Virginia’s history: “for that heritage to speak inclusively and productively to all Virginians it needs to be reformed away from simplistic notions of Confederate and colonial heritage; and, it must recognize the state’s great cultural and temporal diversity.” Especially over the last two decades, that is exactly what we seek to do at the VHS (

    I hope that your travels bring you to Richmond soon. I’d love to show you around the VHS and demonstrate how we try and tell the stories of all Virginians and their history.



    P.S. I’m sorry you weren’t here a couple of weeks ago to see our exhibit on the 150th anniversary of John Brown’s raid. We are the first southern institution to ever stage such a show.

    • Mr. Levengood, first off my apoligies–I clearly did not closely proofread my post before publishing it. When I wrote the post I wanted to make a point about Virginia by mentioning that the VHS flies the Confederate National Flag, not the battle flag. I mis-typed and then didn’t closely proofread. I always try tell my composition students that I make the same mistakes they make and they shouldn’t feel bad; I’ll have to use this an example.

      After reading your thoughtful comment, though, I realized that I should simply remove the reference entirely. I haven’t been to the VHS in a few years and though I remember seeing the national flag flying with the U.S. flying and the state flag, my memory could be cloudy and I might have been mistaken.

      Lastly, my apologies for what might come across as a slight of your institution. i have immense respect for the VHS, I have used its collections for research, and I’ve had great exchanges and received great support from your staff. The main point I wanted to make in this post is the one your comment makes so well: there are many institutions within Virginia that powerfully document and speak to the diversity of experiences which have always existed within Virginia. I certainly count the VHS and Colonial Williamsburg as two models for reforming Southern Memory to be more inclusive.

  3. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by SteveTaff. SteveTaff said: Notes on Political Culture and Heritage in Virginia « For The …: While Virginia's senators are both De… – Freedom! […]

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