Get ready for a new type of election in Virginia.
At least three counties will hold advisory referendums in November on whether to take down their Confederate statues — Franklin, Lunenburg and Tazewell. Others, such as Floyd, could join that list before the deadline of Aug. 14.
All these are rural counties in Southwest and Southside, where enthusiasm for tampering with Confederate symbols has been, shall we say, more muted than in certain other parts of the state that have already taken down their monuments. Still, it’s noteworthy that the boards of supervisors in those counties have opted to put the question to a vote. They could have simply said no, the statues are staying put. Conventional wisdom would say those voters will elect to keep their statues, in which case this is an easy call for supervisors to make. Conventional wisdom has been in marked decline, though, so there’s always a chance that one or more of these counties will produce an unexpected result. We don’t know how these elections will go but whatever the result, they will be a fascinating Rorschach test of how those localities see themselves — and want others to see them.
Let’s look at some of the dynamics at play:
1. How many Donald Trump voters will vote to take down the statues? All these counties are ones that voted strongly for Trump in 2016 and will surely do so again. Four years ago in Tazewell County, 81.7% of the voters backed Trump. In Franklin County, 68.8% did so. In Lunenburg County, 57.4% did. We can’t assume that every Joe Biden voter will vote to remove statues — that’s a fascinating question, too —but for the sake of argument, let’s assume they do. For removal advocates to prevail, they will need Trump voters — and quite a few of them. What arguments can they construct that would appeal to a Trump supporter? And are all Trump supporters as gung-ho for Confederate statues as Trump himself is? Let’s take the proverbial New Jersey retirees living by Smith Mountain Lake. They may vote for Trump because they’ve always voted Republican but how much do they identify with Confederate imagery? Removal advocates in Franklin County may want to target those votes; the ones in, say, Tazewell, have a tougher challenge.
2. What are the economic consequences if a county votes to keep a Confederate statue? Jon Atchue, a member of the Franklin County School Board, mentioned this when Franklin supervisors voted for the referendum. Citing his decades in the corporate world, he warned supervisors that some companies may not be keen to locate in a county that embraces Confederate statues. This is not a far-fetched concern. We’ve seen the corporate world move with more alacrity than politicians this summer when it comes to distancing themselves from certain images. Even NASCAR has banned the Confederate flag. Some companies won’t care – tax rates and labor pool may be all that matter. But some companies might. Suppose Company X is considering an expansion and has narrowed down its site list. It’s not hard to imagine a rival county that has removed its Confederate statue from using that as a selling point — see, we’re a more forward-thinking county. And also: We’ll be less controversial.
Statue advocates should not assume that everything goes back to normal if they prevail. Will they find that they’ve just preserved their beloved statue but put their county on an economic development blacklist? Washington’s National Football League team didn’t drop its nickname because of public pressure; that was going on for years. The team dropped the name because of corporate pressure from Fortune 500 companies that threatened to pull their sponsorships — and they, in turn, were being pressured by activist shareholders. It’s not hard to imagine those same activist shareholders objecting if a publicly-traded company decides to do business in a county that in 2020 voted affirmatively to keep up a Confederate statue.
Those arguments may not sway voters caught up in the “heritage” argument. They haven’t before. Bob Lewis of The Virginia Mercury wrote recently that even in Mississippi some Republican leaders had warned that having the Stars and Bars on the state flag made it hard to recruit business. That argument went nowhere, though, until the NCAA announced it would no longer sanction post-season tournaments in Mississippi as long as the state kept its rebel-themed flag. Lewis writes that the NCAA — along with an endorsement from Southern Baptists — pushed Mississippi over the edge to make a change. What if the same thing happened in Virginia? What if, say, the Virginia High School League ruled that it would no longer sanction post-season tournaments in counties that have voted to keep their Confederate statues? Some may find that hard to imagine, but a few months ago it was also hard to imagine the Confederate statues on Monument Avenue coming down.
Are people so invested in their Confederate statues that they’re willing to endure the potential consequences? The flip side of that: It’s often hard to visualize things that haven’t happened yet. In any case, the most persuasive argument against the statues may not be the moral argument, but the economic one. How many jobs is that statue worth?
3. To be true to its history, Franklin County would vote to take down the statue. That’s not the heritage argument anyone expects, but history is complicated. Yes, all these counties supplied lots of soldiers to the Confederacy — no dispute about that. However, let’s back up a bit earlier, to the special convention that Virginia held in 1861 to debate whether to secede. There were two votes — the first opposed secession, the second favored it. In between came Fort Sumter and President Lincoln’s call for federal troops. In both votes, Franklin County’s representatives voted against secession (in the first both representatives voted no; in the second one voted no and one was absent). That latter vote is particularly notable because by then almost all the pro-Union votes came from delegates who represented counties that later became part of West Virginia. The delegates from Franklin and Henry stood with the Union even when their neighbors didn’t.
If you really want to get complicated, how’s this: The Franklin County representative who voted twice against secession was Jubal Early, who went on to become a Confederate general.
The great Southern author William Faulkner had something to say about this long ago. “The past is never dead,” he wrote. “It’s not even past.”
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