What to make of the buzzy Politico piece highlighting Webb's "affinity for the Confederacy"? Well, he's hardly hidden it -- the speech he gave at the Confederate War Memorial is posted on his personal website, for God's sake. So, big whoop, news-wise.
But I actually think Webb's writing on the Confederacy is one of the most fascinating windows into his character, and what drives his politics, that we have. Webb dedicates an entire chapter in his pop history book on the Scots-Irish, Born Fighting, to answering the question: Why did the average Confederate soldier fight? Webb's answer is this: not because he was a racist, but because he descended from a naturally resistant bloodline, from "the first wild resolute angry beaten Celt who tromped into the hills rather than bend a knee to Rome two thousand years ago." Come 1861,
[I]n his view he was provoked, intimidated, and ultimately invaded ... This was not so much a learned response to historical events as it was a cultural approach that had been refined by centuries of similar experiences.
Webb is a person who obviously admires the hot intensity of political passion, the sheer drive to defend a way of life, as much as he admires moral rightness. And the way people -- especially "his" people, the white working class -- bristle in the face of mockery or attack is, in his understanding, a huge force in politics. In Born Fighting's telling, Southerners' resentment of the patronizing and moralizing North drove an entire political era (as I noted in my Webb profile, he interprets some Southerners' attendance at KKK rallies not as racism but as "bitterness at being dominated"). Then it morphed into the white working class's resentment of the patronizing and moralizing campus-liberal types that appeared on the scene after the Vietnam War, creating a long continuum of anti-elitist resentment.
Webb's project is to redeem the besmirched Confederate infantryman by showing that he, in sharp contrast to the "plodding, systematic" Union army, believed he was fighting to preserve his own dignity -- and to show that that kind of self-preservational fight, one against those who wish to dominate you and strip you of your dignity, has something holy in it, even if it turns out later that you weren't fighting on God's side.
I'm of two minds as to whether this Confederate stuff suggests bad things about Webb as a politician. On the one hand, I don't like Webb's emotional instinct to glorify the Confederate soldier above the Union one, as if to make up for a perceived century and a half of slights. They were on the wrong side. Period. The way of life they fought to preserve was not a set of morally neutral hillbilly customs, like playing the banjo and making apple butter; it was a way of life that specifically did include black slavery. And I think Webb's glorification of the character who refuses to be told what to do can blind him to the fact that there are simply some habits that some people will have to give up, and sooner rather than later, if the arc of the moral universe is to bend towards justice. I can see it leading to the dangerous view that political resentments are valid simply by virtue of being strongly held, and must always be humored.
On the other hand, resentment does play a powerful and often-neglected role in politics, and it's useful to have a politician around who's made an effort to understand its roots. It felt like a totally sick and weird thought, but when I read Webb's brief description of, he is careful to say, some Southerners' motive in going to KKK rallies ("bitterness"), Obama's infamous line that poor whites are "bitter" popped into my mind. Both Webb and Obama have a strong sense of the toxicity and endurance of resentments in American politics, and both men, I think, wish to show attention to, charity to, and empathy towards those who harbor them.