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State within a state

In Lebanon, after a year of turmoil that was the worst in a decade, it is Hezbollah — with the backi

A two-square-mile grid of central Beirut offers a clue to Lebanon's troubles. Dominating the city's western quarter, the Sunni Mohammad al-Amin Mosque casts a glow over the concrete expanse of Martyrs' Square. About a mile south, through narrow streets, the Shia al-Hassanein Mosque rises up. Not far from here is the Druze temple, a glass and breeze-block building that looks like a public library, and on Mount Lebanon, the city's snow-capped backdrop, stone crucifixes dot the skyline.

The country's four main faith groups - Sunni, Shia, Druze and Maronite Christian - are imprinted on Beirut's landscape, just as their conflict is imprinted on Lebanon's history.

Over the past year, Lebanon has seen one government collapse while Hezbollah, backed by Iran and Syria, has grown in influence.

Many fear a new civil war as the country suffers its worst political crisis in a decade. The Arab spring that bloomed across the Middle East has yet directly to touch Lebanon, which has issues that are too entrenched and too complex to be resolved through the catharsis of a single revolutionary act.

Lebanon's problems are systemic and chronic, created by a political settlement born of empire. The country began as a French mandate, carved from a chunk of Ottoman Syria. With indepen­dence in 1943, its sectarian character was accommodated within a "confessional" political system that distributed office according to religion. The majority Maronite Christians were given the most important government positions (including the presidency), then the Sunnis, the Druze, and finally the Shias. In a country unable to function without consensus, it has served as a prophylactic against dictatorship for almost seven decades. But it contains grave flaws. Most egregiously, France's imperial cartography left aggrieved Syrians believing that Lebanon was theirs. Syria occupied the country between 1976 and 2005 and, through manipulation and political assassinations, has acted as a bacterial agent of instability there to this day.

Then there are the demographics. In the late 20th century, the politically, socially and economically marginalised Shia community grew in numbers, something that has not been reflected in the political accommodation (the Maronites have repeatedly blocked a new census) and contributed to the 1975-90 civil war. The rise of Hezbollah is in part the product of Lebanon's entrenched discrimination; it is a system riddled with sectarian triggers.

The origins of the latest crisis lie in the events of Valentine's Day 2005, when the then Sunni prime minister, Rafiq Hariri, was killed along with 22 others after a huge bomb exploded as his motorcade drove through central Beirut. On that day, Lebanon's diffuse political elite congealed into two loose blocs that have faced off against each other ever since.

Hariri's assassination ignited the Cedar Revolution, which led to the formation of the so-called March 14 alliance (the date in 2005 when thousands of Lebanese took to the streets of Beirut to demand an end to Syrian occupation). March 14 is led by Rafiq Hariri's son Saad, who succeeded his father as prime minister, and is a coalition mainly of Sunni and Christian parties. The west's preferred partner, it is backed by Saudi Arabia, where Saad Hariri grew up.

Opposing it is the March 8 alliance. Broadly supported by Iran and Syria, the coalition includes Hezbollah and non-militant Shia and Druze parties, and takes its name from 8 March 2005, date of the first counter-demonstrations against the Cedar Revolution. March 14 and March 8 governed together until their coalition government fell in January last year.

The Hariri assassination created something else, too: the United Nations Special Tribunal for Lebanon. Set up to indict and prosecute Hariri's killers, it has a mixed composition of Lebanese and international judges and an international prosecutor. Predictably, the tribunal divided Lebanon along party (and therefore sectarian) lines. March 14 supports the tribunal; March 8 denounces it as an Israeli-American tool designed to smear Syria and Hezbollah.

Throughout 2010, the country's already toxic political debate was poisoned further by rumours as both sides waited for the indictments to be handed down. Leaks indicated that people in Hezbollah would be named as the killers of Hariri, a charge the party angrily denied. Hasan Nasrallah, who leads Hezbollah, repeatedly attacked the tribunal's integrity and threatened to "cut off the hands" of any "collaborators". In early January last year, indictments were submitted but they remained sealed; fearful of what was coming, Hezbollah demanded that the government end co-operation with the tribunal and reject any findings. Saad Hariri refused, and on 12 January Hezbollah and its allies resigned from the coalition government.

Shortly before the government's collapse, I went to see Fares Soueid, the general secretary of March 14, at his Beirut office to learn more about Rafiq Hariri's murder seven years ago. On the day of the assassination, Soueid was with Hariri in the Lebanese parliament, drinking coffee in the bar outside the debating chamber. Hariri left, and five minutes later Soueid heard the blast. He knew it was a bomb - this is Beirut, after all - but it never crossed his mind that it might be his friend. "For us, Hariri was a superman," he told me. "We thought the guarantees from the United States and the Arab world would keep him safe. He was a 'Muslim with a tie': he wanted to show the world that Islam is not terrorism, and that it can work with the international community." Who killed him? "The Syrians and Iranians, through Hezbollah. The message was simple: 'There is no immunity for any Muslim in the Islamic world who has relations with the west.'"

For Soueid, Hariri's death changed everything. "Before the assassination, the demand [for Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon] came from the Christians only," he told me. "After the assassination, the alliance was Maronite, Druze and Sunni. Only the Shias opposed it."

Unstoppable force

Sami Gemayel, scion of one of Lebanon's most prominent Maronite families, is another important member of March 14. Both his father, Amine, and his uncle Bachir, who was assassinated in 1982, served as president of Lebanon, a post that he, too, is tipped to hold one day. With Garo, my Armenian driver, I drove through the city's Christian quarter to see him.

On the pavements either side of us walked immaculately dressed women wearing dark blue jeans, pashminas and Ray-Bans. We took a corkscrewing road up Mount Lebanon, the Christian stronghold. As we rose, the landscape of civil war Beirut stretched out beneath us. Tangled steel ruins and bombed tenements shimmered in a silvery film of mist. "We don't want this again," Garo said.

The Gemayel residence is a sprawling brick and stone complex where, as president, Amine Gemayel would receive distinguished guests. Shaven-headed militiamen with low-slung AK-47s leaned against 4x4s strategically placed around the entrance. Once inside, I passed through a series of stone courtyards with coffee tables and benches scattered amid cedar groves and thick shrubbery. Sporting Harvard chic, Gemayel wore beige slacks and a V-neck jumper over a white shirt; tied around his wrist was a dangling crucifix. "Hezbollah accepts that the tribunal cannot now be stopped," Gemayel explained. "The strategy is to claim that a western-sponsored tribunal wants to label Hezbollah the murderers of a Sunni leader because they fight Israel. Their goal is not to lose public opinion in the Arab world. The best way to ensure this is to have the Lebanese government say it is all nonsense."

Many fear that if members of Hezbollah are indicted, there will be violence, maybe even war. "Hezbollah are trying to take hold of the government so they don't have to use violence," he said. "But if they are not successful, they will use force and we will have to protect ourselves." How? I asked. He paused. "By any means that we can."

According to Gemayel, violence back in 2008 between supporters of March 14 and those of the Hezbollah-led March 8 marked the beginning of a shift in power away from the former. "In May 2008 Hezbollah attacked [the Druze leader Walid] Jumblatt in his Chouf Mountains stronghold, and this still haunts him. He believes allying with March 8 will best guarantee the Druze's security. The west and March 14 were not able or willing to protect their allies, even politically." With Jumblatt's party on board, March 8 had sufficient numbers to trigger the government's fall in 2011.

A few days later, I got to speak to Jumblatt. Our conversation was pointed. Why had he joined March 8? "I started with March 14 but it was clear during 2005-2008 that, under American pressure, their policies would lead to sectarian strife and civil war," he told me. "Since Hezbollah's defeat of Israel in 2006 the Americans have been totally focused on attacking them - even at the price of Lebanese stability. I refuse this. Washington cares nothing for Lebanon or its future."

And what of the tribunal? "[It] is being used as political tool by the Americans. Look at the leaks coming out of it that appear on CNN and Fox News, all designed to smear Hezbollah. You must go back to the failure of Israel's war in 2006; they will try anything to discredit Hez­bollah. I was a vocal supporter of the tribunal in the beginning. But if it comes to it, I do not want to see my country dragged into a sectarian war. I choose stability over justice."

For the outnumbered Druze, conflict could be fatal. When I asked Jumblatt to explain his alliance with Hezbollah, his response had the quality of a mantra. "I support the Palestinian cause, which Hezbollah fights for," he said; "and I support Hezbollah in its struggle against Israeli aggression.

“It is true that in the past we exchanged some violent words," he added with understatement. In 2007 he labelled Hezbollah a "state within
a state", and his subsequent volte-face is more likely a reflection of the west's inability to protect its Lebanese allies. March 8, it seems, was now united and politically focused.

On a bright and crisp morning, I convinced Garo to take me into Hezbollah-controlled south Beirut to meet "Mohammad", a Hezbollah supporter. After we'd spent an hour inching through traffic, the southern tenements appeared on the horizon. I had crossed an invisible frontier. Litter and rubble replaced Armani and Max Mara. Around us, pictures of Nasrallah and Ayatollah Khamenei of Iran adorned walls and hung from lamp posts. Veiled women hurried by, ubiquitous but anonymous in thick black hijabs. As we pulled up, a group of Palestinian youths lethargically kicking a football around glanced over at our car. “Hurry up," Garo said.

I found Mohammad among piles of fake Levi jeans and Rolex watches behind a makeshift market stall. He told me that the Israelis had killed Hariri and the international tribunal was a Zionist plot to discredit Hezbollah. "We protect Lebanon and resist Israel's war on the Arabs. Now they want to smear us. But it will not succeed. We resisted the Israelis before and we will resist them again." Hezbollah did not want a civil war, he said: in May 2008 it had responded to deliberate provocations by the government and had taken to arms only as a last resort. Hezbollah, he said, would seek to enter a new government and move the country forward; it did not take its orders from Tehran. It was committed to Lebanon's future.

Day of rage

About a week after my meeting with Mohammad, news emerged that March 8 had nominated the Sunni MP Najib Mikati to succeed Saad Hariri as prime minister, and that he would begin consultations for the formation of a new coalition government immediately.

Despite his well-known closeness to Syria, Mikati is a consensus figure, popular with both March 14 and March 8. In 2005, he served three months as prime minister in a caretaker government and impressed all sides with his talent for compromise. But the sectarian obstacle is insuperable. Some said Mikati was Hezbollah's man; and, viewed in this light, a Sunni prime minister was now beholden to a Shia party.

On the day of his appointment, Sunnis across the country held a "day of rage", blocking roads with burning tyres as they vented their anger at Hariri's perceived overthrow.

As the consultations continued, I managed to speak to Saad Hariri's chief political adviser, the former finance minister and ambassador to the US Mohamad Chatah. The two men had been in close contact throughout the crisis as March 14 planned its next move. I asked him if he thought, as many were saying, that Mikati was obligated to Hezbollah. "Hezbollah brought Mikati into the government," he replied. "They appointed him." This left Mikati in a potentially awkward position. "Hezbollah is a legitimate political party," Chatah said, "and they enjoy considerable support, especially among the Shia population. When the country was under Israeli occupation they resisted bravely, and that is admirable. But you cannot ignore the fact that Hezbollah is a military force that operates independently of the Lebanese government, and that pursues an ideology not shared by the majority. More than this, the fact they are in alliances with countries that have agendas separate to Lebanese interests puts Lebanon in danger."

Chatah had recently been at a gathering of Sunni leaders, including Mikati, that reaffirmed a commitment to the UN tribunal. It now remained to be seen whether he would abide by this. "Hezbollah regard him as their choice. Whether he can go beyond that and control the government is the big question that now faces Lebanon."

Chatah told me that March 14 would refuse to join what it perceived to be a Hezbollah government, and he was true to his word. In early March, Saad Hariri officially declined Mikati's invitation to enter a coalition. Despite losing power, March 14 was politically well placed. Hezbollah was trapped. Attempts to neuter the tribunal had failed and the indictments would soon be made public, which left it with two options: accept the findings, which was inconceivable, given that it was likely it would be indicted, or reject them. But without Hariri in the governing coalition it would seem, even to the Arab world, that Syria and Iran were manoeuvring again. Worse, Hezbollah would be labelled killers of a Sunni prime minister in a largely Sunni Middle East. By this chain of reasoning, all Hariri had to do was wait and then obliterate March 8 at the next general election in 2014.

A country, not a nation

But Hariri appeared hamstrung by his allies. Against the backdrop of the Arab spring, the US was so deeply reviled by those Middle Eastern states not allied with Washington that it had become a liability. After a fairly innocuous meeting with a minor Lebanese official, the US ambassador was given a public dressing down for "interfering" in Lebanese politics. Meanwhile, the influence of Saudi Arabia, long Hariri's main regional backer, had receded and an increasingly assertive Turkey had taken the role of mediator. The region, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared last January, "could not cope with Lebanon entering a new atmosphere of uncertainty".

Sitting on a tree-lined avenue in west Beirut, I spoke to Misbah Ahdab, a Sunni and former March 14 MP from a prominent Tripoli family. Over coffee and Marlboro Lights, he told me: "So much of what happens in Lebanon is linked to what happens in Iraq, in Iran, in south Yemen, in Syria and in Palestine . . . This has always been the case. Syria meddles for regional, historical and political reasons, Saudi Arabia for financial, Israel for regional hegemony and its security fears. We are a small state used as an arena for the battles of others. Everyone has an agenda here. This is my country and I love it, but it is not a nation; it is a country.

“Look," he continued, "Hezbollah and March 8 are in the ascendancy. If it's local, Hezbollah controls it. They control the country. The international community might want some change and pressure for some sort of coalition to be formed. The US could come to a deal with Iran that decapitates Hezbollah. But leaving it as is - Hezbollah wins."

His words proved prescient. Consultations continued over the next few months until, on 13 June, five months after the government fell, March 8 at last announced a new cabinet. Led by Mikati, it gave Hezbollah and its allies 17 out of 30 cabinet seats - up from the ten it had held
in the Hariri coalition. This put a group that the US state department considers a terrorist organisation in control of Lebanon. Iran was seemingly on Israel's border.

Then the indictments came down. On 30 June the tribunal issued four arrest warrants to the Lebanese authorities, and on 17 August it published the names of those indicted: Salim Ayyash, Mustafa Badreddine, Hussein Oneissi and Assad Sabra, all, unsurprisingly, members of Hezbollah. Equally unsurprising was Hasan Nasrallah's refusal to hand the men over; publicly, he doubted they would ever be found.

Yet despite Hezbollah's steadfastness, the Arab spring - which had initially turned events in its favour - has proved problematic. Nasrallah's loud rejoicing as pro-US dictators toppled across the region turned to a more voluble and noticeable silence when the revolution hit Syria. Hezbollah has no choice but to stand by its patron Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, and if Syria falls then so does its main source of funding and support. Meanwhile, Hezbollah's other big backer, Iran, faces increasing inter­national isolation over its nuclear programme. Perhaps most importantly, a party that derives legitimacy from fighting oppression cannot sustain its image while supporting a regime that murders its own people for the crime of wanting more freedom. The Israeli flags that once burned in Damascus have, for the time being, been replaced with those of Hezbollah.

In Lebanon, the internal politics is proving equally complicated. For several months the new government was divided over the country's mandatory financial contribution to the UN tribunal. Mikati, Jumblatt and the Lebanese president, Michel Sleiman, favoured paying the required money to avoid confrontation with the UN. Hezbollah opposed making any payment. In reality, the dispute was over the tribunal's legitimacy - to pay would be an implicit acceptance of its authority; to refuse, an outright rejection. Despite Hezbollah's best efforts, this was a battle it lost at the end of November, when payment was made.

Jumblatt may yet prove a vital player once again. In an October interview on al-Manar, Hezbollah's TV station, he emphasised his ties to the party but expressed pointed dissatisfaction over its unconditional support for Damascus. Lebanon's political weathervane may yet turn again in expectation of the Syrian regime's collapse, and the chance to abandon Syria may prove too much of a temptation to resist. Jumblatt has personal as well as political reasons for welcoming the end of the Assads - Middle East lore has it that Hafez al-Assad, Bashar's father, had Jumblatt's father killed in 1977. Shortly after succeeding his father as head of the clan (the Jumblatts, like the Hariris and, indeed, the Assads, are dynastic), Jumblatt was summoned to Damascus to meet Assad, Sr in what must have been an already unpalatable appointment. His attempts to assert the Druze cause were met with a broad smile from Assad, who addressed his young interlocutor in a sweet, paternal tone. "Walid," he said, "sitting there like that, you remind me of your dear father."

Towards the end of the year, I contacted Gemayel again to ask him how things now stood. Hezbollah, he agreed, had been weakened by regional events but March 14 had not capitalised on the opportunity. Saad Hariri remained out of the country, shuttling between France and Saudi Arabia and depriving the coalition of its leader. The governing alliance, he felt, remained resilient as long as Hezbollah was strong. "We just don't know if Mikati will abide by Hezbollah's diktat or if he will end up resigning to safeguard his credibility," he said.

Where, I asked, would things go from here? "I don't know," he replied. "But it is very serious. The Middle East is in a transitional phase, and it is a very difficult one. We are witnessing the demise of old ways of government and the establishment of new ones."

David Patrikarakos tweets @dpatrikarako

This article first appeared in the 09 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Forget Obama

© MARK PETERSON/REDUX/EYEVINE
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Goodbye to the Confederate flag

After the shootings in Charleston, the Republican right showed it was finally ready to reject the old symbols of the Confederacy.

On 27 June, an African-American activist named Bree Newsome woke up before dawn, put on her climbing equipment and scaled a 30-foot flagpole on the lawn of State House in Columbia, South Carolina. She then removed the Confederate battle flag that flew from it. “We can’t wait any longer,” she explained later in an online statement. “It’s time for a new chapter where we are sincere about dismantling white supremacy.”

After she was led away in handcuffs, the flag was raised again.

Newsome’s protest reflected a growing impatience within America’s black community and anger about liberal inaction. Political rallies by the Democratic presidential contenders Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have been disrupted by the Black Lives Matter campaign against violence committed on young African Americans and the cultural and legal biases that justify it. While promoting his book on race in the US, the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates argued that, to African Americans, the battle flag represents a lingering attempt “to bury the fact that half this country thought it was a good idea to raise an empire rooted in slavery”.

Yet, on this matter, to everyone’s surprise, the black civil rights movement and many southern Republicans have proved to be of one mind. On 9 July the House of Representatives in South Carolina voted to lower the battle flag for good. It stood, representatives said, for racism. It had to go.

The context of this agreement was a painful one. Ten days before Newsome’s act, a 21-year-old white man named Dylann Roof shot and killed nine black worshippers at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. According to his room-mate, he wanted to start a race war. The TV screens showed a photo of him holding a gun in one hand and a Confederate battle flag in the other.

If the demands for redress made by civil rights groups didn’t come as a surprise, conservative acquiescence did. The Republican Party had built a solid base in the South by courting white voters who cherished the memory of the Confederacy. Yet the party’s presidential hopefuls from both the North and the South – including Jeb Bush, Lindsey Graham, Scott Walker and George Pataki – said that the battle flag ought to be lowered. The most striking intervention was made by the governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley, who denounced the use of the Confederate flag and signed the bill removing it. Haley is now tipped to figure on the list of potential vice-presidential nominees.

The volte-face of the US right is in part a result of the horror of the Charleston shootings. Yet it also occurs in the context of major shifts within American society. There are still many conservatives who will defend Confederate heritage as a matter of southern pride but the culture wars are changing as the US becomes increasingly European in outlook. This is taking place across the country. It just happens to be more pronounced in the South because no other region has fought so violently and so long to resist the liberal tide.

The story of the battle flag is the story of the South. The first official Confederate flag used in the civil war of 1861-65 caused confusion during fighting – through the haze of gun smoke, its design of 13 stars and red and white bars was hard to distinguish from the Stars and Stripes. An alternative blue cross was rejected for being too sectarian; the racist Confederacy was anxious not to offend its Jewish citizens. So the cross became a diagonal X. This flag was never officially adopted by the Confederate army. In the years after the war its use was infrequent.

There was little need to visualise southern difference in a flag. It was self-evident in the physical signs of racial segregation: separate schools, pools and drinking fountains; black people confined to the back of the bus. Political displays of the battle flag of Dixie (the historical nickname for the states that seceded from the Union) only really resurfaced when that racial order was challenged by northern liberals. In 1948, the Democrats – then the party overwhelmingly in control of the South – split over modest calls for civil rights. The conservatives who refused to support that year’s presidential ticket, the “Dixiecrats”, triggered a rev­ival of flag-waving across the region.

The old battle flag suddenly appeared on private lawns, on cars and at political rallies. Supposedly ancient cultural traditions were invented overnight. For instance, the 1948 student handbook of the University of Mississippi confessed: “Many Ole Miss customs are fairly new; they lack only the savouring which time brings . . . Ole Miss has adopted the Confederate flag as a symbol of the Mississippi spirit. Each football game finds the scarlet flag frantically waving to the rhythm of the Rebel band.”

I can confirm that this “tradition” was still going as recently as in 2005. That year, I attended an American football game at Ole Miss and was surprised when the band played “Dixie” at the end. White boys and white girls stood up and belted out the folk song of the Confederacy, while black students filed out.

In 1958, South Carolina made it a crime to desecrate the battle flag. Three years later, on the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the civil war, it was hoisted above its Capitol building in Columbia. That day, there was a struggle in the US Congress to keep federal funding going for segregated schools.

So clear is the link between the postwar white resistance to civil rights and the battle flag that many see it as the symbolic equivalent of the N-word. Jack Hunter, the editor of the conservative website Rare Politics, says: “Some people insist that it’s not about racism, not about slavery, not about segregation. But it’s about all those things.” Hunter grew up in Charleston and used to skateboard in the car park of the church that Dylann Roof attacked. When he was a young journalist, he appeared on local radio as a rabidly right-wing masked character called “the Southern Avenger”. His past was exposed in 2013 while he was working for Rand Paul, a Republican presidential candidate, and Hunter stepped down from his position. He publicly renounced his youthful association with racial conservatism. He now eschews any romanticism about the Confederate cause and its demand for states’ rights. “States’ rights to do what?” he asks: the right to discriminate against African Americans? He is glad that the State House flag is gone. He ascribes its longevity to ignorance, which was corrected by Roof’s rampage: “It was the first time that [southern Republicans] were able to see a different perspective on this symbol.”

Not everyone agrees. Richard Hines – a former South Carolina legislator, Reagan campaign state co-chair and senior activist with the Sons of Confederate Veterans – insists that the flag is “an enduring symbol of the southern fighting man”. Indeed, a poll in July found that 57 per cent of Americans think it stands for southern heritage, rather than racism. Yet that heritage has a political dimension. “Southern people are proud of who they are and there is a leftist assault to destroy the best part of America,” Hines says. “The Trotskyite elite in control of the establishment wants to root out the southern tradition” – a tradition of religious devotion, chivalry and military honour. It is possible to cast the battle flag as a pawn in a much larger cultural conflict.

In 2000, civil rights activists lobbied hard to get the battle flag removed from the top of the South Carolina Capitol and succeeded in having it shrunk in size and relocated to the grounds of State House. The issue came up in that year’s Republican presidential primaries – an unusually poisonous contest between George W Bush and John McCain. Supporters of Bush put out a false story that McCain had fathered an interracial child out of wedlock. McCain added to his woes by opining that the battle flag was “a symbol of racism and slavery”. An organisation called Keep It Flying flooded the state with 250,000 letters attacking him and he lost the crucial competition here to Bush.

The battle flag has retained a strong emotional power for a long time. This makes the Republican establishment’s abandonment of the flag all the more surprising. Then again, those who run the South are probably the people most likely to grasp how much the region has changed in just a decade.

***

In 2010 I took a trip through North Carolina. The landscape told a story. Dotted along the roadside were abandoned black buildings, the old tobacco sheds. The decline of the rural economy had rendered them obsolete. Over the fields that would once have been full of farmers were freshly tarmacked roads, stretching out to nowhere. My guide explained that these were supposed to be cul-de-sacs for new houses. North Carolina was going through a property boom. But who was going to buy all those homes, I asked? The answer: damn Yankees.

Demography is destiny. This once agri­cultural region developed fast from the 1960s onwards by keeping union membership, taxes and regulation as low as possible. Yet capitalism proved disastrous for southern conservatism. Northerners flooded in, seeking work or retirement and bringing their own values. The forecast is that North Carolina’s Research Triangle – the South’s Silicon Valley – will grow by 700,000 jobs and 1.2 million people in two decades.

White migration was accompanied by an influx of Spanish speakers as the service sector flourished. Between 2000 and 2010, the white share of the population of North Carolina fell from 70 to 65 per cent. The black proportion remained at roughly 21 per cent. The Latino proportion, however, jumped from 4.7 per cent to 8.4 per cent. Today, the proportion of people who are non-white and over 60 is about a third. But it’s approaching nearly half for those under 18. As a result, politics in the South is no longer biracial: a contest between white and black. It is increasingly multiracial and uncoupled from the region’s complex past.

The impact of these changes is reflected in voting patterns. In 2000, the South was still overwhelmingly Republican in presidential contests. Even the Democratic nominee, Al Gore, a southerner, lost his home state of Tennessee. But in 2008 and 2012, Barack Obama took those states with the fastest-changing demographics: Florida and Virginia. He won North Carolina in 2008 and lost it in 2012 – but by less than 100,000 votes. It is true that the Republicans won back control in the 2014 midterm elections, with the result that the Deep South now sends few Democrats to Congress; but the region’s political masters are not quite as traditional-minded as they once were.

The Republican relationship with the Confederate past is complex. As the party of Abraham Lincoln and the Union, the GOPs’ southern support was historically small. But in the 1960s the national Democratic Party embraced civil rights and alienated its once loyal southern following; the Republicans took the opportunity to steal some conservative white voters.

The growing southern Republican vote had a class component. Its success in local and congressional races was built more on winning over middle-class moderates than on appealing to the working-class racists who filled the ranks of the Ku Klux Klan. The southern Republican Party did enthusiastically embrace the Confederate battle flag in many quarters. But some office-holders did so only with ambiguity, while large sections of the party never identified with it at all. The period of Republican ascendancy in the South was, in reality, linked with a softening of the area’s racial politics.

Two of the Republicans’ current southern stars are Indian Americans: Bobby Jindal, the governor of Louisiana, and Nikki Haley, the anti-flag governor of South Carolina. There are just two black people in the US Senate and one of them is a Republican, the Tea Party-backed senator for South Carolina, Tim Scott. Marco Rubio, the Floridian senator and presidential candidate, is Cuban American, and the former Florida governor Jeb Bush is married to a Mexican-born woman and speaks fluent Spanish. Bush has tried to push a more moderate line on immigration, in deference to how the GOP will struggle to win the White House if it appeals only to angry white voters. The Kentucky libertarian senator Rand Paul, Jack Hunter’s former boss, has called for legal reforms to correct the trend of keeping far more black than white people in prison. And he is not the only Republican to have been moved by recent race riots sparked by police violence.

***

Violence on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland, confirmed that there still is a culture war in the US. Yet its character has changed. In the past, civil disturbances were typically leapt upon by conservative politicians as evidence of social decline. The 1992 LA riots were blamed on single parenthood and rap lyrics. In contrast, conservative leaders today are far more likely to acknowledge the problems of white racism. There is no place in their ranks for the likes of Dylann Roof. White supremacists are tiny in number.

Jack Hunter claims: “The KKK is like 12 guys in a telephone booth. Liberal groups will use their threat for fundraising but it doesn’t exist. It hasn’t properly since the 1960s.” Roof’s actions say more about gun control, mental illness and the angst of the young than they do about popular, largely liberal views on race, as polling shows.

We can see a similar liberal shift in other areas of the historic culture war. In May 2015 Gallup released the results of a “moral acceptability” survey charting changes in national attitude across all age groups, from 2001 to 2015. Approval of gay relationships jumped from 40 to 63 per cent; having a baby out of wedlock from 45 to 61 per cent; sex between unmarried men and women from 53 to 68 per cent; doctor-assisted suicide from 49 to 56 per cent; even polygamy went from 7 to 16 per cent. Abortion remained narrowly disapproved of: support for access has only crept up from 42 to 45 per cent. This is probably a result of an unusual concentration of political and religious opposition and because it involves a potential life-or-death decision. But the general trend is that young people just don’t care as much about what consenting adults get up to.

Why? It might be because old forms of identity are dying. One way of measuring that is religious affiliation. From 2007 to 2014, according to Pew Research, the proportion of Americans describing themselves as Christian fell from 78 to 71 per cent. Today, only a quarter of the population is evangelical and 21 per cent Catholic, down despite high immigration. Then there is the decline in civic or communal activity. Since 2012, the organisers of Nascar, the stock-car races, have not published attendance figures at their tracks, probably because they have fallen so sharply. The decline of this most macho and working class of sports parallels the fall in conservative forms of collective identity such as southern traditionalism.

The old culture war was, like the racial politics of the old South, binary. In the 1950s, around the same time as the South invented its tradition of flying the battle flag in colleges, the US constructed an ideal of the “normal” nuclear family unit: straight, white, patriarchal, religious. On the other side was the “abnormal”: gay, black, feminist, atheist, and the rest. The surest way to get elected in the US between 1952 and 2004 was to associate yourself with the economic needs and cultural prejudices of the majority. The approach was once summed up by a Richard Nixon strategist thus: split the country in two and the Republicans will take the larger half. But that is changing. The old normal is no longer the cultural standard but just one of many identities to choose from. The races are mixing. Women want to work more and have children later in life, possibly without marriage. Many religious people are having to rethink their theology when a child comes out as gay. And the enforcers of the old ways – the unions, churches or political parties – are far less attractive than the atomising internet.

***

Politicians are scrabbling to keep up with the diffusion of American identity. Democrats got lucky when they nominated Barack Obama and chose a presidential candidate who reflected the fractured era well: interracial, non-denominational Christian, and so on. In the 2012 presidential race the Republicans got burned when they tried to play the old culture war card on abortion. They won’t repeat that mistake. After the Supreme Court legalised gay marriage across the country in June, the right’s response was not as uniformly loud and outraged as it would have been in the past. Some protested, but serious presidential contenders such as Jeb Bush grasped the implications of the defeat. There is a cultural and political realignment going on and no one is sure where it will lead. It’s encouraging caution among the Republican top brass. It is time, they think, to abandon lost causes.

The death of southern traditionalism is part of the ebb and flow of cultural history. Identities flourish and die. As political fashions change, you find the typically American mix of triumph on one side and jeremiad on the other. Richard Hines stood vigil as the battle flag was lowered in Columbia and noted with disgust the presence of what he described as “bussed-in” activists. “They pulled out all these gay pride flags and started shouting, ‘USA, USA, USA!’ It reminded me of the Bolshevik Revolution.”

Hines reckons that more southerners will now fly the flag than ever before and says he has attended overflow rallies of ordinary folks who love their region. He may well be correct. The faithful will keep the old Confederate standard fluttering on their lawns – an act of secession from the 21st century. But in the public domain, the battle flag is on its way down and in its place will be raised the standard of the new America. The rainbow flag flutters high. For now.

Tim Stanley is a historian and a columnist for the Telegraph

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn wars