Research in the News: The Klan’s legacy found in political polarization

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The darkened areas on the map indicate counties with Ku Klux Klan chapters.

The Ku Klux Klan’s impact on political polarization lasted long after its main objectives flat-lined, new research indicates. The findings show that even an unsuccessful social movement can exert an enduring influence on the country.

Working with voting records in 10 Southern states from 1960 to 2000, as well as Congressional data about Klan chapters in the 1960s, researchers established a link between Klan activity and political polarization based on attitudes about race. The research appears in the December issue of the journal American Sociological Review.

“The Ku Klux Klan failed in its efforts to defend Jim Crow segregation in the South, and its membership plummeted in the late 1960s,” sociologists Justin Farrell of Yale University, Rory McVeigh of the University of Notre Dame, and David Cunningham of Brandeis University wrote. “Yet the Klan … contributed to the racialization of national politics and, in that sense, its influence has long outlived the movement’s heyday of resistance to black civil rights.”

The authors found that in counties where the Klan organized in the 1960s, more white voters were persuaded to prioritize white supremacy when casting their ballot. Those decisions led to a realignment of party loyalty from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party — a realignment that remained consistent for decades.

“Because the Klan was highly visible, highly contentious, and violent, it held the potential to polarize communities in a way that facilitated a lasting alignment of racial attitudes and voting behavior,” the authors said. “Indeed, we find that in 1992, decades after the Klan’s decline, conservative racial attitudes strongly predict Southerners’ Republican voting, but only in counties where the Klan was organized in the 1960s.”

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Jim Shelton: james.shelton@yale.edu, 203-361-8332