Americans these days like to think of the Ku Klux Klan—if they think of the KKK at all—as a white supremacist abomination whose time has come and gone. That is, its presence was deplorable but its impact minimal. A new article from Rory McVeigh, David Cunningham, and Justin Farrell paints a different picture, arguing that the very visible demonstrations of the extremist organization have played a lasting role in shaping the American electorate as we know it today.
The 1960s saw a major shift in the Southern United States where mostly white voters, motivated by their opposition to Civil Rights policies, shifted their support from Democrats to Republicans. The authors argue the Klan was a major player in this shift, but not because it recruited a wide swath of voters to their cause. Instead, KKK activism, in its extremism, drew attention to how the civil rights movement was challenging long-held “links between movement goals and positions taken by political candidates” (1148), thus turning white voters against the Democratic party.
McVeigh, Cunningham, and Farrell base their argument on findings from two sets of tests. First, using data from the National Consortium on Violence Research, House UnAmerican Activities Committee data on Klan organization from 1967, they measure Klan activism within counties in ten southern states through the 1960s. Counties marked by KKK activism were significantly more likely to vote for Republican Presidential candidates. And this effect carried past the ‘60s. Repeated tests comparing 1960 to 1972, 1980, 1992, and even 2000 show that the effect holds over time. There is also a geographic effect; counties that bordered centers of Klan activism had weaker, but significant shifts toward Republican voting as well.
A second analysis using 1992 Southern Focus Poll data shows a similar pattern among individual voters. Those more in favor of segregation were more likely to vote Republican; however, this was only if they lived in counties that had documented Klan activism back in the 1960s.
The authors are careful to point out these results do not mean the Klan has directly influenced voters over the last 50 years. Instead, this is a story about the unintended, yet long-lasting consequences of a radical group that “dislodge[s] voters from preexisting party loyalties” and reshapes the field of public opinion (1161). In short, the Klan changed the political culture and produced a system of party allegiances that remained in place long after their activism diminished.