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Sociologist analyzes KKK impact on modern politics

| Thursday, December 4, 2014

Professor Rory McVeigh, chair of sociology at Notre Dame, co-authored an upcoming article to be published in the American Sociological Review with professors David Cunningham from Brandeis University and Justin Farrell from Yale University.

The article, titled, “Political Polarization as a Social Movement Outcome: 1960s Klan Activism and its Enduring Impact on Political Realignment in Southern Counties, 1960 to 2000,” discusses the activities of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) in its heyday, its influence in modern politics and the motivations behind actions from a near half-century ago that are still felt in the world today.

“There are really two different core puzzles,” McVeigh said. “One is kind of a substantive puzzle … how has the South, which used to be solidly Democratic and supportive of white supremacy … how has it transformed into a Republican stronghold? … Historians have looked at that but not really paid attention to the role of extremist movements like the Ku Klux Klan.

“It kind of fits in with a general academic question about whether or not social movements make a difference,” McVeigh said. “For many, many years, sociologists were studying how [the KKK] emerged in the first place. It’s only been in recent years that people have been turning that question around and asking, ‘do they make a difference?’”

McVeigh, Cunningham and Farrell worked with nearly half a century of voting data since one of the peaks in Klan activity during the 1960s. The trio observed changes in voting habits in counties across 10 states in the South that have and haven’t experienced Klan influence, McVeigh said.

“We have a measure of Republican voting in 1960 before the emergence of the Klan, and we look at measures of Republican voting through various elections after the emergence of the Klan going all the way to 2000 and we look at Klan activism as something that intervenes within that time period,” Mcveigh said. “Here we are in the 1990s after the Klan has dissolved … and we found that people who hold conservative attitudes towards integration … are more likely to vote Republican. But here’s the important part: that was only true in counties where the Klan were active.”

McVeigh said the longest lasting influences of the KKK were sustained through subtler, more mundane means, rather than emphasizing disparity between races. The KKK’s actions brought to light the unwillingness of the general public to discuss and resolve race-related issues, he said.

“Our personal networks are more diverse in attitudes than we think they are.” McVeigh said. “Let’s say … we don’t agree on some issue. I could drop you as a friend but more commonly we change the topic that we’re talking about — something we have in common like music or sports.

“Then sometimes there’s such an issue that could be a ‘hot topic’ of discussion … and we argue in our paper the Klan was like that. They were so controversial … it became such a hot topic of discussion that you couldn’t just avoid it. In the process people started to choose side and the Klan played a role in bringing the race issue out into the open and aligning racial attitudes with party platforms. … In other words, this kind of radical action can disrupt social networks and place people in different networks that are sustained for so long through social interaction,” he said.

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