What did the American public think about the Confederate flag before the shootings in South Carolina?
In November 2014, the respondents of The American Panel Survey (TAPS) were asked how offended they would be by witnessing each of a variety of potentially controversial behaviors in American society. One was the public display of the Confederate flag; others included the display of the gay pride flag, the burning of the American flag, and the use of a racist term (the “n-word”) to refer to blacks.
Most Americans said they were at least “slightly offended” by the Confederate flag (13% said slightly, 20% said moderately, 12% said very, and 15% said extremely offended). About 39% said that they were “not offended at all.” Fewer people took offense at gay pride flag — 56% said they were not offended at all — as of November of last year.
Who was offended and who was not offended? There were key partisan differences, as this graph shows:
Democrats were much more likely to be offended at displays of the Confederate flag than Republicans. Nearly three-fourths of Democrats in the survey identified some level of offense, while less than half of Republicans took offense to such displays. (On a scale with a four-point range, the average Democrat was one full point more offended than a Republican.)
The pattern was reversed when considering the gay pride flag. Only about one-fourth of Democrats found it to be offensive, whereas more than two-thirds of Republicans reported being at least slightly offended. (The average Republican is one full point more offended than the average Democrat.) The divergent reactions these two flags elicited are not seen in response to the use of the n-word or the burning of the U.S. flag.
Attitudes toward the Confederate flag also depended on whether people lived in the South — at least among Republicans. Only about one-third of non-Southern Republicans took offense at the Confederate flag. Still, party matters too, since there were still significant differences remained between non-Southern Republicans and both Southern and non-Southern Democrats. Notably, there is hardly any difference between non-Southern and Southern Democrats.
A more complete analysis shows that being male, low-income, less well educated, Southern, white and Republican are related to reporting a lower level of offense at the Confederate flag. In contrast, being younger, non-Southern, Democrat and white are associated with reporting a lower level of offense at the gay pride flag.
These findings, based on responses last fall, may explain the initial hesitation of Republican presidential candidates to support removing the Confederate battle flag from the capitol grounds in South Carolina. Only once nine people were murdered during Bible study in a prominent Charleston AME church did the candidates respond to national public opinion, which is strongly weighted against the flag, and call for its removal.
How have the shootings altered Americans’ views of the Confederate flag? To answer that, TAPS will go to the field with these questions again in a month or two.
Patrick D. Tucker is a PhD candidate in political science at Washington University in St. Louis. Steven S. Smith is the Kate M. Gregg distinguished professor of social sciences, professor of political science and the director of the Murray Weidenbaum Center on the Economy, Government, and Public Policy at Washington University.