When white nationalists marched in Charlottesville last week, resulting in a counterprotester’s death, they were ostensibly objecting to the city’s plans to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee. The violence of that protest has brought to a boil the already simmering national discussion about removing Confederate statues and flags in such places as Montgomery, Ala.; Hot Springs, Ark.; Gainesville, Fla.; Annapolis, Md.; Baltimore; Helena, Mont.; Durham, N.C.; and Nashville.
Some elected officials side with New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu (D), who endorsed taking down such statues and flags, saying that they “were erected with the goal of rewriting history to glorify the Confederacy and perpetuate the idea of white supremacy.”
Other elected officials have stayed silent or endorsed keeping Confederate symbols in public spaces, most notably President Trump, who tweeted he was “sad” to see Confederate statues removed.
Why do some officials support removing Confederate symbols, while others defend keeping them?
Research that we’ll present at this year’s American Political Science Association conference shows an important economic reason some officials want the symbols removed: They are bad for business.
Here’s how we did our research
In the spring of 2017, we conducted a survey of county-level officials in all 11 states of the former Confederacy. The survey was administered by email to the universe of all county officials with valid email addresses displayed on their government websites (6,392 in all). In total, we received 801 complete responses to the survey, which was a 12.5 percent response rate. Most of the officials surveyed are elected in county-level positions. Those responding to the survey were generally representative of all local elected officials in the U.S. South. About 44 percent of officials in our survey reported being Republicans, while only 21 percent identified as Democrats. The remainder did not identify with a major party or stated that they were in a nonpartisan elected position.
Public officials are more likely to support removing Confederate images when it is presented as bad for local business
As part of the survey, we included an experiment where these southern public officials were randomly assigned to receive different survey question prompts about a hypothetical decision to remove or keep the Confederate flag in public spaces. The random assignment means no other explanation can explain differences in our findings between groups of public officials.
One control group of public officials was simply asked how likely they are to support removing the Confederate flag from government property. Officials answered the question by reporting any number from 1 (strongly support removing the flag) to 7 (strongly oppose removing the flag). In this group, opinion on Confederate symbols among local officials was quite split. Democratic officials were more likely than Republicans to support removing Confederate symbols – but about half of Republican officials wanted to take them down as well. African American public officials were much more likely to favor the removal of Confederate symbols than were nonblack public officials.
Another group of public officials were asked the same question, but also were told that a business might boycott or leave the official’s community:
“A major out-of-state company has plans to expand its business by opening a new regional branch in your district, which would provide a significant number of new jobs for your constituents. This company expansion to your district will help your constituents. However, the company is now concerned about moving to your district. If the Confederate flag continues to be displayed in your state or locality, the company has announced it will pull out of its planned expansion to your district.”
After reading this description, this second group of public officials was also asked if they support removing the Confederate flag from government property, again by indicating support or opposition on a seven-point scale.
Here’s what we found: When a business threatened to leave the community, the public officials were much more likely to favor removing the Confederate flag.
For public officials who received no message about business and were simply asked whether they supported or opposed the removal of the Confederate flag, the mean response was closest to “neither likely nor unlikely” to remove the flag. The group of public officials who were told a business might not locate in its constituency if the Confederate flag continued to fly said, on average, they were “somewhat likely” to remove the Confederate flag.
This framing has the biggest effect for Republican officials
The economic or business frame was especially strong for Republicans, and less persuasive for Democrats. Republican officials who did not receive the business prompt said they were somewhat likely to keep the Confederate flag flying, while those who did receive the business prompt moved in the direction of removing the flag.
Will more elected officials decide to remove Confederate symbols from public spaces in the wake of the violence in Charlottesville? Elected officials, especially Republicans, may be persuaded to remove Confederate symbols when the decision is framed as good for business.