Given the popularity of NASCAR in the South and its perceived affiliation with the symbol — it has even used the flag in a logo for a race — that’s a significant step. It’s somewhat on par with then-South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s removal of the flag from her statehouse’s grounds in 2015 after a racially motivated massacre at a church in Charleston. Getting rid of the flag is one thing; doing it in areas that have so embraced it and where the moves might predictably draw a backlash is quite another.
But just how much momentum is truly behind the movement? While the actions taken have been significant, it’s not totally clear there that has been a fundamental change in how Americans view the Confederate flag and monuments in recent years.
There isn’t much recent polling on Confederate symbols, but the little we have since 2015 suggests that the American public — especially in the South — remains uneasy about removing these symbols.
A Fox News poll in 2017 showed that Americans opposed taking down Confederate monuments by 2 to 1, 61 percent to 29 percent. Marist College showed similar numbers, 62 percent to 27 percent.
A Quinnipiac University poll around the same time showed less opposition, but 50 percent of Americans still opposed taking down the monuments against 39 percent in favor. A HuffPost/YouGov poll was similar, showing people opposed removing statues 48 percent to 33 percent and opposed removing Confederate names from streets, schools and buildings 51 percent to 29 percent.
When the question was asked in a slightly different manner, views became more nuanced. A poll from Democratic-leaning automated pollster Public Policy Polling, for instance, showed that when you asked people not about removing statues but about moving them to museums or other historical sites, people were much more in favor. Americans supported this 58 percent to 26 percent.
The most recent high-quality poll we have on this, from the Public Religion Research Institute in 2018, showed similarly nuanced views. But it didn’t indicate such strong support for putting the monuments somewhere else.
Just 9 percent in the poll supported removing and destroying the statues, while 26 percent supported moving them to museums or on private property. A combined 63 percent supported either keeping them as is (19 percent) or leaving them in place but adding plaques to describe their historical context.
Americans in the poll also opposed renaming schools, streets and buildings by 65 percent to 33 percent.
Regrettably, there aren’t many other, more recent polls than this, and the few that we do have were focused on Southern states.
In 2018, a Quinnipiac poll of Virginia — which was home to the Confederacy but has trended toward the Democratic Party in recent years — showed 57 percent opposed removing Confederate statues, while just 33 percent were in favor.
In an Elon University poll last year of North Carolina — another swing state — 65 percent said the monuments should stand in government-owned places. But 65 percent also said it was a “good idea” to move them to museums.
Whatever popular support exists for getting rid of the monuments or the flag, it seems to be for moving them rather than getting rid of them altogether. That’s a line that public officials will have to straddle — and NASCAR is, to some degree.
But when Haley (R) reflected on her decision in 2019, she suggested such middle-ground approaches might not be practical.
“Today’s outrage culture does not allow any gestures to the other side. It demands that we declare winners and losers,” she said. “That attitude comes at a big price. Sadly, I’m not sure that in today’s political climate we would have been able to remove the flag.”