Can white Southerners learn from postwar Germany’s dismantling of Nazi monuments?
White Southerners erected most Confederate monuments in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to celebrate their violent victory over Reconstruction, a brief period when the federal government occupied the South to enforce the Constitution’s guarantees of racial equality. Authoritarian Jim Crow followed, in which the new white government and white supremacist groups violently enforced segregation and black disenfranchisement. The Confederate battle flag reemerged in the mid-20th century as a symbol of white resistance to the civil rights movement’s pursuit of black voting rights and desegregation.
By contrast, after Germany’s military defeat in World War II, its postwar government systematically removed all public displays celebrating the Nazi regime, and focused its public history on remembering Nazi atrocities instead. In fact, Germany banned citizens from displaying Nazi symbols, too, arguing that those symbols’ implied violence outweighed the appeal of free speech. The government called this effort “de-Nazification.”
We wanted to know whether comparing Confederate to Nazi symbols would persuade Americans to consider “de-Confederation.”
How we did our research
We commissioned the survey firm Lucid to conduct a nationally representative survey experiment in April; 2,500 Americans responded, including 643 white Southerners. We randomly assigned a third of all respondents to read a conventional argument against the monuments, focused on how black Americans see them symbolizing injustices and pain and explaining the historical revisionism of the “Lost Cause.” That reading included a picture of a statue with a soldier standing with a Confederate battle flag.
Another third read the same message, but with a few extra sentences describing Germany’s experience, discussing Confederate and Nazi symbols as analogous. It also included a historical picture of a Nazi flag burning on a heap. Finally, a third of respondents had no reading.
We then asked all three groups a wide range of questions about Confederate symbols.
Examining Southern racial history changed minds. Comparing the Confederacy to Nazi Germany did not.
Past studies have found that white Southerners are willing to change their minds. We found the same — except when we compared their history to Nazi Germany.
On average, white Southerners who read the first message were 13 points more likely than those who read nothing to agree that the Confederate flag was a symbol of racism rather than pride (from 40 percent to 53 percent); 8 points more likely to change beliefs on buildings named after Confederates; and 5 points more likely to shift on Confederate statues, though that last was not statistically clear.
Predictably, the shift occurred among whites who scored as below the midpoint on racial resentment, a measure of anti-black animus. White Southerners with less hostile views toward blacks shifted their opinions of the flag by a whopping 21 points, with nine-point shifts for statues and building names. The racially resentful did not change their views.
But comparing Confederate to Nazi symbolism completely erased the message’s effect, whether or not they were racially resentful. The group that read that analogy answered with roughly the same views as did the group that read no message at all.
Taking down monuments
Next, we test whether these messages affect attitudes about what should be done with Confederate symbols. They do. Among low-resentment white Southerners, reading the first message made them eight points less likely to say public Confederate statues and building names were appropriate, and nine points less likely to support private Confederate displays.
Among the low-resentment group, that conventional message increased support for removing statues and symbols by 14 points more than those who read nothing (from 38 to 52 percent), and 11 points more likely to oppose installing any new Confederate symbols (from 63 to 74 percent).
Interestingly, we saw no backlash among the more racially resentful whites who read the first message; they just ignored it.
White Americans outside the South didn’t change their views at all, no matter what message they read; nor did people of color generally or black Americans in particular. That may be because many other groups already oppose the monuments and need no persuading. Eighty percent of black respondents in our study already supported taking them down, as did a bare majority of whites outside the South.
What can we learn from this?
Remarkably, our tests show that accurate history and an appeal to racial justice can persuade many white Southerners to oppose Confederate symbols.
But comparing the Confederate South to Nazi Germany undid that persuasion. In sum, as social scientists have long known, the message’s framing matters.
Messengers matter, too. Hearing from trusted political leaders and even other ordinary citizens can shift public opinion significantly, even on race, though everyday behavior may change more slowly. We’ve seen that in this year’s dramatic opinion shifts on race and policing, particularly among white Democrats.
Andrew Searles (@AndrewDSearles) is a 2020 graduate of the Honors College at Louisiana State University.
Nathan Kalmoe is an assistant professor of political communication at Louisiana State University and the author of the forthcoming “With Ballots & Bullets: Partisanship & Violence in the American Civil War” (Cambridge University Press, 2020).