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The Confederate flag flap: Rapid policy change? yes; rapid shift in public opinion? no

op frBy Gibbs Knotts & Chris Cooper

A longstanding social science finding holds that collective public opinion is fairly sticky on most issues. In other words, the public’s views do not change very much — and when opinions do shift, the movement tends to be fairly slow. Public opinion does not change over the course of a day, week or month, but rather occurs over years or decades, if it moves at all.

 The recent debate over the Confederate flag might seem to challenge this narrative. A little more than two weeks ago, North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory’s press secretary, Josh Ellis, said that the governor supported a ban on specialty license plates featuring the Confederate battle flag. According to Ellis, this change was “due to the recent Supreme Court ruling and the tragedy in Charleston.”

 

The actions in North Carolina follow trends from several states around the South. For example, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley called for the removal of the Confederate flag on the capitol grounds in Columbia a few days after the Charleston shooting.  Likewise, Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley removed the Confederate flag from the capitol grounds as well as three other Civil War-era flags, and leaders in Mississippi have even called for a redesign of the state flag to remove the Confederate battle flag that appears in the top left corner.

 The rhetoric from politicians therefore implies that this change is in response to recent shifts in public opinion — shifts that have been characterized by some news outlets as sudden or a sea change in opinion. 

While it is convenient for politicians to tie this shift in opinion directly to the recent shootings in Charleston, the decline actually occurred much earlier. In 1992, a Gallup poll reported that more than half (55 percent) of Americans said it was all right for Southern states to fly the Confederate flag over a state capitol. According to another Gallup poll, this number dropped to 46 percent in 2000. By 2013, YouGov reported that the proportion of the population supporting flying the Confederate flag over a state capitol had fallen to 20 percent. And recent Public Policy Polling surveys show that in the aftermath of the Charleston shooting, flag support nationwide remained at about 20 percent.

Although the issue has a number of complicating plotlines (e.g., people feel differently about flying the flag about a state capitol versus on a college campus versus on a private residence), the bottom line is that prior to the Charleston shooting, Americans were already less supportive of the Confederate flag than they have been at any time in U.S. history.

While the policy changes in Southern states may appear sudden, they reflect the end-game of a long-term shift in public opinion, not a recent, unexpected shift. The horrific shootings in Charleston, and the accused shooter’s penchant for flying, brandishing and celebrating the Confederate flag, may have provided the focusing event necessary for politicians to notice that opinions on the flag had changed, but the seeds for removal of the flag have been sown for quite some time.

(Christopher Cooper is professor and head of the Department of Political Science and Public Affairs at Western Carolina University. Gibbs Knotts is professor and head of the Department of Political Science at the College of Charleston.)

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