Protest and Contentious Politics

The Persistent Effect of the US Civil Rights Movement on Political Attitudes

Forthcoming at the American Journal of Political Science

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Social movements can engender significant societal change. Often times, change takes the form of formal institutions or the development of competing political parties. Can historical social movements also continue to shape a nation’s contemporary politics outside of these more formalized channels? I argue that social movements can not only beget institutional change, but also long-run, attitudinal change. Using the case of the US Civil Rights Movement, I develop a new theory in which protests can shift political attitudes and that these attitudes persist through a cultural transmission mechanism. Evidence from county and individual-level data indicates support for my argument and the hypothesized causal mechanism. Counties that experienced Civil Rights protests between 1960 to 1965 are associated with an approximately 6% increase in Democratic Party vote shares today. Using an instrumental variables strategy, I provide evidence that the empirical relationship between protests and contemporary vote shares is causal. Moreover, individuals from counties that experienced Civil Rights protests are more likely to identify as liberal, more likely to support affirmative action, and less likely to indicate racial resentment toward blacks in America. My argument and results highlight how social movements can have persistent impacts on a nation’s contemporary politics.


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