Sociologist Rory McVeigh Explores Sources of Political Polarization

Author: Arts and Letters

While recent research shows that Americans’ attitudes are converging on a broad range of social issues, the political gap between political party adherents is growing wider, said Rory McVeigh, professor and chair of the Department of Sociology at Notre Dame.

“Democrats and Republicans have become increasingly cohesive in terms of their views on many issues, leaving very little room for compromise and collaboration across party lines,” he said. “As a result, we see gridlock in Washington during a time when the nation faces serious problems that need to be resolved.”

McVeigh, who specializes in inequality, social movements, race, and ethnicity, has focused his most recent research on the sources of this political polarization.

The Enduring Influence of the Ku Klux Klan

Tracing the historical roots of today’s political divide led McVeigh to examine the notorious activities of the Ku Klux Klan nearly a half-century ago. Klan activism in the 1960s continues to exert an influence on contemporary American political polarization, he said.

“My research considers the extent to which historical conflicts that play out in local settings can align community members on different sides of an issue, and how these conflicts reduce the types of interpersonal connections that might otherwise lead to compromise and cooperation.”

In an article published in American Sociological Review, McVeigh and co-authors David Cunningham and Justin Farrell draw on 40 years of voting data to argue that increases in Republican support were most conspicuous in southern counties where the Klan had been active in the 1960s, even taking into account other influences on voting shifts.

The article, “Political Polarization as a Social Movement Outcome: 1960s Klan Activism and its Enduring Impact on Political Realignment in Southern Counties, 1960 to 2000,” also features an analysis of individual voters that demonstrates how, decades after the Klan declined, racial attitudes predict Southern voters’ partisan leanings, but only in counties where the Klan had been active.

“The political polarization that we witness today is linked to the various ways in which Americans live in segregated worlds,” McVeigh said.

The Impact of Educational Segregation

Many forms of segregation in local communities, McVeigh said, can reinforce beliefs and values in those who have little contact with people who are dissimilar to themselves in some respect—such as educational attainment.

In another recent study, McVeigh and coauthors Kraig Beyerlein, Burrel Vann, and Priyamvada Trivedi examine why certain U.S. counties are more conducive to the establishment of Tea Party organization. The article, “Educational Segregation, Tea Party Organizations, and Battles over Distributive Justice” was also published in the American Sociological Review.

The study’s statistical analyses show that even after accounting for many other factors, Tea Party organizations were much more likely to form in counties with high levels of residential segregation based on education levels, and that college graduates were more likely to indicate support for the Tea Party if they resided in a county characterized by high levels of educational segregation.

“The commonly held view that individuals and families who are struggling to get by are undeserving of government assistance is reinforced when the highly educated have limited contact with those who have been less fortunate,” McVeigh said.

The research focused on Tea Party organizations in 2010, when the grassroots component of the movement was at its peak and supporters were protesting the proposed Affordable Care Act.

“The analyses help us understand,” McVeigh said, “how a movement enabled by highly resourced conservative organizations has been able to draw the support it needed to credibly present itself as a grassroots movement representing ordinary Americans, and thus exert influence on voters and the political process.”

Originally published by Arts and Letters at on April 29, 2015.