Michael Zak does what all too many on the left fail to do: crack open some history books and take a real look at the history of the Ku Klux Klan. Zak correctly notes that when the Klan was at its zenith during the 1920s, it was a terrorist wing of the Democratic party, and that since its inception, Republicans were at the forefront in trying to take it down.
It would have been far more truthful for the congresswoman to have admitted the fact that all those who wore sheets a long time ago lifted them to wear Democratic Party clothing. Yes, the Ku Klux Klan was established by the Democratic Party. Yes, the Ku Klux Klan murdered thousands of Republicans — African-American and white – in the years following the Civil War. Yes, the Republican Party and a Republican President, Ulysses Grant, destroyed the KKK with their Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871.
How did the Ku Klux Klan re-emerge in the 20th century? For that, the Democratic Party is to blame.
It was a racist Democrat President, Woodrow Wilson, who premiered Birth of a Nation in the White House. That racist movie was based on a racist book written by one of Wilson’s racist friends from college. In 1915, the movie spawned the modern-day Klan, with its burning crosses and white sheets.
Inspired by the movie, some Georgia Democrats revived the Klan. Soon, the Ku Klux Klan again became a powerful force within the Democratic Party. The KKK so dominated the 1924 Democratic Convention that Republicans, speaking truth to power, called it the Klanbake. In the 1930s, a Democrat President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, appointed a Klansman, Senator Hugo Black (D-AL), to the U.S. Supreme Court. In the 1950s, the Klansmen against whom the civil rights movement struggled were Democrats. The notorious police commissioner Bull Connor, who attacked African-Americans with dogs and clubs and fire hoses, was both a Klansman and the Democratic Party’s National Committeeman for Alabama. Starting in the 1980s, the Democratic Party elevated a recruiter for the Ku Klux Klan, Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV), to third-in-line for the presidency.
I have one quibble with all this. It focuses too much on the partisan aspect of the KKK and not enough on its ideological drive. After all, modern day Democrats could just claim that the Klan represented the conservative wing of the Democratic party. This would be an error.
While most members of the Klan held what would be termed conservative views on social issues, they were hardly purveyors of Burkean conservative values. In fact the Klan typified the Progressive/Populist movement to a tee: “conservative” socially but decidedly left-wing economically and politically. They supported government intrusion into the economy and were backers of the New Deal. Jesse Walker explains some of the areas of overlap between the Progressive movement and the Klan:
1. Progressivism had roots in the Protestant pietist tradition, and its partisans were frequently interested in reforming individuals as well as institutions. It’s a quick jump from there to the moral authoritarianism described in Charles Alexander’s books. Jane Addams, the Social Gospel activist who played such a big role in passing protective labor regulations and compulsory schooling laws, was also a critic of the “debased form of dramatic art, and a vulgar type of music” that a young person might find in the five-cent theaters, writing that it was “astounding that a city allows thousands of its youth to fill their impressionable minds with these absurdities.” Prohibition, that Klan kause kelebre, reached its height as a cause during the Progressive Era, complete with muckraking exposés of the “whiskey ring” and culminating with the passage of the eighteenth amendment in 1919.
2. Racism also had a foothold among the progressives. It might be tempting to argue that bigots like Woodrow Wilson, who introduced Jim Crow rules to the federal government, were merely progressive in some areas and reactionary in others. But the American eugenics movement was tied closely to the progressives’ drive for “scientific” reform, and its heyday covered both the Progressive Era and the ’20s. Politicians offered eugenic arguments not just for laws that banned miscegenation and allowed authorities to sterilize the allegedly unfit, but for restrictions on immigration from southern and central Europe.
3. The progressives and the Klan shared an interest in mandating public education and eliminating urban political machines. The civic-activist historians tell us that the rank-and-file Klansman’s interest in such reforms was frequently a sincere response to corruption and inadequate schooling, though it’s clear that their urban proposals owed at least something to their fear of immigrants, and that their education proposals were transparantly anti-Catholic. If the Klan’s motives were not purely nativist, then neither were the progressives’ purely benign: Just as the Klansmen sometimes shared the progressives’ hopes, the latter sometimes shared the Klansmen’s fears.
4. In the late 1910s the Klan was a small regional organization. In the early ’20s it was large and national. There’s a number of reasons why it made this leap, but the biggest may be the effects of World War I. This too marked a connection with progressivism.
As the historian William Leuchtenburg and the economist Murray Rothbard have argued, Wilson’s wartime policies were an outgrowth, not a negation, of Progressive Era politics. During the conflict, government planners and “enlightened” corporate leaders replaced a relatively free market with a heavily regimented economy, while intellectuals hoped, in Leuchtenburg’s words, to adopt “the same sort of centralized directing now employed to kill their enemies abroad for the new purpose of reconstructing their own life at home.”
Jonah Goldberg discussed some of the nastier, racist elements of the Progressive movement in Liberal Fascism. Justin Logan also has taken a look at the links between the Klan and Progressives, and there is other literature that touches upon this phenomenon.
Long story short, the Klan were largely comprised of people we would term statists. This is not to say, of course, that all Progressives were racists or klansman, but the idea that the KKK was some kind of right-wing group is not anywhere near accurate.