Washington Post

By Amber Phillips July 2

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley says: Take down the Confederate flag. Not every American agrees. (Tim Dominick/The State via AP)
Politicians were tripping over themselves to call for the Confederate flag to be taken down in the wake of the Charleston shootings. But new polling has found Americans weren’t quite so decisive.

In fact, for once, politicians might actually have gotten out ahead of public opinion.

The Confederate flag on display, from 1938 to today
View Photos Public moments featuring the Confederate flag.
A Suffolk University/USA Today poll was conducted two weeks after the apparently racially motivated shootings and a week after calls for the flag to come down first gained momentum. It found that 42 percent of respondents thought the flag was racist and should be removed from state grounds, while 42 percent thought the flag was not racist and represents Southern history.

(Those numbers break down less along regional lines and more along partisan lines, with 63 percent of Democrats calling the flag racist and 61 percent of Republicans saying it’s not.)
What’s more, a CNN/ORC poll released Friday shows 57 percent of Americans see the flag more as a symbol of Southern pride than racism, about the same as 2000 levels.

That latter poll does show, however, that a majority of Americans (55 percent) think the flag should nonetheless be taken off government property — suggesting these politicians are at least on the right side of public opinion nationally. But the 43 percent who support keeping the flag flying is likely considerably higher in the places at issue — which are in red states in the South.

In other words, Republican politicians who have called for the flag to be taken down might not be doing exactly what their states would like them to. And at the very least, it’s not a clear political call — which makes last month’s political race to drop the flag like a hot potato all the more surprising; politicians are usually much more deliberate.

These are the first national polls since South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley (R) called for the flag to be taken off state capitol grounds in the days after a white man killed nine black church members. Haley’s speech launched a wave of Republicans questioning the flag’s place on government property, from presidential candidates to other southern governors.

But political change almost never works this way. In fact, it usually is the opposite.

We can look back at a number of social issues — from gay marriage to guns — to find politicians following rather than leading public opinion.

Example one: same-sex marriage. Most Democratic politicians — including President Obama and Hillary Clinton — didn’t support it publicly until it had clear majority support.

On the other side of the political spectrum, gun laws help prove our point. After mass shootings from Newtown, Conn., to Charleston, there’s almost no chance Congress will move to tighten gun laws — in part because the public doesn’t want that to happen.

This Suffolk University/USA Today poll asked about that, too. It found 56 percent of Americans said tightening gun laws or background checks would not prevent more mass shootings in the United States, while about 40 percent of respondents said it would help.