Mobilizing the White: White Nationalism and Congressional Politics in the American South

Published date01 September 2022
Date01 September 2022
Subject MatterArticles
American Politics Research
© The Author(s) 2022
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1532673X221088844
The past decade has seen a dramatic rise in the public profile
of white nationalism in the United States. Invigorated by the
2008 election of President Barack Obama and coalescing
with the election of President Donald Trump in 2016, this
period was marked by a substantial uptick in far-right hate
crimes (Bergengruen & Hennigan, 2019; Feinberg, 2020;
Jendryke & McClure, 2019), white nationalist rallies,
marches, protests, and online activities (Medina et al., 2018;
Miller & Graves, 2020; Scrivens et al., 2021), and increasing
polarization of the voting public, marked particularly by
white resentment regarding perceived status decline
(Abramowitz & McCoy, 2019; Fording & Schram, 2020;
Mutz, 2018; Updegrove et al., 2020; Valentino et al., 2017).
While these phenomena are closely correlated, white nation-
alist groups (WNGs) are typically regarded as symptoms of
such resentments rather than social movements that may
contribute to tangible political outcomes (see Blee, 2017;
Kincaid, 2017). Such distinctions are highly problematic at a
time when white nationalists are increasingly and openly
attempting to enter the American political mainstream
(Atkinson, 2018; Hartzell, 2018; Tanner & Burghart, 2020).
This paper represents an initial effort to rectify this over-
sight by analyzing how WNGs at the Congressional district
level can influence the ideological policy alignments of elected
representatives. To this end, it examines how these groups’
activities contribute to the radicalization of conservative
American politics (Blee, 2017; Kincaid, 2017; Klandermans
& Mayer, 2006). It bridges recent scholarship emphasizing
conditions conducive to hate group mobilization and hate
crimes to the exclusion of political outcomes (yet see Fording
& Cotter, 2014; Fording & Schram, 2020; McVeigh et al.,
2014) and established literature on the influence of ethnocen-
trism, out-group prejudice, and racial threats on political atti-
tudes and voter behavior (Hutchings & Valentino, 2004;
Jardina & Piston, 2019; Schaffner, 2020; Schaffner et al.,
2018). Formally, it tests the proposition that WNGs signifi-
cantly contribute to the radicalization of mainstream conserva-
tive politics in America, in a manner not reducible to
background demographics, socioeconomic conditions, nor
out-group hostilities theorized to explain their rise.
We do so quantitatively by regressing data on the distribu-
tion of WNGs in the American South, drawn from the Southern
Poverty Law Center’s annual Hate Map (SPLC, 2020a) and
subsequently geocoded to Congressional districts, against
John Birch Society ratings of Congressional representatives
1088844APRXXX10.1177/1532673X221088844American Politics ResearchWeiner and Zellman
Department of Political Studies, Bar-Ilan University Faculty of Social
Sciences, Ramat Gan, Israel
Department of Political Studies, Political Studies, Bar-Ilan University
Faculty of Social Sciences, Ramat Gan, Israel
Corresponding Author:
Ariel Zellman, Department of Political Studies, Political Studies, Bar-Ilan
University Faculty of Social Sciences, Ramat Gan 5290002, Israel.
Mobilizing the White: White Nationalism
and Congressional Politics in the
American South
Amanda Weiner1 and Ariel Zellman2
To what extent do white nationalists influence Congressional representative conservatism? Although ethnocentrism, out-
group prejudice, and racial threats strongly predict American political attitudes and voter behavior, how social movements
predicated on these beliefs shape political outcomes is rarely considered. We argue that white nationalist activities significantly
contribute to the radicalization of Congressional representatives’ policy agendas in a manner non-reducible to demographic
or socioeconomic conditions. By mobilizing white voters against racial status threats, they indirectly compel politicians to
adopt more radically conservative agendas. We quantitatively test these propositions by examining distributions of white
nationalist groups in the American South against Congressional representative conservatism from 2010–2017. Analyses
reveal that white nationalists indeed appear to significantly impact representative radical conservatism, even controlling for
numerous factors commonly theorized to explain their rise. In doing so, we contribute to emerging insights on the political
influence of the radical right on the contemporary American conservative “mainstream.”
congressional representation, racial status threats, radical conservatism, white nationalism
2022, Vol. 50(5) 707–722
708 American Politics Research 50(5)
from 2010–2017. Taking into account well-established demo-
graphic and socioeconomic explanations for increased white
voter ethnocentrism and racial threat perceptions, we find that
Southern Congressional districts with growing numbers of
active WNGs are significantly more likely to elect more radi-
cally conservative representatives than those lacking such
Our results significantly contribute to burgeoning research
on ethnonationalism, racial threats, and right-wing social
movements in the United States and western democracies in
general. Previous scholarship has cautiously avoided identi-
fying white nationalist movements as contributing to the
increased mainstreaming of racism in contemporary
American politics. This study however offers preliminary yet
compelling evidence that even in Congressional districts
most historically, politically, and socioeconomically prone to
such attitudes, white nationalist activities significantly influ-
ence downstream political outcomes.
Literature Review
In the discussion that follows, we employ three key terms
requiring definition. First, “white nationalist groups”
(WNGs) refer to named organizations whose agendas are
“largely dictated by their concern with protecting what they
believe to be a threatened white racial identity” (Fording &
Schram, 2020, p. 50). “Racial threats” refer to changes in the
socioeconomic, demographic, and political status quo, which
members of dominant racial groups perceive as challenging
their privileged access to economic resources and political
and social power (Stults & Swagar, 2018, pp. 149–151).
Finally, “radical conservatism” here refers to a general body
of policy positions and political attitudes that are generally
accepting of popular sovereignty and majority rule, yet
oppose fundamental values of liberal democracy, especially
minority rights and pluralism, indicating a deep—perhaps
even overriding— concern for threats to white conservative
sociopolitical dominance (Blum & Parker, 2019; Craig &
Richeson, 2014; Kincaid, 2017; McVeigh, 2009, p. 32;
Mudde, 2018, p. 2; Toplin, 2006; Valentino & Sears, 2005).1
Our operationalizations of these terms are clarified further in
the methodology section.
White Nationalists as Violent Actors
Much recent scholarship on white nationalism in the United
States has explored the oft-assumed intimate relationship
between “hate groups,” hate crimes, and domestic terrorism,
particularly perpetrated by far-right extremists. This research
agenda is critical. Whereas an enormous volume of research
has examined threats posed by foreign, especially Islamic
terrorism, white supremacists and other far-right extremists
have been responsible for almost three times as many domes-
tic attacks since 9/11 (Bergengruen & Hennigan, 2019). The
Anti-Defamation League reports that far-right organizations
and individuals were responsible for 73% of domestic
extremist-related fatalities from 2009 to 2018, and 2019
saw more anti-Semitic incidents than any other year since
1979 (ADL, 2019; Cortellessa, 2020). The Department of
Homeland Security (2020, p. 18) also cited 2019 as the most
lethal year for “domestic violent extremism” in the United
States since the 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing, with white
supremacist extremists responsible for more attacks and
deaths than any other ideological group.
Multiple studies confirm that the presence of hate groups
in the United States is significantly related to the occurrence
of hate crimes, against persons or properties motivated at
least in part by targets’ “immutable characteristics”
(Adamczyk et al., 2014; Feinberg, 2020; Jendryke &
McClure, 2019; Sweeney & Perliger, 2018; Yahagi, 2019).
While the number of WNGs explicitly linked to violent and/
or criminal acts, particularly those perpetrated by radicalized
“lone wolves,” are quite small, their effect has often been
devastating (Asal et al., 2020). So too, WNGs that explicitly
advocate violence are more likely to act violently (Asal &
Vitek, 2018), although they are also more likely to attract law
enforcement or other legal interventions leading to their
demise (Suttmoeller et al., 2018).
Particularly extreme, deeply violent white nationalist
organizations like the Order and more recently Atomwaffen
Divison and Base have advanced ambitious plots aimed at
inciting race war and overthrowing the federal government
in order to establish a white American ethno-state (Barkun,
1989; Blazakis et al., 2020; Stabile, 2019; Ware, 2019).
Recent efforts by far-right militia groups to instigate vio-
lence and police reprisals against protesters at Black Lives
Matters rallies, not to mention their high-profile participation
in the January 2021 U.S. Capital riot, may be even more con-
cerning (Burghart, 2020; Staff, 2021; Olson, 2020; Thomas,
2020; Wilson & Evans, 2020). That these groups and associ-
ated individuals’ actions were often ignored, condoned, or
even encouraged by the Trump administration (e.g. “Stand
back and stand by” to the Proud Boys during the first presi-
dential candidates’ debate in September 2020) is alarming to
say the least (also ADL, 2020; Levy, 2020; Miller & Graves,
Demand-Based Approaches to White
Yet examination of white nationalism through the dominant
lens of criminal and political violence potentially obfuscates
study of the very meaningful extent to which these groups’
ethnocentric and racist agendas have (re)entered the
American mainstream (Fording & Schram, 2020; Hartzell,
2018; Mondon & Winter, 2020). To be sure, out-group preju-
dices have never been far from the surface of American poli-
tics, consistently if latently shaping popular political attitudes
and voter behavior. Particularly relevant, are consistent find-
ings that “racial threats” motivate increased support by white

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