Among the few points of agreement among members of the two major political parties is that the Ku Klux Klan is bad. This has not always been an agreed-upon position — for years, the Klan actively endorsed political candidates — and it’s not a uniformly held position by everyone in either party. But as a general rule, the Klan is a mutually agreed-upon bad thing.
What that means, though, is that the Klan is also then used as a way of disparaging political opponents. For example, there’s this, retweeted by prominent conservative Dinesh D’Souza during President Trump’s speech on Tuesday night.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) declared his political opponents “the party of the Ku Klux Klan” last month. Cruz doesn’t mean that members of the Klan are all Democrats today, something that would be unexpected in part because the heavy concentration of black voters in the party. He meant that Democrats are responsible for the Klan, which is a well-worn trope on the right. Which is why he said it.
Virginia Commonwealth University created a map that shows the spread of the Klan during its resurgence a century ago. Here’s the spread of local Klan organizations from 1915 to 1940.
By 1920, the Klan had broken out of the Alabama-Georgia region into other Deep South states — and into Richmond. That’s a reminder of the real genesis of the Klan, half a century before VCU’s animation. It was born as a reaction to the Richmond-based Confederacy’s defeat in the Civil War and initially manifested as an effort to tamp down on the incipient political and social standing of freed black slaves.
It was, as Cruz and D’Souza will surely note, a Republican president — the first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln — who freed the slaves. The Emancipation Proclamation freed those held in bondage in Confederate states in 1863; the 13th Amendment, passed before but ratified after Lincoln’s death, eliminated slavery nationally. The first rift between the two parties was a rift that overlapped with views of slavery: the Republican/Union North and the Democratic/Confederate South.
Put another way: The people who started the Klan were probably Democrats, just as they were mostly Southerners. That’s the early Klan, that emerged during the Reconstruction period after the Civil War in Tennessee. The reemergent Klan of the 1910s was also started in the South, as the animation above indicates, and at the time, those states were still Democratic. It’s more fair to credit the geography with creating the Klan than it is the politics, since we can at least be certain of geographic origin. The political aims of the Klan overlapped with the political aims of Democrats after the war and a century ago, but there’s no indication that the party deliberately created the organization any more than there is an indication that Canada deliberately created Nickelback.
Better: It’s like blaming the Unabomber on the Montana Territory — pinning fault on a sort-of-recognizable but not-really-related thing that also doesn’t exist anymore. It’s critical to point out that talking about the Democratic Party of early 20th century Alabama is like talking about Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone in relation to the iPhone. It’s … not really the same thing.