Political Threat and Racial Propaganda: Evidence from the U.S. South

Abstract

Can politics motivate propaganda in media? This paper examines the case of the unexpected and short-lived electoral success of the pro-redistribution Populist Party in the 1892 presidential elections. The Populists sought support among poor farmers, regardless of race. This biracial alliance threatened the Democratic establishment in the South, providing it with an incentive to fan racial fears to split the newly formed coalition. Newspapers affiliated with the Democrats spread propaganda of attacks by Blacks on the White community, often involving allegations of sexual assault. Using novel newspaper data, we identify these hate stories and show that they become more prevalent in the years following the 1892 presidential election in counties where the Populists were active. The effect is large and found in newspapers affiliated with the Democrats only. The evidence suggests that the propaganda ``worked”: where newspapers spread more propaganda, the Democrats see stronger gains in presidential elections in the following decades, long after the Populists left the political arena.

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