DP15938 Reconciliation Narratives: The Birth of a Nation after the US Civil War

Author(s): Elena Esposito, Tiziano Rotesi, Alessandro Saia, Mathias Thoenig
Publication Date: March 2021
Keyword(s): African Americans, narratives, Reconciliation, Segregation, US Civil War
JEL(s): D74, N92, Z1
Programme Areas: Public Economics, Economic History
Link to this Page: cepr.org/active/publications/discussion_papers/dp.php?dpno=15938

We study how the spread of the Lost Cause narrative -a revisionist and racist retelling of the US Civil War- shifted both opinions and behaviors toward reunifying the country and racially alienating African Americans. Drawing on a large set of archival data from between 1910 and 1920, we reconstitute a monthly record of the staggered screenings across US counties of The Birth of a Nation, a blockbuster movie that popularized the Lost Cause narrative across large segments of the population. Our empirical analysis shows that the movie induced (i) a semantic shift in the public discourse toward more patriotic and less divisive language on post-Civil War nation building; (ii) a surge in patriotism with an increased enlistment rate in the US military; and (iii) a cultural convergence between former Confederate and Unionist states with a rise in the adoption of first names traditionally associated with the former enemy's regional identity. We go on to document how the racist content of the narrative helped foster reconciliation through a common enemy rhetorical argument. While we find that the movie strengthened discrimination against African Americans in public discourse and the labor market, our quantitative estimates suggest that 55% of the total effect of the movie on reconciliation was indirectly mediated precisely through this rise in discrimination. All of our findings are detected within both former Confederate and Unionist states.