Politics, Southern

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Politics, Southern









In politics, religion, and culture, the South is arguably the United States most unique region. Southerners, particularly native-born white southerners, have a collective consciousness and attachment to history that exceeds that found in other regions, such as the upper Midwest, New England, and the West. A native-born Connecticut or Massachusetts resident is far less likely to identify as a New Englander than a native-born South Carolinian or Mississippian is to identify as a southerner. Historian David Goldfield refers to the drive among some white southerners to preserve some elements of the past as still fighting the Civil War in his 2002 book of the same title. While not unique to the region, several elements, including military traditions, a culture of honor, attachment to traditional gender roles, and fundamentalist Christianity, have striking support in much of the South compared to the rest of the nation. These elements materially influence politics, and southern politics, always distinctive in the past, remains distinctive in the twenty-first century.

Which states make up the South? This question has no single agreed-upon answer, and opinions vary. Many political-science datasets include data from only the eleven former Confederate states. For the purposes of this entry, the South includes thirteen states: Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas, Tennessee, Oklahoma, and Kentucky. The first eleven of these states were the former Confederate statesthose that seceded from the Union during the Civil War. Oklahoma and Kentucky, though not former Confederate states, have cultural and political featuresfor example, large Southern Baptist populationsthat arguably warrant their consideration as southern states as well.


The distinctive nature of southern politics is implicitly acknowledged in the two most widely cited scholarly studies on the topic: V. O. Keys Southern Politics in State and Nation (1949), and Merle Black and Earl Blacks Politics and Society in the South (1987). Key wrote when southern whites remained economically, socially, and politically dominant over blacksas they had been since the end of slavery in 1865. Southern whites used their control over government to ensure and perpetuate racial segregation and impose rampant, official racial discrimination on wide swaths of social institutions: education, housing, employment, voting, and criminal justice, to name a few. While racial discrimination also existed in much of the North, it was more pervasive and severe, and more a product of government actions, in the South. As Key notes, most of the South was under one-party Democratic control, and most political conflict in southern states centered on factions within the Democratic Party. Factions sometimes centered on regions within states (with conflict between Delta and hills factions in Mississippi). In other cases, factions centered on personalities (such as the flamboyantly racist Pitchfork Ben Tillman of South Carolina and Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi) or other interests, such as textile mill owners in North and South Carolina and the big mules of timber, iron and steel, coal, insurance, and utilities in Alabama.

Although factions sometimes splintered the Democratic Party, on racial issues there was little disagreement among southern whites at midcentury. Racial discrimination and segregation were entrenched; any (white) elected official who dared to challenge either faced severe social ostracism, economic reprisals, and certain defeat in the next election. Southern blacks had virtually no political power, and voting discrimination along with threatened and actual violence effectively deprived them of voting rightsespecially in the Deep South states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina. With elected officials virtually all white Democrats and with Republicans reviled by whites as the party of Lincoln, the Union, and racial equality, there was little impetus for racial change. Thus, Key concluded, The race issue broadly defined must be considered as the number one problem on the southern agenda. Lacking a solution for it, all else fails (1949, p. 675).

In 1987, political scientists (and twin brothers) Merle Black and Earl Black published Politics and Society in the South. By then, much had changed in southern politics. Federal court decisions and laws effectively guaranteed civil rights in housing, education, and employment, and the 1965 Voting Rights Act had ended various egregious practices that promoted voting discrimination and the dilution of black political power. By 1987, they wrote, the Democratic Partys monopoly in southern politics had ended, replaced by a competitive two-party system, with Republicans becoming dominant in presidential electoral votes as early as 1984, when Ronald Reagan swept every southern state. The authors also noted a decided conservative advantage in white public opinion: White southerners identifying as conservatives outnumbered those identifying as liberals by nearly a three-to-one margin (Black and Black 1987, p. 218, Table 10.1). This and similar findings, they argued, meant likely continued Republican gains in southern governorships, state legislatures, and delegations in the U.S. House and Senate. Black and Blacks later (2002) study confirmed their suspicions, documenting strong Republican growth in the region.

The studies by Key and Black and Black are widely considered the most systematic investigations of southern politics. However, other studies also deserve note. Numan Bartley and Hugh Grahams Southern Politics and the Second Reconstruction (1975) was written less than ten years after the civil rights movement fundamentally reorganized race relations, and at a time when Republicans were beginning to erode the Democratic one-party monopoly that had been entrenched from 1890 to 1950. A more recent study is journalist Peter Applebomes Dixie Rising: How the South Is Shaping American Values, Politics and Culture (1997). Applebomes account is rich with historical observations, economic and social data, and anecdotal evidence derived from personal observation and travels in locales such as Cobb County, Georgia; Charlotte, North Carolina; Columbia, South Carolina; and Nashville, Tennessee. Finally, some political scientists have published more focused studies of southern politics. Book-length studies in this tradition include Oran Smiths The Rise of Baptist Republicanism (1997), James Glasers Race, Campaign Politics, and the Realignment in the South (1996), Merle Black and Earl Blacks The Rise of Southern Republicans (2002), and Glasers The Hand of the Past in Contemporary Southern Politics (2005). Clearly, the study of southern politics has matured into a well-defined subfield in political science, as much as southern history is a well-known specialty among historians.


The Civil War (18611865) was a searing experience nationwide, but its physical devastation and psychological scars fell especially hard on the South. As the losing side, southerners saw their region ravaged by the Union army, with widespread destruction of and damage to homes, crops, and livelihoods. In the wars aftermath, federal troops occupied southern state capitals for over a decadea profoundly humiliating experience for a region that already had lost a war and seen federal officials force an end to slavery, the dominant economic system of much of the region. Congress passed the Thirteenth Amendment, outlawing slavery; the Fourteenth Amendment, guaranteeing equal protection under the law, among other things; and the Fifteenth Amendment, aimed at preventing voting discrimination against blacks and freed slaves. During the Reconstruction era (18651877), Republicans dominated national politics and forced white southerners to accept the end of slavery, occupation by perceived federal invaders, and, sometimes, southern black elected officials. In Mississippi, Hiram Revels became the first African American to serve in the U.S. Senate (18701871). As Black and Black note:

[The Democratic Party] gave southern whites something to love, honor and glorify; Republicanism gave them something to hate, despise and excoriate. Republicans were irredeemably identified with a long series of outrages against the white Souththe Civil War, abolition of slavery, Reconstruction, threats of renewed federal intervention, and the exploitation of the Souths vulnerable economic condition. Except in a few (mainly mountainous) areas where grassroots Republicanism persisted, public support for the party of Lincoln entailed the stigma of providing aid and comfort to the regions historical enemy. (1987, pp. 233234)

For black southerners, Reconstruction was a brief era of relatively improved conditions. Blacks living conditions remained difficult, but under federal control of the South, they had more freedom to pursue their destinies and faced less severe discrimination in doing so. For white southerners, Reconstruction was an uninterrupted regional nightmare. Whites obsession was to expel the federal invaders, end their radical control, and reestablish home rulelocal control over their social, political, and economic affairs. Above all else, southern whites fought to reestablish white domination and the subjugation of southern blacks.

In 1877, the federal army withdrew from southern state capitals, bringing Reconstruction to an end. The era that followed was dubbed Redemption by southern whites. But for most southern blacks, Redemption meant the return, in different form, of the nightmarish conditions of the slavery era, including white-imposed economic exploitation through the sharecropping system. Whites sought to reestablish white Democratic control and expel the hated Republican Party and anyone friendly to it from the political system. By 1890, using a combination of terror and violence, widespread electoral fraud, racial demagoguery, and pervasive social and economic pressure on any reluctant friends, family, and neighbors, white conservative Democrats succeeded in effectively eliminating Republican competition in southern politics. The resulting virtual one-party Democratic stranglehold in southern politics lasted from 1890 to 1965.

For southern blacks, the consequences were devastating socially, politically, and economically. With a virtually unbreakable lock on political power, white Democrats imposed social, economic, and political discrimination on blacks on a colossal scale. Black southerners were shut out of political power, as whites imposed discriminatory poll taxes, literacy tests, the grandfather clause, and the white primary to perpetuate white domination and crush black opposition. These electoral tests and devices frequently were applied arbitrarily by hostile white registrars to ensure that few if any blacks could register to vote. For blacks, the result was massive disenfranchisement: the often-successful panoply of white efforts to deny voting rights to blacks. Blacks who managed to evade official voting discrimination and actually register to vote faced harassment, threats, violence, and economic retaliation. Arbitrary evictions, job terminations, and blacklisting, ensuring that no other local employers would ever hire the person, often effectively persuaded blacks to avoid challenging white domination and meekly accept their lot. The costs of being an uppity Negro in the Southone audacious enough to challenge the racial status quowere manifold: social ostracism, harassment and persecution by law enforcement, threats, actual violence, and possibly death by lynching. In much of the South, the only real qualification for voting was being white, though the poll tax did disenfranchise many poor whites also.

With blacks shut out of the ranks of elected officials and largely shut out of voting, the establishment of conservative white Democratic home rule was complete by 1890. Local and state governments passed Jim Crow laws imposing legal segregation in public schools and places, including restaurants, drinking fountains, theaters, pool halls, parks, train and bus stations, neighborhoods, and more. Blacks also faced economic discrimination; other laws prohibited blacks from holding many types of jobs, typically higher-paying, higher-status jobs. Informal customs and practices strongly reinforced these patterns. White business owners and managers commonly refused to hire blacks at all, or at best hired them only for the most menial and low-paying jobs. Southern textile mills were particularly ruthless in enforcing the color bar in employment, with black mill workers virtually nonexistent. In housing, governments forced blacks to live in segregated, usually deeply impoverished, neighborhoods, and white homeowners would, by custom, refuse to rent or sell to blacks anyway. Restaurants, theaters, libraries, and other establishments commonly refused to serve blacks altogether; colleges and universities refused to enroll them, resulting in the establishment of historically black colleges and universities, some of which still exist. Few whites dared openly sympathize with blacks or support efforts to combat segregation and discrimination. A white seen as pro-black could expect to be branded a nigger lover and faced the same threats, economic reprisals, and violence that uppity Negroes did. As Black and Black point out, even well into the twentieth century, southern whites were obsessed with maintaining home rulelocal control over race relations:

Early in [the twentieth] century, most white southerners looked upon the rest of the nation generally lumped together as Yankeeswith abiding hostility and suspicion. Unable to forget or forgive the nightmare of war, defeat, and occupation, most whites shared the conviction that non-southerners must never again be allowed to interfere with southern racial practices. Acting almost as if it were an independent nation, the South pursued deterrence of outside intervention in race relations as the paramount objective of its foreign policy. (1987, p. 233)


In the early twentieth century, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned some racially discriminatory voting practices. In 1915, the Court overturned the grandfather clause, and in 1944, it struck down the white primary. However, other forms of voting discrimination persisted, and until 1965, federal law did little to prevent it.

The first major federal civil rights action of the twentieth century was the Supreme Courts Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954. Overturning an 1896 legal doctrine allowing separate but equal public facilities, the Court ruled that racial segregation in public schools was inherently unequal. The ruling and its 1955 companion ruling ( Brown II, ordering officials to desegregate public schools with all deliberate speed) exploded like bomb-shells in the southern political landscape. Southern officials responded with outrage and unvarnished defiance. The Massive Resistance campaign mounted by southern officials to oppose school desegregation was intense and unrelenting. From 1959 to 1964, Prince Edward County, Virginia, closed its public schools altogether to avoid desegregation and provided money to white parents to send their children to private, whites-only schools. Meanwhile, most black children were locked out of an education for five years. In 1964, nearly 98 percent of southern black children still attended segregated schools. Only after more court orders did some districts comply with the Brown rulings.

During the early 1960s, efforts to integrate southern schools and universities and register blacks to vote provoked waves of violence. In 1960, sit-in demonstrators seeking integrated lunch counters faced attacks and violence. In 1961, freedom riders seeking to integrate public transportation faced more violence and beatings. In 1962, when James Meredith integrated the University of Mississippi, thousands of segregationists rioted, resulting in two deaths and mobilization of thousands of National Guard troops to restore order. In 1963, white supremacists bombed a black church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four little girls, and NAACP leader Medgar Evers was murdered in his driveway in Jackson, Mississippi. In 1964, three civil rights workers were murdered near Philadelphia, Mississippi. In 1965, Alabama state troopers attacked unarmed voting-rights marchers with clubs, police dogs, and electric cattle prods. Searing images of these events were broadcast on national television at a time when (by 1964) 97 percent of American households had television sets. The repeated incidents of civil-rights-related violence spurred calls for concerted federal action on civil rights from the public and in Congress.

In 1964, southern members of Congress mounted ferocious opposition, including a Senate filibuster, to the 1964 Civil Rights Act. But northern Republicans and Democrats overcame the filibuster, and President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law in July 1964. The Civil Rights Act banned employment discrimination for most employers, and banned racial segregation in public facilities, including private businesses that serve the public such as restaurants, theaters, pool halls, hotels, and motels. In 1965, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, which placed most of the South under federal supervision of its voting and elections laws. The Voting Rights Act banned tests or devices such as literacy tests, educational requirements [or] good character tests and other arbitrary actions by local registrars that promoted racial discrimination in voting. The act required covered states and districts to gain prior federal approval before implementing any changes in election laws or voting requirements. The act also banned racially discriminatory efforts to dilute black voting or political power, such as some at large schemes for drawing electoral districts to prevent black candidates from being elected. Finally, the Voting Rights Act allowed federal registrars to replace local registrars that continued discriminatory voting practices. The passage of the Twenty-fourth Amendment (1964) banning poll taxes lent further impetus to the drive to guarantee equal voting rights for blacks.

Overall, the Voting Rights Act was tremendously effective. In 1960, 61 percent of southern whites but only 29 percent of southern blacks were registered to vote. Racial discrimination in voting was much less rampant in Rim South states such as Tennessee and Kentucky than in the Deep South, especially Mississippi and Alabama. Although small racial disparities in voter registration and turnout remain as of 2007, differences in income and education account for most such disparities.

Politically, the civil rights movement generated shock waves that permeated southern and national politics. As political scientists Edward Carmines and James Stimson (1989) demonstrate, the civil rights movement triggered a polarization of the Democratic and Republican parties on racial issues, with Democrats moving leftward to embrace racially egalitarian policies and Republicans moving sharply rightward to oppose them. This process was already well under way during the 1964 presidential campaign. Abandoning the Republicans historical moderation on racial issues, the 1964 Republican nominee, Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona, openly opposed federal civil rights laws. Goldwaters position was not racist; he neither openly vilified blacks nor expressed support for negative racial stereotypes as southern segregationists had done for decades. Instead, Goldwater couched his concern in states rights terms: In his view, civil rights policy was best decided by local and state governments, not the federal government. This was an enormously appealing position for white southerners, and Goldwater cracked the Democrats monopoly on the South by winning five southern states. Goldwaters position was politically disastrous in the rest of the country, however, and President Lyndon Johnson won reelection by a landslide. After 1964, Republicans began openly pursuing a southern strategy of appealing to white southerners by opposing vigorous implementation of civil rights laws, embracing law and order campaign themes in the 1968 election, tying Democrats to unpopular groups such as Vietnam War protesters, hippies, black militants, and radical feminists, and using racially charged appeals on such issues as welfare, crime, and affirmative action to loosen white southerners historical attachment to the Democratic Party. In 1968, Alabama governor George Wallace also ran for the presidency and won several southern states, embracing similar law and order and culturally conservative themes. Although he was a Democrat, Wallaces themes are often echoed in southern politicsbut much more often by southern Republicans than southern Democrats.


The states rights appeal first introduced by Goldwater in national campaigns was nothing new in southern politics. Before 1964, southern Democrats had long declared allegiance to states rights as a socially acceptable code for minimal federal intervention in race relations in the Southand therefore code for white supremacy. Most white southerners readily got the message. White southerners disdain for the federal government was part and parcel of an ideology of selective minimalist government that extends to policy areas well outside race relations.

One such unmistakable impact is the regions tendency to favor a low-tax, low-service ethic: lower taxes, fewer government services, less regulation of business, and less government support for the disadvantaged. For example, according to the U.S. House of Representatives (2004), average 2002 monthly TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) benefits, which are set by state lawmakers, were lowest in the South. The average monthly TANF benefit was $327 nationwide; for the thirteen southern states, the average benefit was $202, and all six states with benefits less than $200 were southern states. The low-tax, low-service ethic also means less government regulation of business, for example, in protecting employees from workplace hazards and the environment from pollution. Southern state governors frequently encourage business executives with operations in the North to relocate to the South, touting the regions favorable business climate: lower taxes and minimal regulations on business coupled with right-to-work laws and other policies that discourage workers from joining labor unions.

The tradition of minimalist government in the South prevails on most economic and social welfare issues, but often not on social and moral issues. Southern lawmakers often prefer policies that maximize government activity in promoting traditional values. Thus, gay-marriage bans have passed in twenty-seven of the twenty-eight states that have considered them, but in southern states they pass by wider margins, frequently with over 75 percent support even 86 percent support in Mississippi (2004). Restrictive abortion laws, bans on gay adoption, and efforts to promote prayer in the public schools and Ten Commandments displays in public places are all more common in southern states. Southern elected officials proclaimed fealty to limited government, then, is selective. Also, conservative southern lawmakers eagerly embrace states rights in response to liberal federal policies but not conservative federal policies. Few southern lawmakers objected to then-U.S. Attorney General John Ashcrofts effort to ensure that federal antidrug laws could overrule state laws allowing medicinal marijuana.

States rights is a less potent symbol in southern politics than it was forty or more years ago, when it was widely understood as a desire to preserve white domination over blacks. On issues of federal versus state power, which side embraces states rights is often predictable based on whether the federal or state government is advocating the more conservative policy.


Race remains a notable dividing line in southern politics. This is evident from examining four issues in modern southern politics and campaigns: racial appeals in campaigns (mostly covert racial appeals), Confederate flag controversies, racial redistricting, and the marked racial polarization of southern political parties.

Racial Appeals in Southern Campaigns

While not limited to the South, racial appeals in southern campaigns appear with surprising regularity. Sometimes, racial appeals are less than subtle. North Carolinas Republican senator Jesse Helms was particularly famous for issuing racial appeals. In 1972, Helms, running for the U.S. Senate against a Greek American opponent, produced bumper stickers that read, Jesse. Hes one of us. In the 1984 Senate race against then-governor Jim Hunt, Helms complained about the bloc vote, referring to North Carolina blacks, who almost universally viewed Helms as hostile to racial equality. Helms scarcely tried to burnish his image among blacks; he launched a long, eventually unsuccessful crusade against declaring a national holiday for Martin Luther King Jr. In 1990, Helms made his most famous racial appeal against Democrat and former Charlotte mayor Harvey Gantt, an African American. Late in the campaign, Gantt led Helms and appeared poised to win. The Helms campaign produced a commercial attacking Gantt on affirmative action, in which white hands were shown crumpling a job rejection letter as an announcer intoned, You wanted that job, and you were the best qualified. But they had to give it to a minority because of a racial quota. Is that really fair? The late Helms ad was widely credited with producing a proHelms surge, and Helms won reelection.

Racial appeals in southern campaigns are usually more subtle, and implicit racial issues (especially welfare) have figured prominently. In the 1991 Louisiana governors race, Republican candidate David Duke, a former Ku Klux Klan leader, made campaign speeches to virtually all-white audiences attacking the welfare underclass racial code for black welfare recipients. The same year, in Mississippi, Republican Kirk Fordice, then a political unknown, won the governors race using an array of implicit racial appeals: opposing quotas, saying that welfare recipients should be forced to work, and attacking policies for coddling criminals. In his 2003 campaign for Mississippis governorship, Republican Haley Barbour also raised the welfare issue (and wore Confederate-flag lapel pins on the campaign trail). Political scientists James Glaser (1996) and Tali Mendelberg (2001) provide substantial evidence of the use of implicit racial appeals, which seem particularly common in southern campaigns, where Republicans, in particular, are tempted to play the race card by making implicit racial appeals to white voters. Welfare, affirmative action, and crime are common issues that structure implicitly racial appeals. But as Glaser (1996) shows, others include attacking a candidate for cozying up to civil rights leaders such as Reverend Jesse Jackson or for not enthusiastically supporting the display of the Confederate flag.

In the 2006 U.S. Senate race in Tennessee, the Republican National Committee (RNC) sponsored a late television advertisement on behalf of Republican candidate Bob Corker against his Democratic opponent, Harold Ford Jr., who is black. The ad was widely criticized as a covert racial appeal on the issue of interracial dating and/or sexwhich historically white southerners were obsessed with preventing. Between 1880 and 1950, many black men accused of dating or having sexual relations with white women were summarily lynched, in response to white assumptions that any sexual relations between white women and black men were nonconsensual, resulting from rape. The 2006 Republican ad showed a flirtatious white woman with bare shoulders and no visible other clothing, claiming I met Harold at the Playboy party! The ads conclusion showed her winking and cooing breathily, Haroldcall me! Commenting on the Republican ad, political scientist John Geer, a leading analyst of attack advertising, said, Ive not met any observer who didnt immediately say, Oh my gosh! It was a race card. As documented by Associated Press reporter Beth Rucker (2006), Geer described the ad as breaking new ground, and frankly, breaking new lows, and mak[ing] the [1988] Willie Horton ad look like childs play. It is racist. That is the bottom line. Although RNC chairman Ken Mehlman denied the ad carried racial overtones, Geer and other analysts concluded otherwise. As Rucker notes, Hilary Shelton, an NAACP official, added, In a Southern state like Tennessee, some stereotypes still exist. Theres very clearly some racial subtext in an ad like that. Corker won the election, but it is unclear whether the RNC ad changed the outcome.

Confederate Flag Controversies

Since 2000, three high-profile Confederate flag controversies have arisen, each over whether southern state governments should support displays of the Confederate battle flag (stars and bars) or a state flag design containing it. For some southern whites, the Confederate flag is a symbol of heritage; for most blacks, it is a symbol of racial hatred and white domination. In Mississippi, a 2001 public referendum was held on whether to continue flying the 1894 state flag with a Confederate flag design. Voters approved keeping the Confederate flag design by a surprisingly high 65 percent to 35 percent margin. Not surprisingly, the vote was extremely racially polarized. In two 90 percent white counties, the vote ran 90 percent to 10 percent in favor of keeping the Confederate flag design. In two 80 percent black counties, the vote ran 83 percent to 17 percent in favor of replacing the Confederate design with a new one.

In Georgia in 2002, controversy over Democratic governor Roy Barness handling of the Confederate flag issue contributed to his upset loss to Republican Sonny Perdue in the governors race. Confederate veterans groups and some Republicans criticized Barnes for pushing changes to the design of Georgias state flag to reduce the Confederate emblems size. The Sons of Confederate Veterans and other groups argued Barnes should have put the question of redesigning the flag to a public referendum. Perdues election put a Republican in the Georgia governors office for the first time since Reconstruction.

In South Carolina, too, the flag issue proved electorally damaging to a Democratic governor, Jim Hodges. In 2000, Hodges approved removing the battle flag from atop the state capitol dome and moving it to a less conspicuous location on the capitol grounds. Some analysts viewed Hodgess action as contributing to his loss in South Carolinas 2002 governors race to Republican Mark Sanford. The Confederate flag issue, then, appears to offer a case study of the continuing importance of race in southern politics.

Racial Redistricting

After the 1990 census, civil rights groups expressed concern over the underrepresentation of blacks in Congress and asked state lawmakers to redraw House districts to concentrate black voters in some mostly southern districts. The expectation was to create congressional districts with black majorities to elect more black members of Congress. In the history of congressional elections nationwide, very few majority-white districts have elected minority Congress members. After the 1990 census, some majority-minority districts were drawn in various southern states. Majority-minority districts are those in which a minority group (most commonly blacks) makes up a majority of the districts residents. By 1992, North Carolina, Georgia, and several other states had drawn some majority-minority districts, and these districts did elect black representatives. In 1992 in North Carolina, Melvin Watt and Eva Clayton became the first blacks elected to Congress since Reconstruction, in a state where 22 percent of the population was black. Although most majority-minority districts were intended to elect blacks, some Latino-majority districts were also drawn in Texas and Florida, both states with significant Latino populations.

Some of these racial redistricting efforts were challenged in a series of court cases. In 1996, the Supreme Court ordered the redrawing of North Carolinas majority-black First and Twelfth Districts, ruling that race was too predominant a factor, and geographical compactness an insufficiently considered factor, in drawing these districts. Melvin Watts Twelfth District was redrawn with more compact boundaries, converting it from a majority-black district into a 47 percent black district. Watt retained his congressional seat in the redrawn district. Similarly, in Georgia, the district of Sanford Bishop, an African American, was redrawn to a 39 percent black district after another court challenge.

One impact of these and similar court challenges, then, has been to convert some previously majority-minority districts into minority-opportunity districts. In these, the minority group makes up less than a majority of the districts residents but enough to make it likely that a minority candidate or representative can win elections. As a general rule, in southern districts where blacks make up 45 percent or more of residents, a black candidate has a good chance to win. In districts where less than 30 percent of residents are black, a black candidate is unlikely to win. In southern districts, minority candidates or lawmakers (virtually all Democrats) are likely to win when they can combine (1) a sizable minority presence in the district 40 percent or more is best; (2) high voter turnout from the minority groupbest when minority turnout at least equals white turnout; (3) lopsided support from minority-group voterspreferably 85 percent or more; and (4) a significant share of the white votepreferably 25 percent or more. Most white southerners identify as and vote Republican, and few minority candidates, being overwhelmingly Democrats, can expect to win more than 30 percent of the white vote.

Racial redistricting has had unintended but damaging consequences for southern Democrats. The drawing of districts to concentrate black voters has also pulled blacks out of neighboring districts, giving them larger white majorities. Since most southern whites vote Republican, these neighboring districts have more often elected Republican lawmakers. Racial redistricting, then, has resulted in the election of more Republicans and fewer Democrats to Congress from southern states. Political scientists estimate that racial redistricting has resulted in Democrats losing between seven and eleven U.S. House seats.

The impact on the numbers of southern Democratic lawmakers has not been symmetrical by race. As Earl Black (1998) shows, racial redistricting has resulted in increased representation of black Democrats but also sharply decreased representation of white Democrats holding southern congressional seats. It appears racial redistricting has contributed to sharp increases in the ranks of white Republicans holding southern U.S. House seats. Within and outside the South, the vast majority of blacks identify as Democrats and view Republicans negatively. Some southern Republicans, such as David Duke, Jesse Helms, and Trent Lott, have been openly hostile to black interests. While blacks celebrate the increases in black congressional representation that racial redistricting has produced, most also lament the loss of Democratic strength in southern congressional delegationsto which racial redistricting has also contributed.

Racial Polarization of Southern Political Parties In Congress, then, Earl Black (1998) identifies the newest southern politics: Black Democrats have become more numerous, white Republicans have become much more numerous, and white Democrats have become much less numerous. Southern congressional delegations are increasingly polarized by race and party combined. Nowhere is this truer than in Texas. After Republicans captured the Texas legislature in the 2002 elections, they forced through a mid-decade redistricting in 2003. In January 2004, before the first election following the redistricting, Texass U.S. House delegation consisted of sixteen Democrats and sixteen Republicans. After the 2004 election, the delegation consisted of eleven Democrats (one white, ten black or Latino) and twenty-one Republicans (twenty white, one Latino). The plan of maximizing Republican strength in Texass U.S. House delegation had worked.

In 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the overall redistricting but overturned the drawing of some district boundaries because the Republican plan diluted Latino voting strength, in violation of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. A panel of judges redrew the boundaries to ensure a larger Latino majority in the district of the only Latino Republican, Henry Bonilla. The new district boundaries were in place for the 2006 elections, in which Bonilla lost his seat to Democrat Ciro Rodriguez, and a white Democrat, Nick Lampson, captured former House Majority Leader Tom DeLays former seat near Houston (probably temporarily). As of 2007, racial polarization in Texass U.S. House delegation remains nearly complete, with two white Democrats, ten black or Latino Democrats, and twenty white Republicans. In the future, both white Democrats face a strong risk of losing their seats, as they represent heavily Republican districts. Texass U.S. House delegation may soon consist of an all-white Republican majority and an all-nonwhite Democratic minority.

In other southern states, a similar pattern holds. With few exceptions, Republican lawmakers are white (a few from Florida are Cuban American; former representative Bonilla is Mexican American; Oklahomas former representative J. C. Watts is black). Democratic lawmakers are more racially diverse, with both white and black lawmakers and a contingent of Latino lawmakers from Texas. In state legislatures, too, Republicans are lopsidedly white while Democrats are more diverse.

In southern electorates, too, racial polarization has been striking. Especially in the Deep South, Republicans have become an overwhelmingly white party. Democrats are more racially diverse, now capturing only a minority of white votes but huge majorities (generally 85% or more) of black votes, and in Texas, sizable majorities of Latino votes. Although the degree of racial polarization of southern parties is striking, the reasons for it are not fully clear. Racial conflicts and attitudes appear to be a contributing factor in pulling southern whites out of the Democratic Party and into the Republican Partybut not the only factor. Other likely contributors include the marked social conservatism, assertive militarism, and preferences for smaller government on economic issues on which southern Republicans virtually unanimously agree. In other words, the Republican Partys attractiveness to southern whites is partly based on conservative ideology. Among southern Republicans as of 2007, politically moderate views are scarce and liberal views are nonexistent. Conversely, southern Democrats are ideologically more varied. Some (largely majority-minority) districts elect liberal lawmakers, but in more heavily white or conservative districts, Democrats can be moderate or even notably conservative.

As of 2007, race remains a significant factor structuring the southern party system. Political scientists Nicholas Valentino and David Sears (2005) studied the connection between white southerners racial attitudes and Republican identification and voting. They found that racial antagonism remains higher among white southerners than white nonsoutherners, and that the association between racial antagonism and Republican voting is stronger among southern whites than nonsouthern whites. Furthermore, that association has grown stronger in recent years among southern whites, but not among nonsouthern whites. These and other findings indicate, then, that racial resentments continue to influence partisanship and voting among southern whitesto the benefit of the Republican Party.


As of 2007, southern politics consists of two-party competition with highly racially polarized parties and a lopsided Republican advantage in federal elections. In state elections, Republicans dominate in some states (especially South Carolina, Georgia, Texas, and Florida), but other states, including Tennessee, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Virginia, show more partisan parity. As of 2007, Democrats have regained ground and even an edge over Republicans in North Carolina and Arkansas. Regionwide, an overwhelmingly white, and sharply and uniformly conservative, Republican Party contests elections against a racially and ideologically more diverse but generally moderate Democratic Party. The Republican Party has dominated the region in presidential elections since 1980 and in congressional elections since 1994. After the 2004 election, Democrats held only four (15%) of the regions twenty-six U.S. Senate seats and 36 percent of its House seats. The 2006 elections changed matters little; as of 2007, Democrats held 19 percent of the regions Senate seats and 40 percent of its House seats. In state elections, Democrats have become virtually irrelevant in Florida, Texas, Georgia, and South Carolina. However, Democrats have shown strength in state legislatures in Mississippi, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Alabama and won governors races in North Carolina (2004) and Virginia (2005). In 2006, Democrats won a previously Republican-held U.S. Senate seat from Virginia and six previously Republican-held House seats in the region. However, these gains are modest, and some, especially in Texas, are probably temporary. As political scientists Philip Klinkner and Thomas Schaller (2006) demonstrate, Democratic gains in 2006 were concentrated outside the Southparticularly in the Northeast and Midwest.

The 2006 elections, then, did little to change the major story of southern politics since the civil rights era: the growth of Republican support, virtually entirely among white southerners. Black and Black (1987) identified southern politics as consisting of vigorous two-party competition, with prospects for increasing Republican strengtha prediction that proved correct, as their 2002 follow-up study shows. The Republican trend among southern whites is traceable to several factors, including racial conflicts and resentments, religion and associated social conservatism, urban politics and population changes, law and order issues, and southern military traditions.

Racial Conflicts and Resentments

As black lawmakers and activists have become more prominent among southern Democrats, it appears a racial backlash has pushed some southern whites out of the Democratic Party because of perceptions that Democrats advocate liberal policies on government social programs and are becoming too pro-black. Whites provide virtually all support for Confederate flag displays, but many southern Democratic officials fear offending blacks by supporting the flag. By emphasizing such issues as welfare and affirmative action, Republicans unmistakably have staked their claim as the home of racial conservatism, which many southern whites find appealing, partly for ideological reasons but, as Valentino and Searss (2005) analysis indicates, partly out of continuing racial resentments as well.

Religion and Social Conservatism

Like southern politics, southern religion is distinct. By numerous indicators, southerners are more religious than nonsoutherners are. Furthermore, southern religion has two major centers of gravity, according to political scientists John Green, James Guth, Lyman Kellstedt, and Corwin Smidt (2003). Among whites, they refer to the white Protestant allianceespecially Southern Baptist and other evangelical Christian traditions, which constitute the center of southern Republican politics. Among African Americans, black churches are an increasingly important source of support for the Democratic Party. The overall impact of these counteracting centers of political gravity is a decided conservative tilt. Southern Baptists are the largest Protestant denomination in the country, at 16.5 million members. Since 1979, the theologically fundamentalist, politically conservative faction has controlled the heavily white Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) without interruption. The SBC is a thoroughly conservative force in southern politics, and the moderate faction that contested SBC elections into the 1980s has abandoned the SBC.

Former U.S. president and lifelong Southern Baptist Jimmy Carter also renounced the SBC following its adoption of resolutions prohibiting women from serving as pastors and stipulating that wives should be graciously submissive to their husbands. The SBCs large numbers and lopsided Republican support easily outweigh the support that black churches can provide Democrats. Indeed, political scientist Oran Smith concluded his 1997 study The Rise of Baptist Republicanism by noting that the SBC and the Republican Party in the South have become virtually indistinguishable. Southern Republicans (and some Democrats), seeking political acceptance from Southern Baptists and other evangelicals, have strong incentives to take strongly conservative positions on social issues opposing abortion, feminism, stem-cell research, pornography, gay rights, and perceived secular humanist influence in public life, and favoring school prayer, public Ten Commandments displays, traditional gender roles, and gay-marriage bans. Although southern religious traditions vary, the overall impact of religion in southern politics is a marked conservative (and therefore pro-Republican) influence, especially on social and moral issues, owing to the large number of Southern Baptists and other conservative Protestants in the region.

Urban Politics and Population Changes

In the twentieth century, urbanization proceeded much more slowly in the South than elsewhere. But jobs and economic activity have shifted southward since World War II, and as of 2007, urban areas such as DallasFort Worth, Atlanta, Charlotte, Nashville, and others are now thriving economic centers. These and similar areas have rapidly growing populations, including large numbers of migrants from nonsouthern states. These migrants were more willing to support the Republican Party than native-born white southerners were until the 1990s. In addition, those moving into southern cities were often upwardly mobile economically, making them more receptive to Republican appeals for lower taxes and less intrusive government, that is, the low-tax, low-service ethic. While many core cities, such as New Orleans, Richmond, Atlanta, and Memphis, have strongly Democratic black majorities, their fast-growing suburbs are heavily white and Republican. These population shifts have benefited the Republican Party, and southern exurban areas such as Union County, North Carolina, outside Charlotte, and suburban areas such as Cobb County, Georgia, outside Atlanta, are heavily Republican.

In some southern states, Latino populations are growing quickly. In Texas, Latinos (mostly Mexican American) make up 32 percent of the population. North Carolina and Georgia are also experiencing notable Latino immigration. Outside Florida, most Latinos migrating to southern states are Mexican American, and politically they lean Democratic. However, Latinos political influence will probably lag behind their presence in the population because of language barriers for some and because some Latinos are not U.S. citizens, making them ineligible to vote. In Texas, Republican dominance rests on the heavily Republican tilt of the states Anglo (white) population, and Democrats will probably climb back toward competitive status only as Latinos become more politically active and vote in greater numbers.

Law and Order: Crime, Gun Control, and Related Issues

Southerners, especially white southerners, have a pronounced conservative tilt on law and order issues, that is, approaches to fighting crime and drugs and punishing criminals. Most white southerners favor the death penalty, three strikes laws and other get-tough anticrime measures, and corporal punishment in the schools, and regional policies reflect these realities. Southern states are by no means unique in allowing the death penalty; thirty-eight states, including all southern states, do. What does set the South apart is a greater willingness to convert death sentences to actual executions, and more numerous and frequent executions, as cultural psychologists Richard Nisbett and Dov Cohen (1996) show. Texas, in particular, far outstrips all other states in number of executions, with Virginia in second place. If Harris County, Texas (including Houston), were a state, it alone would rank third among the states in number of executions. The top four states in frequency of executions are Texas, Oklahoma, Virginia, and Florida, and southern states make up eight of the top ten states.

Southern states cluster near the top of all states in both the frequency of executions and the use of corporal punishment (spanking or paddling) to discipline schoolchildren. Recent initiatives to extend the death penalty to multiple-offense child molesters are concentrated in southern states. Religion probably reinforces white southern support for the death penalty, corporal punishment, and other get tough measures. Southern Baptist and other conservative Protestant traditions typically favor literal interpretations of the Bible and endorse harsh punishment in the criminal justice system and corporal punishment in the schools, as biblically mandated. Literal interpretations of the Bible typically endorse an eye for an eye doctrine in criminal justice and a spare the rod, spoil the child doctrine in disciplining children. Popular support for state violence and aggression is a natural byproduct of these realities.

On gun control, southerners more often oppose stricter gun control laws and support their relaxation. Nisbett and Cohen (1996) attribute greater southern opposition to gun control to the regions culture of honor, which values standing ones ground against an attack on ones person or property, even if that results in killing the attacker. Southern laws on killing in self-defense are thus more lenient in southern than nonsouthern states, and southern gun control laws are more lenient.

Nationwide, Republican officials and candidates more often support the death penalty, the war on drugs, mandatory-minimum sentencing, and other get tough measures on crime policy than their Democratic counterparts do. Likewise, opposition to gun control is concentrated in the Republican Party. As such, white southerners, who constitute the center of southern conservatism, find these positions attractive, and this probably exercises a pro-Republican pull in partisan identification and voting.

Southern Military Traditions

Most historians agree that southern states are home to unusually robust military traditions, reflected in southerners greater support for wars and willingness to fight in them. As Texas-born observer Michael Lind (2004) notes, military recruitment comes disproportionately from southern states, and southerners have been more willing to support and fight in U.S. wars overseas, including the Vietnam War, the 1991 Persian Gulf War, and the Iraq war that began in 2003. Military bases are more frequently found in southern states than elsewhere, and regional military traditions are reinforced by military academies for boys as young as ten years old. Even titles of historical studies reflect southern military traditionsfor example, John Hope Franklins The Militant South (2002) and John Temple Gravess The Fighting South (1985).

Politically, the Souths militaristic bent probably strengthens Republican support, as Republicans, lacking the significant contingent of peace activists that Democrats have, tend to favor more aggressive actions overseas. As Nisbett and Cohen (1996) show, the white southern culture of honor reinforces strong support for defense spending and military actions overseas, as well as the use of force and violence generally (i.e., the death penalty and corporal punishment).


Overall, southern politics has evolved from one-party Democratic rule to two-party competition, with a Republican advantage in federal elections and some states, but competitive party politics in other states. The movement of large numbers of white southerners from the Democratic Party into the Republican Party is the overriding story of southern politics in the twenty-first century. Equally clearly, in the South, the philosophical descendants of southern Democrats before 1960 have clearly found a new political homenot in the Democratic Party but in the Republican Party. In modern southern politics, Republican candidates typically emphasize staunchly conservative positions on national defense, social and moral, economic, racial, and law and order issuesa strategy designed to gain lopsided majorities among whites. Democratic candidates walk a tightrope between emphasizing such economic issues as raising the minimum wage and opposing tax cuts (popular among blacks), while at the same time dodging charges of being liberal (an unpopular label among whites, especially on social and moral issues). Democrats must capture a sizable share of white votes to win, but Republicans typically write off (and sometimes try to suppress) black votes. Thus, in southern politics, as of 2007, the central social cleavage remains race. That said, southern politics evidences elements of continuity with the past, as well as significant changes. The future nature and evolution of these changes will have major implications for the course of U.S. national politics.

SEE ALSO African Americans; Appalachia; Civil Rights Movement, U.S.; Confederate States of America; Desegregation, School; Dixiecrats; Jim Crow; Key, V. O., Jr.; Ku Klux Klan; Law and Order; Militarism; Patriotism; Politics, Black; Protest; Race; Racism; Reconstruction Era (U.S.); Secession; Segregation; Slavery; Southern Strategy; Supreme Court, U.S.; Terrorism; Voting Patterns; White Supremacy; Whiteness


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Fred Slocum

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