In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Politics of the American South

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews and Classic Works
  • Reference Works

Political Science Politics of the American South
Steven White
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 May 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 May 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0157


The politics of the American South have likely attracted more scholarly attention than any other region of the United States. Even political scientists whose work does not focus on the region frequently take note of its peculiarities. Quantitative studies of American politics, for instance, often include a dummy variable for the southern states in regression models to capture the tendency for the region’s politics to operate a bit differently than the rest of the country. What makes southern politics different? This article provides an overview of major perspectives on the study of the American South. The article starts with some classic works and general overviews then lists useful reference works. It then turns to research on political institutions divided into three categories: studies of southern state and local politics, studies of how southern politics shape national political institutions, and studies that focus extensively on both the state/local and national levels. Within each category, research is described on both the historical development of southern politics and analyses of more recent trends. The final section considers public opinion, elections, and political behavior in the region, which is divided into several thematic subsections: the distinctiveness of white southern attitudes, white racial attitudes in the region, the political behavior of black southerners, immigration and demographic change, partisanship, presidential voting behavior, congressional voting behavior, and Appalachian regionalism.

General Overviews and Classic Works

Key 1949 established many of the important frameworks for later studies of southern politics. Other classic texts include Du Bois 1935, Cash 1941, Heard 1952, and Woodward 1955. Relatively more recent overviews include Black and Black 1987 and Kousser 2010.

  • Black, Earl, and Merle Black. Politics and Society in the South. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987.

    The first of many notable southern politics studies produced by Black and Black. This account places the southern politics that emerged by the 1980s in the context of southern history and offers an analysis of how a competitive two-party politics had begun to emerge: with Republicans rising while conservative Democrats (at the time at least) were still holding on.

  • Cash, W. J. The Mind of the South. New York: A. A. Knopf, 1941.

    Cash was not an academic, but this 1941 book is a common reference point for scholars of southern culture.

  • Du Bois, W. E. B. Black Reconstruction: An Essay Toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860–1880. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1935.

    Du Bois’s historical account of Reconstruction was a challenge to the dominant Dunning school of historiography, which tended to portray the era from the perspective of its white opponents. Du Bois, by contrast, emphasized the perspective of black southerners and the radical potential Reconstruction offered for a more democratic southern politics. In the 21st century, Du Bois’s account is largely echoed by contemporary historians.

  • Heard, Alexander. A Two-Party South? Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1952.

    Heard was an assistant in the production of Key 1949. In his own book, Heard emphasizes the possibility that the South was transitioning toward two-party politics.

  • Key, V. O., Jr. Southern Politics in State and Nation. New York: Knopf, 1949.

    This is the most common reference point for scholars of southern politics and is therefore essential reading. Key’s magnum opus provides a state-by-state overview of southern politics in the 1940s, offers an analysis of southern Democrats’ role in the House and Senate, and articulates what scholars now refer to as the “racial threat” theory. Also offers classic definition of what constitutes the region.

  • Kousser, J. Morgan. “The Immutability of Categories and the Reshaping of Southern Politics.” Annual Review of Political Science 13 (2010): 365–383.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.polisci.033008.091519

    From the author of Kousser 1974 (cited under Political Institutions and Southern Political Development), this more recent article is an incredibly helpful overview of the state of the field (as of 2010). Also notable for a critique of Shafer and Johnston 2009 (cited under National Politics: Both State/Local and National Politics).

  • Woodward, C. Vann. The Strange Career of Jim Crow. New York: Oxford University Press, 1955.

    Woodward is the author of several classic works of southern history. In this one, he traces the uneven emergence of Jim Crow in the post-Reconstruction era. A short, essential volume for understanding the emergence of de jure segregation after the end of Reconstruction.

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