Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

Authoritarianism and Resistance to Diversity in the American South

Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

Authoritarianism and Resistance to Diversity in the American South

Article excerpt


Politics in the American South evidences both change and continuity in the 21st century. The overriding change is the shift of many Southern whites out of the Democratic Party and into the Republican Party (Black and Black 1987, 2002; Glaser 2005). This change is so pronounced that in four of the past seven presidential elections (1984, 1988, 2000 and 2004), Democratic candidates have received no electoral votes in the 13 Southern states, the 11 former Confederate states plus Kentucky and Oklahoma, and carried only one state in 1980 and a minority of electoral votes in Bill Clinton's wins in 1992 and 1996. Furthermore, even after nationwide gains in the 2006 elections, Democrats hold only 5 of 26, or 19% of, Southern U.S. Senate seats, and 57 of 142, or 40% of, Southern U.S. House seats. Democratic gains in 2006 were concentrated in the Northeast and Midwest (Klinkner and Schaller 2006). In some Southern states, notably Texas, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida, Democrats are virtually irrelevant in state politics as well.

The continuity, I argue, is this: White Southerners, always hegemonic in defining the region's history, politics and culture, frequently demonstrate, and have demonstrated, strikingly strong resistance to diversity. While Southern white party loyalties have switched from majority Democratic to majority Republican, intolerance of difference appears woven into the region's political and social fabric, more so than in other regions. This observation draws substantial support from historical studies (Goldfield 2002), and other research examining specific elements of Southern culture, i.e. the Southern culture of honor (Nisbett and Cohen 1996), Southern Baptist and other evangelical Protestant religious traditions (Rosenberg 1989; Smith 1997; Green et al. 2003), and hostility toward organized labor (Clark 1997; Minchin 2006). An intolerance of difference and suppression of historically subordinate groups, while not unique to the South, nonetheless is expressed more strongly there.

This paper advances several arguments. First, judging from political conflicts and policy outcomes in the region, white Southerners appear to be more strongly disposed than most subgroups to resist diversity and insist on conformity and sameness. This is evident for numerous social cleavages, including race, gender, socioeconomic status, union status, religion, sexual orientation and ethnicity. Second, this pattern strongly resembles theoretical conceptions of authoritarianism (Altemeyer 1981, 1988, 1996; Feldman 2003; Stenner 2005). Moreover, both past studies and recent data provide evidence suggesting high levels of authoritarianism in the South. It follows, then, that Southerners, and especially white Southerners, constitute a probable reservoir for maintaining and transmitting authoritarian and diversity-resistant values. Third, the authoritarian tendency among Southern whites probably has partisan implications--propelling many into the Republican Party, which today, often exemplifies authoritarian values in its policy platforms and candidates. Especially before 1960, the Democratic Party exemplified authoritarian values in the region, especially in race relations--but as the national Democratic Party increasingly embraced more anti-authoritarian and racially egalitarian values in the 1960s and 1970s, white Southerners began leaving the party in droves. It is likely that white Southerners have always gravitated toward the party that better reflects authoritarian values--today, that is the Republican Party.

This article begins by examining numerous events in Southern history and politics. These show a remarkably consistent tendency among white Southerners (always politically and economically dominant almost regionwide) to suppress diversity and enforce homogeneity--often with the backing of the state, and sometimes using threats, violence or both.

Southern History and Politics: Resistance to Diversity

Further examination of Southern history and politics reveals remarkably strong tendencies to resist and suppress diversity in the region. …

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