Election results and polling show that White voters in the South are the most Republican and ideologically conservative in the entire country. This is especially evident in the votes cast in counties with small Black population shares versus large ones, especially more rural ones. This also serves as a counterweight to the near unanimous Democratic support from Black individuals who are a large share of the South's population but nowhere near a majority.

I wonder why this is, and what causes it.

  • 4
    While what you said lines up with that I know, Can you please add some citations for what you said? Nov 11 '21 at 14:07
  • 1
    Read the book: "Black rednecks and white liberals".
    – Andy
    Nov 12 '21 at 12:31
  • 5
    Have you ever looked at a map of the states that made up the former Confederate States of America? Despite the passage of over 156 years, the Civil War is only over on paper.
    – Cody Gray
    Nov 12 '21 at 13:08
  • Historically, southerners were conservative but mostly voted for conservative Democrats rather than Republicans. Nov 12 '21 at 22:44

Deep Roots

First, relative political conservatism and liberalism are remarkably stable in any given geographic area over time (even though, in absolute terms corresponding to specific policies, almost everyplace gets more liberal over time).

For example, even at a county by county level the 1876 Presidential election and the 1976 Presidential election look almost identical (flipping the Democratic and Republican parties, which traded places on the political spectrum in that time period). The fact that the Democratic Party and Republican Party traded places is weird, but largely just a branding issue that hides long term ideological stability.

At the state level, the relative positions of representatives of U.S. states in Congress on issues like national security, defense spending, foreign policy and social issues on a liberal to conservative scale from the 1790s are essentially the same as they are today in most cases.

Incidentally, this isn't unique to the U.S. You see ideological stability over similar time frames all over the world, for example, in regions within Germany (e.g. the modern politics of Saxony with deep historical roots and the continuing Protestant and Catholic divide in a far more secular country), Italy (e.g., between the North and the South were were united only in the 1870s), and the U.K. (e.g., differences in political attitudes and institutions between Scotland and England) associated with early modern kingdoms that predate these modern states and had not yet been fully consolidated. Outside the West, regional political differences in India, and differences in attitudes and political culture between Northern China and Southern China similarly have deep roots, as do those in Nigeria which is practical two different countries with an Islamic North and Christian/Animist South at the moment).

So, the bottom line is that the highly conservative leanings of the American South are largely legacies of the pre-Civil War slavery regime. In that environment, most of the South had free whites and lots of black slaves. The distrust between the two ran deep.

This reality is explored much more deeply, for example, by David Hackett Fischer in Albion's Seed, and by Colin Woodard in American Nations: A History of Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America. Also useful in understanding this sweep of American political history is Randall B. Riley, in his book, Congress: Process and Policy, the first half of which illustrates how much the federal government and its institutions were transformed from its pre-Civil War incarnations by the U.S. Civil War, and then, by the New Deal and World War II.

Little Diversity Or Disruption Due To Migration

Secondarily important is that from the late colonial era until the 1980s or so, the American South had much less immigration from outside the U.S. and from elsewhere in the U.S. than other regions of the country. So there was no one to shake up the mix very much.

This is because immigrants migrate to places that are the most economically prosperous, and that wasn't the South for most of its history.

This also means that whites in the American South, until the last 40 years or so, were extremely homogeneous culturally and in sources of ancestry.

At that time there were very few Catholics outside of Florida, Louisiana and Texas, there were almost no Lutherans, and there were very few Presbyterians or Congregationalists or Unitarians or Universalists or Jews or Quakers or Muslims or Mormons. Baptists, Episcopalians (restricted to a thin upper class), Methodists and black Christian denominations with a shared but parallel theological origin were pretty much it - although some rebranded as non-denominational or in splinter sects.

Some of the religious homogeneity was also because it was freshly emerged. Before the Second Great Awakening (ca. 1790 to 1840), the American South was the least religious part of the United States. This flipped at this time, with a new uniquely American style of faith emerging all at once and securing mass conversion to active, fervent Christianity. This new version of Christianity fit prevailing social attitudes at the time in the South to a "t". The Second Great Awakening "ironed out" many small ideological and cultural differences that had been present before it actively embarked on uniting these folks in a common ideology and faith.

There was no significant linguistically different immigrant population and little linguistic diversity period outside old French in Louisiana and legacy Mexicans in parts of Texas. (Fun Fact: the Spanish language spoken by people native to New Mexico and Southern Colorado retains many words and language constructions from Colonial era Mexico that are no longer found anywhere else in the world.)

There were few Latinos (outside Florida and Texas). There were almost no Asians. The Native Americans who were there at the start were mostly death or exiled by the time the Trail of Tears (1830-1850) was concluded.

Two very disparate cultural groups that are internally relatively homogeneous leads to polarization.

A Narrower Range Of White Affluence Than The North

A tertiary factor is that despite our image of the South as dominated by big plantations that were epitomized an home grown de facto aristocracy of planters v. working class whites and black slaves in the Antebellum era, this is somewhat misleading. While there were lots of big plantations with wealthy families in them, there were almost no families that had wealth on the scale of Northern manufacturing, rail, shipping, and finance based businesses that were far more highly concentrated in wealth. The bottom also lacked the layer of dirt poor, just-a-shirt-on-their-backs new immigrants that was found among Northern whites.

During Reconstruction, many of the wealthy planter families experienced permanent or temporary total financial collapse, in part, at the hands of Northern carpetbagger financiers.

About 18% of white men in the South aged 13 to 43 died in the American Civil War (1861-1865) and Reconstruction, and many more were crippled as a result, for example, with amputated limbs.

The war destroyed much of the wealth that had existed in the South. All accumulated investment in Confederate bonds was forfeit. Income per person in the South dropped to less than 40% than that of the North, a condition which lasted until well into the 20th century. Southern influence in the US federal government, previously considerable, was greatly diminished until the latter half of the 20th century.

An effective Union naval blockade captured about 95% of the exports from the Confederate states during the war. In the short run, the war destroyed almost all 8,800 miles of Confederate railroads while the Union added about 7,300 miles to its existing 21,800 miles of railroad. The war also destroyed almost all of the South's manufacturing plants, and almost all of its cotton production, and almost all of its exports (70% of the total for the nation before the war).

(The quote is a second hand Wikipedia quote to which my link has rotted.)

The political ideology impact of the post-Civil War economic collapse in the South can be compared to the radical right influence that economic collapse in Germany after World War I in the Weimar Republic had leading to to fascism and World War II.

So, Southern whites, coming out of Reconstruction, were far more economically homogeneous than elsewhere, which helped build a sense of solidarity.

Also, in 1860, there were about 22,100,000 people living in the Union states (only 400,000 of whom were slaves, about 2% of its overall population, of whom 340,000 were in Kentucky and Missouri) and 9,100,000 living in states that would become a part of the Confederate States of America (about 3,500,000 of whom were slaves, about 38% of its overall population). In the lowlands deep South including the Mississippi River valley, the percentage of the population that consisted of slaves was much greater.

The transition from a society where white Protestant men made up 98% of voting population to one where blacks made up 20%-50% of the voting population in counties and other political jurisdictions encouraged tactics of voter suppression and political unity in the face of a "common enemy" that was much more different from them than they were different between each other, among white Southerners.

Poor, Less Educated, Economically Insecure People Trend Conservative

Over all of that time, from the late colonial era to the present, the South was and remains less affluent as a whole than the North and less economically secure.

This wasn't confined to the rich either. Flush toilets and electricity for ordinary people came many decades later to the South than it did to the North too.

Literacy in the South among whites was also profoundly lower than the rest of the U.S. until long after the Civil War. A litmus test of the distinction can be seen these statistics:

In 1850…Arkansas had 97,402 white persons under twenty, and only 11,050 attending school; while of 210,831 whites of that age in Michigan, 112,175 were at school or college. Last year, Michigan had 132,234 scholars in her public common schools.

In 1850, Arkansas contained 64,787 whites over twenty, – but 16,935 of these were unable to read and white; while, out of 184,240 of that age in Michigan, only 8,281 were thus ignorant, – of these, 3009 were foreigns; while, of the 16,935 illiterate persons of Arkansas, only 37 were born out of that State. The Slave State had only 47,852 persons over twenty who could read a word; while the free State had 175,959.

Michigan had 107,943 volumes in “libraries other than private,” and Arkansas 420 volumes.

From Theodore Parker’s The great battle between slavery and freedom (1856).

And, in the long run, on average and barring intervening factors, poor, economically insecure, less educated people tend to be more conservative.

Obliquely related is that the American South was to a much greater extent a zero-sum game economy than other parts of the U.S. The South has a mostly agricultural economy until very late compared to the rest of the U.S., and almost all arable land in the U.S. was farmed very early on.

In contrast, the Midwest and then the West allowed for win-win solutions by expanding into new territory (and displacing the Native Americans there). And, the North and Midwest also overcame the zero-sum game trap by industrializing so that agricultural land wasn't a limiting factor, an economic trend that came really a century or so later to the South than to the North.

Conservative thinking and political approaches are a better fit to a world that is a zero-sum game. Liberal thinking and political approaches are a better fit to a world where win-win solutions are widely available.

It is the liberalism of poor non-whites in the U.S., and the liberalism of whites in unions post-WWII, and not the conservatism of other poor whites in the U.S., that is the historical exception that requires explanation.

To oversimplify, poor non-whites in the U.S. are liberal because conservatism was taken by poor whites whose policies posed an existential threat to them, and working class union whites were liberal because the economy needed to many modestly skilled workers after WWII that they enjoyed unprecedented prosperity that unions helped to harness with liberal policies.

  • 6
    @PeteW I totally agree that "non-whites outside of coastal-urban Democratic strongholds also hold many conservative beliefs" just as theory predicts (but still vote for Democrats for a vastly oversimplified reasons in my footnote-ish side point). I disagree that the small-state/big-state divide is a meaningful division in U.S. politics. Wyoming and Rhode Island have little in common politically. Neither do California and Texas. Small-state and big-state correlations are just the fallout from politically motivated state boundary drawing that has ebbed and flowed over time in biases.
    – ohwilleke
    Nov 11 '21 at 2:23
  • 6
    "county level the 1876 Presidential election and the 1976 Presidential election look almost identical (flipping the Democratic and Republican parties". Looking at wikipedia for 1876 and 1976 they actually look similar to me without flipping parties.
    – Dave
    Nov 11 '21 at 9:25
  • 6
    Yes, I was going to note the same thing as Dave. That "flipping" comment is puzzling with reference to those example years. There has indeed been a realignment of D and R, with even some politicians switching parties, but in 1976 that process was still in early stages electorally, and the old-style Democratic South was still largely intact.
    – nanoman
    Nov 11 '21 at 9:54
  • 16
    @ohwilleke urban/rural is probably the most obvious political divide outside of any identarian considerations. Texas is a sea of red with blue islands, and even liberal states like California turn a lot more conservative out in the countryside. Nov 11 '21 at 14:18
  • 4
    Great answer, but I think it's also relevant that the South is more rural. I may be biased here, but I believe my conservative beliefs are driven by self-reliance. You can hope people will help you, and help others when you can, but at the end of the day you're on your own - because the nearest grocery store is an hour away, and the nearest neighbor can be miles.
    – Turbo
    Nov 11 '21 at 16:32

This would take a long history lesson to explain, but the basis is in three events:

  1. The Civil War (1861-5)
  2. The Reconstruction (1865-77)
  3. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960's, specifically The Civil Rights Act of 1964

Previous to the 1960's, Southern Whites voted predominantly Democratic because Democrats supported the secession of Southern States at the beginning of the Civil War, while Republicans opposed secession and slavery.

When Lyndon B Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he said,

"I know the risks are great and we might lose the South, but those sorts of states may be lost anyway."2

He foresaw that the white majority in these states would move away from the Democratic party and in fact they did, as you have observed in your question.

  • 2
    "Previous to the 1960's, Southern Whites voted predominantly Democratic because Democrats supported the secession of Southern States at the beginning of the Civil War": that doesn't mean that they were less conservative.
    – phoog
    Nov 11 '21 at 7:06
  • 1
    @phoog Thanks for specifying that. I just assumed that in my answer. Political parties don't necessarily align with political ideology. Political Scientists have documented the switch between parties and ideologies throughout history. The Civil War and then the Reconstruction and then the Civil Rights movement represent these ideological shifts within the parties in the US.
    – Karlomanio
    Nov 11 '21 at 15:32
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    Indeed. It just seemed that the phrase "conservative and Republican" ought to trigger at least a mention of the fact that the two haven't always gone hand in hand, especially in an answer such as this one that considers the region's political history.
    – phoog
    Nov 11 '21 at 17:07
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    @phoog I also would like to shy away from the use of terms "Conservative" and "Liberal" because what has defined them throughout history in the US has changed. Also, the term liberal in other countries is more associated with Center right.
    – Karlomanio
    Nov 11 '21 at 18:30
  • 3
    In American political lexicon, the word "liberal" is slowly being replaced by "progressive", which is a more appropriate antonym of "conservative". The definitions of progressive and conservative don't vary with time or place, and don't imply any specific policies. Conservatism is simply opposition to change (though in practice it often involves supporting changes that would undo earlier changes). Progressivism is simply support for change (though in practice it often involves opposing changes that would undo earlier changes). Nov 11 '21 at 21:17

Within the USA the political divide between Republicans (conservatives) and Democrats (liberals) is a divide between rural and urban areas. Low population density areas tend to the conservative, minimal government beliefs and perceive government programs as more of an impediment than a benefit. They tend to be more independent and self sufficient. High population density areas are much more dependent on government services and see large government programs as more of a benefit. The "blue" democratically controlled states all have large cities whose population out numbers the rest of the state. This is easily seen if you look at election results by county instead of by state.

Most "swing" voters that determine election results are from the suburban areas, not truly liberal urban areas or conservative rural areas.

As always you will be to find exceptions.

The south does not have large urban areas, nor as many. There are some exceptions, such as Miami FL, a large urban area that has a number of Cuban and Central American refugees that is very much conservative, having seen the result of leftist socialism.

  • 9
    "High population density areas are much more dependent on government services" Is this really true? rural areas received more in total per capita Federal funding ($7,473) in fiscal year (FY) 2005 than urban areas ($7,391)
    – Dave
    Nov 12 '21 at 15:09
  • @Dave - Some public utilities in cities are not in the federal budget; but city residents are dependent on those services. Those services are not always available to residents within the same county. Trash collection and intracity bus transportation, for example.
    – Rick Smith
    Nov 12 '21 at 15:20
  • 3
    Rural areas receive more state fiscal subsidies (by far) than urban areas, per capita.
    – ohwilleke
    Nov 12 '21 at 17:22
  • 5
    Much of the subsidies are for highway systems that connect cities, functionally bypassing the towns in between them. The other large subsidy is for farming, but in most cases these benefit large operations owned by remote interests and not the small family owned farms. In any case the "perception" is that rural areas receive little benefit from larger more controlling governments.
    – Jim
    Nov 12 '21 at 18:42
  • 3
    @Jim: I agree. Highways (or train tracks, or power lines, or water pipes, or any other type of infrastructure that must be built in a continuous path) will necessarily need to traverse a large stretch of rural area in order to connect big cities. Just because it's built in a rural area doesn't mean it's built for the rural area at the expense of the cities.
    – dan04
    Nov 12 '21 at 20:12

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