The Southern Citadel
Southern Politics: In State and Nation.
By V. O. Key, Jr.
With the assistance of Alexander Heard. Knopf. 675 pp. $6.00.
The South has never lost its nationalism. Since 1850 its relations with the rest of the nation have been much like the conduct of foreign affairs, or as Professor Key calls it, “a sort of sublimated foreign war.” The Southern Democratic party has been both the army of resistance and the diplomatic corps: through it the South has manifested its solidarity against the rest of the nation, and through it she has contracted valuable alliances with other elements in the country. And just as the impact of an external crisis causes a tightening of the ranks and a lapse of criticism in the nation at large, so the constant potential “enemy” to her race system that the white South sees in the rest of the nation has operated as a perennial inhibiting force in her domestic affairs. Psychologically she is under a continuous state of siege.
The South’s internal politics most frequently attract national attention as a kind of low comedy spectacle, and serious criticism of the South generally turns directly on its race relations or on the role of the Southern delegation in Congress and its impact on national affairs. It is a great merit of V. O. Key’s dose survey of Southern politics that it supplies us with ample, solid, and systematic information on the confusing Southern local scene. Key’s book is significant not merely for what it tells about the South but also for the light it sheds on the mechanics of one-partyism. The one-party system in the South is the political corollary of the master-race complex. Its fundamental concern in local affairs is white supremacy; the one indispensable function of the Southern Demoratic party in Washington is to make certain that these local arrangements will not be disturbed from outside.
The hub of the classic liberal interpretation of society has been the idea of competition, especially among political parties. The essence of “good” liberal politics is that it manages first to raise issues in a fairly coherent form for debate and then to compromise them in the process of policy-formation without resort to violence and without causing excessive instability in political institutions. Theoretically the party of the “outs” under the two-party system is supposed to organize the various social interests that have been offended in one way or another by the policies of the “ins,” until at last enough have been forged together to oust the “ins” and rectify a good proportion of the grievances. I believe this mechanism has not worked nearly as well in our national history as it does in the theoretical model that the political scientists have constructed for their classrooms; but it has had a rough kind of working order, and its failures are probably due as much to other deficiencies in our political culture as to the party mechanism itself.
At any rate, the South does not have this kind of party politics; it has a variety of political factionalism in which the internal and local issues of Southern society have been driven underground. There is no coherent party of the “outs” and little more than the rudiments of a mass electorate. Political opposition is thus diverted from what might be, and ought to be, major issues of policy bearing upon the public welfare. Political leaders frequently have no clear association with ideas and policies, and in some cases even with each other. Politically active people move more or less freely, but without this having much more than a personal meaning, from faction to faction. They are like a negative caricature of the independent voter who may flourish where there is a vigorous two-party battle; where he keeps his independence so that he is free to vote in accordance with the issues, they are independent because there are no issues. Even under the two-party system the issues actually raised in campaigns have frequently been factitious, to be sure; but the Southern one-party system almost guarantees that they will be. In the absence of meaningful issues, campaigns center on personalities or cliques, on outstanding demagogues who can draw crowds primarily in their capacity as entertainers. The absence of parties and issues isolates state from national politics; thus it is extremely difficult to inject significant national issues into the state arena and vitalize the Southern political mind from outside. As a result, the South has “no system or practice of political organization and leadership adequate to cope with its problems.”
His concern with a general characterization of the one-party system has not led Professor Key to neglect its specific variants. In fact, one of the best and most convincing parts of the book is the long sequence in which the patterns of politics in various Southern states are sharply and closely delineated. One might begin with North Carolina, the most progressive of the Southern states both economically and racially, which is also the closest to having the two-party system as it operates elsewhere. By contrast, the state of Arkansas represents the one-party system in its purest and most undefiled form, untainted by a trace of a significant issue. One might similarly contrast the politics of Virginia, where a tight oligarchy, albeit a fairly honest and efficient one, has “subverted democratic institutions and deprived most Virginians of a voice in their government,” with Honda, where an extreme form of political atomization exists in which every man works for himself in a maze of amorphous and shifting factions. Again, there is an instructive comparison between Louisiana and Mississippi. In Louisiana, under the auspices of the Long machine and with the compliance of an extremely simple electorate, an almost absolute dictatorship has been achieved—a virtual dictatorship of the illiterate—which is nevertheless capable of coupling with its demagogy and corruption some welfare accomplishments. In Mississippi, where redneck farmers of the hill sections generally line up against delta farmers, demagogy is no less common, but the dire poverty of the state makes it all but impossible to translate any of the promises into welfare policies. One could, once again, compare the politics of South Carolina, where the Negro question is more prominent than elsewhere, and where racial oratory is the primary agency by which actual issues are stifled, with the politics of Texas, where the economic basis of politics is most conspicuous. Texas, whose politics reflect the presence of a great many newly rich people with a primitive conservative mentality, is much less concerned about race and much more with making money and defending property; its chief political division not only takes place along general lines but also permits the expression of genuine issues.
That the race complex is the primary incubus of Southern politics Professor Key has no doubt. The core of Southern political solidarity lies in the white population of the black belt. It is those whites from the plantation areas who live in areas of the highest concentration of the colored population who are most inflexible in their political allegiance and most militant racially, as Professor Key ingeniously shows by an analysis of the elections of 1928 and 1948. “It must be conceded,” he concludes, “that there is one, and only one, real basis for southern unity: the Negro.” In a sense, this book is an elaborate demonstration of the political costs of prejudice.
There is nothing impressionistic about Professor Key’s study. Financed by the Rockefeller Foundation, it was carried on at the University of Alabama with the benefit of a staff of investigators. It makes use of many techniques of quantitative analysis, and is replete with maps, charts, graphs, and statistical tables. On the whole, it is a successful illustration of the use of statistical methods in politics, which shows that they can be effectively combined with more informal modes of understanding. Among American political studies it is bound to have the stature of a classic.
I found Professor Key’s discussion of the role of the South in the nation, which occupies only a minor portion of the book, far less impressive than his analysis of the internal mechanisms of Southern politics. It is at this point too that his use of quantitative methods seems least adequate to the task. He has subjected to analysis the liberal stereotype of Southern Democratic collaboration with Northern conservative Republicans to defeat liberal legislation, and he has found it wanting.
He has approached the problem through a quantitative study of a large number of roll calls in a sample of seven sessions of the Senate and four sessions of the House from 1933 to 1945. The effect of this technique is to show that on an immense number of routine types of small decisions the Southern Democrats generally conformed to the pattern of their party and voted against the majority of Republicans. I question the validity of lumping a vast number of routine and unimportant roll calls together with votes on major measures of policy and expressing the results in percentages. It would be more illuminating to go back fifty years and study the voting record of the Southern delegation in Congress on some one hundred outstanding measures of policy rather than to study 598 Senate roll calls, many of them on trivia, in only seven sessions. Professor Key, of course, has not altogether ignored qualitative considerations; he has separately examined the roll calls on certain types of legislation, although he has not evaluated the measures by their importance. Where he discusses types of legislation, his results show, not surprisingly, that Southern Democrats have been firm party and administration adherents in foreign policy but have bolted to vote with Republicans on certain types of agricultural policies and particularly on labor questions. Voting in the House shows that representatives of Southern urban areas do not vote with Republicans as frequently as their rural colleagues; the Southern Democrat-Republican alliance, when it occurs, must be seen as an agrarian coalition, the force of which may be progressively diminished with the further growth of urbanism in the South.
But the primary operation of Southern Democratic influence through the mechanism of the Congressional committee and the seniority system, which is not too amenable to study by quantitative methods, is not assessed in these pages. Professor Key concedes that “the tactical advantage that the South enjoys through the capacity of its committee chairmen to bottle up measures does not reflect itself in congressional roll calls.” Such gaps in this work suggest the need of another book of similarly grand proportions on the South’s role in national politics. It should be done by someone with Professor Key’s patience, detachment, and devotion to the democratic process.