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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Congress, Public Opinion, and Representation in the One-Party South, 1930s-1960s

  • Author(s): Caughey, Devin Michael
  • Advisor(s): Schickler, Eric
  • et al.

This dissertation examines the extent, causes, and consequences of ideological diversity in the one-party South between the 1930s and early 1960s, both at the mass level and among the South's representatives in Congress. Southern members of Congress, often characterized as a monolithic bloc responsive only to a narrow regional elite, were in fact ideologically diverse on economic issues, as Chapter 2 demonstrates using a random-walk Bayesian IRT model to chart Southerners' ideological evolution over time. Moreover, due to their centrist position in Congress after the mid-1940s, the exact distribution of their preferences often determined the set of feasible policy outcomes. As such, Southern MCs were pivotal to both the consolidation of the New Deal and its limitations.

As an alternative to the common "elite dominance" model of Southern politics, I advance a "contingent responsiveness" model, which holds that intraparty competition in Democratic primaries created a real, though imperfect, electoral connection between Southern members of Congress and their (white) electorates. The strength of this electoral connection varied across Southern states and districts, as did the representativeness of Southern electorates with respect to the population. Chapter 3 shows that some constituency characteristics, such as lack of urbanization, the size of the black population, and relative affluence, seem to have affected the ideological positions of Southern MCs by making the white population more conservative across the board, though their effects change over time. The Tennessee Valley Authority, by contrast, exerted a general liberalizing effect on the areas it affected. Other factors, investigated in Chapter 4, changed Southern MCs' electoral incentives by altering the balance of power in the electorate. In particular, constituencies where the eligible electorate was larger and thus the median voter was poorer were much more likely to be represented by members of Congress who supported the redistributive policies of New Deal liberalism. This relationship appears to have been stronger where there was greater competition in Democratic primaries, suggesting that the electoral connection in the one-party South was moderated by the degree of political contestation as well as the scope of participation.

Chapter 5 evaluates the quality of representation in the one-party South, with a focus on issues related to labor unions, where Southern preferences shifted most dramatically and consequentially. I find that in the aggregate, the Southern MCs' positions of economic issues were broadly in line with the stated preferences of the Southern white public. Moreover, Southerners' anti-labor turn in congressional politics closely tracked the changing opinions of their white constituents. Dyadic representation on labor issues was not very strong one-party South, but neither was it obviously weaker than in the two-party North. Given that Southern politics was undoubtedly biased towards elite preferences, the aggregate congruence between Southern MCs and white opinion suggests that countervailing pressures, such as party loyalty and upward ambition, pulled many MCs to the left of their electorates.

Representation did differ qualitatively between North and South in two respects. Most obviously, due to their disenfranchisement and exclusion from mainstream politics, black Southerners were denied the representation that whites were seemingly granted. Second, one-party politics meant that the translation of ideological shifts among voters into electoral and policy outcomes was more incremental than it was in the polarized two-party North, which exhibited the sort of "leapfrog representation" evident in contemporary politics. Due to Southerners' pivotal position in congressional politics, the incremental nature of ideological change in the Southern caucus offered a sort of surrogate representation to the national median voter, with important consequences for the policymaking between the liberal breakthroughs of the New Deal and the Great Society. In addition to illuminating an important period in American political development, this dissertation also highlights the value of differentiating among putatively authoritarian regimes, whose varying location on the continuum from autocracy to democracy has important consequences for the nature of politics and policymaking.

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