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How Southern Slavery Turns White People Into Republicans 150 Years Later

White Southerners are one of the great outliers in American politics. President Obama polledsignificantly worse with white voters in the South than he did with whites in swing states. One survey of working class white voters found Obama only 4-8 points behind Romney in the majority of the country, while he polled 40 points behind Romney among Southern white working class voters. And a new study by political scientists Avidit Acharya, Matthew Blackwell and Maya Sen suggests that there may be a simple explanation for this divide — slavery.


The Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution banned slavery nearly 150 years ago, yet this study suggests that the legacy of slavery continues to drive voters in areas that once housed large numbers of slaves to vote Republican:

Drawing on a sample of more than 39,000 southern whites, we show that whites who currently live in counties that had high concentrations of slaves in 1860 are on average more conservative and express colder feelings towards African Americans than whites who live elsewhere in the South. That is, the larger the number of slaves in his or her county of residence in 1860, the greater the probability that a white Southerner today will identify as a Republican, express opposition to race-coded policies such as affirmative action, and express greater racial resentment towards African Americans. We show that these differences are robust to a variety of factors, including geography and mid-19th century economic conditions and political attitudes. We also show that our results strengthen when we instrument for the prevalence of slavery using local measures of the agricultural suitability to grow cotton. In fact, our findings indicate that in the counterfactual world where the South had no slaves in 1860, the political views of white Southerners today would be indistinguishable from those of similarly situated white Northerners.

The authors offer several potential explanations for how a human rights atrocity banned more than a century ago can continue to drive political attitudes today. Among them, the authors suggest that “the sudden enfranchisement of blacks was politically threatening to whites, who for centuries had enjoyed exclusive political power. In addition, the sudden emancipation of blacks substantially undermined whites’ economic power by suddenly increasing blacks’ wages and threatening the plantation economy.” These two factors, according to the author of the study, “led Southern white elites to promote localized anti-black sentiment by encouraging violence towards blacks, propagating racist norms and cultural beliefs, and, to the extent legally possible, pushing for the institutionalization of racist policies (such as Jim Crow laws). In turn, these racially hostile attitudes have persisted as each successive generation has, to some degree, inherited the attitudes and beliefs of the previous generation.”

[HT: Henry Farrell]

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