British Association for American Studies


Book Review: The Rational Southerner: Black Mobilization, Republican Growth, and the Partisan Transformation of the American South by M. V. Hood III, Quentin Kidd, and Irwin L. Morris

Hood III, M.V.; Kidd, Quentin; Morris, Irwin L. The Rational Southerner: Black Mobilization, Republican Growth, and the Partisan Transformation of the American South. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. Pp.256, $41.95

The Rational SouthernerOne of the most intriguing questions in modern American political history is the process by which the Republican Party mutated from the party of bi-racial progressive alliances to that of white conservatism. Precisely how and why this process took place has been the subject of much scholarly debate since the middle of the twentieth century. The Rational Southerner seek to refute explanations of Republican transformation which are based on regional economic development and social class, such as those put forward over the last fifteen years by scholars such as David Lublin and James C. Cobb (see, for example, Cobb’s Redefining Southern Culture: Mind and Identity in the Modern South and Lublin’s The Republican South: Democratization and Partisan Change). Instead, the authors take as their starting point V. O. Key’s seminal 1949 text, Southern Politics in State and Nation, in which Key argued that ‘black context [the proportion of an area’s population that is black] is directly associated with white conservatism’ and, extending this to the party political arena, ‘that black context is associated with Republicanism.’ (7) The Rational Southerner seeks to extend Key’s 1949 hypothesis and provide a new understanding of the Republican transformation, based primarily on the issue of race. First published in 2012 but re-issued in 2014 as a paperback with additional studies of the 2010 and 2012 election cycles, the investigation in The Rational Southerner begins in 1951. The authors deploy extensive data analysis of voter registration and voting patterns to try to understand the transformation of the Republican Party since the middle of the twentieth century.

African Americans vote in South Carolina in 1960s

African-Americans Vote in South Carolina. Photo Credit: history.com

The authors see the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA), which re-enfranchised African Americans, as an absolutely pivotal moment in partisan change, particularly in the South, where disfranchisement along racial lines had been the norm for well over half a century. They make a strong case for the primacy of race as a motivating factor in modern southern politics, a factor which they claim outweighs social class, migration patterns and religious denomination. Race is the factor which forms the basis of the authors’ theory of ‘relative advantage.’ The theory explains the interplay between Republican growth and black voter mobilisation and the variations of this in different parts of the South. For example, ‘relative advantage’ suggests that Republican Party growth spurs black voter mobilisation in those states with relatively large black populations (primarily in the Deep South). Equally, the authors argue that the mass movement of African Americans into state Democratic parties could precipitate a concomitant exit of whites, whose racial loyalties led them to perceive less advantage in staying in the Democratic Party as it became less white.

This theory is convincingly backed-up by empirical testing across various southern states. A particular strength of the book is its willingness to allow for significant variation across the southern states and also within the sub-state and individual levels of analysis. The authors conclude that partisan change has been gradual and ‘bottom-up,’ insofar as Republican electoral successes at national level have been a direct result of prior victories at state level. Equally, after 1965 white conservatives would often vote Republican before actually seeing themselves as firm Republicans.

Republican National Convention, Chicago, June 1920. Chicago Historical Society.

Republican National Convention, Chicago, June 1920. Chicago Historical Society.

But why did African-American voters, re-enfranchised by the VRA in 1965, choose to vote Democratic in the first place? This is a nagging question which is never really fully explained in the book. The authors contend that the Democratic Party’s ‘liberal shift’ can be attributed to ‘the mass re-enfranchisement of African Americans beginning in the mid-1960s’ (46). The question of why African Americans initially saw the Democratic Party as a more ‘liberal’ option than the Republican Party, however, is not satisfactorily addressed. The authors state that ‘during the post-Reconstruction era… the Republican Party was rarely thought of as a significant and viable option for African Americans’ (164). This assertion downplays the crucial fact that African Americans voted Republican and served as Republicans in state legislatures – often in large numbers – in parts of the South well into the 1890s.[1] African-American engagement with the Republican Party often continued into the twentieth century, even as black relationships with the party became increasingly strained. Glenda Gilmore has persuasively argued that it was only in the 1920 election that African Americans finally gave up on the Republican Party, as it chased the votes of newly-enfranchised white women.[2] The strategic desertion of African Americans by the national Republican Party in the first two decades of the twentieth century is a highly significant factor in explaining why the Democratic Party was the party of choice for African Americans by the 1950s. The Rational Southerner would have been stronger for the inclusion of this deeper historical context.

Minneapolis Women Voting in 1920

Minneapolis Women Voting in 1920. Image Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

This shortcoming does not, however, affect the quality of the book’s overall arguments and conclusions about the mid- and late-twentieth century South. Despite the daunting amount of quantitative data analysis, the ‘relative advantage’ theory is explained in an accessible way. Each chapter has a concise and clearly-written conclusion which summarises the theoretical and statistical aspects of the arguments. The 2014 edition ends with a discussion of the 2010 and 2012 election cycles, extending the ‘relative advantage’ theory to address the rise of the Tea Party and the possible impact of Hispanic voters on the future of the ‘Grand Old Party.’ Ultimately, the authors see the issue of race as continuing to exert a decisive influence in Republican politics and in southern partisanship in general. Despite an occasional lack of historical context, The Rational Southerner is a clearly written, thoroughly researched account of partisan change which sheds considerable light on the nature of southern party loyalties and on the current condition of US politics.


[1] Catherine W. Bishir, ‘Landmarks of Power: Building a Southern Past in Raleigh and Wilmington, North Carolina, 1885-1915,’ in Where These Memories Grow: History, Memory and Southern Identity, ed. W. Fitzhugh Brundage (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000), 145.

[2] Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore, ‘False Friends and Avowed Enemies: Southern African Americans and Party Allegiances in the 1920s,’ in Jumpin’ Jim Crow: Southern Politics from Civil War to Civil Rights, ed. Jane Dailey, Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore and Bryant Simon (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), 231.


About the Author

I am currently a PhD student in the history department at the University of York. My research focuses on the early civil rights movement during the inter-war years, with an emphasis on the southern states of the US. I gained my MA from the University of York and a BA from the University of St Andrews.