The South in Congress: Southern Exposure Rates the Region's Representatives

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This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 12 No. 1, "Elections: Grassroots Strategies for Change." Find more from that issue here.

The burden of Southern history — a system of slave labor and white male supremacy — afflicts not only the South but the entire nation. Our political representatives in Washington see to that.

Other regions elect U.S. senators and representatives who take a dim view toward affirmative action, the Nuclear Freeze, food stamps, the ERA, organized labor, and environmental protection. Senators Orrin Hatch of Utah, Gordon Humphrey of New Hampshire, and Richard Lugar of Indiana readily come to mind. But no region so uniformly sends to Washington lawmakers who champion conservative causes and defend the status quo against progressive reform as does the 11-state Old Confederacy.

In 1983, conservative Southern senators and representatives united across party lines and delivered the margin of votes needed to approve $2.1 billion for 21 MX missiles (see vote 16 on pages 18-19), while rejecting a loan program to help homeowners make their mortgage payments (vote 3). In the House, they limited the EPA's authority to sue toxic polluters (vote 14); in the Senate, they restricted the Justice Department's power to sue for school busing as a remedy for segregation (vote 8); and in both houses, they blocked approval of federal funds for abortions (vote 12).

Just how conservative are the South's representatives in Congress compared to other parts of the U.S.?

In an effort to assess objectively the relative liberalism, or conservatism, of members of Congress, the National Journal devised a complex system that identifies the patterns in each member's votes on selected economic, social, and foreign policy issues and then compares that pattern to those of other members to produce a liberal (and conservative) ranking. A score of 80 means the member is more liberal than 80 percent of his or her colleagues.

For the 1982 session of Congress, the average National Journal liberal rankings for the delegations from various sections of the country, by party affiliation, were as follows:

SENATE (no. members in parenthesis)

Eastern Dem. (10) 86 Eastern Rep. (12) 50

Western Dem. (9) 75 Midwest Rep. (15) 35

Midwest Dem. (15) 67 Western Rep. (17) 25

Southern Dem. (12) 52 Southern Rep. (10) 17


Eastern Dem. (65) 78 Eastern Rep. (48) 45

Western Dem. (39) 77 Midwest Rep. (69) 32

Midwest Dem. (69) 71 Western Rep. (37) 18

Southern Dem. (70)41 Southern Rep. (38) 18


The South is on the bottom on all counts. That's not so surprising, perhaps, but one may have expected that in the last 20 years, the South would have significantly improved its standing compared to other regions. Two decades ago, the spectre of the Solid South loomed large in Congress as men like Richard Russell, Mendel Rivers, and John McClellan set records for longevity in office and unmercifully wielded their power as chairmen of the key committees in each house. The racial rhetoric of the Confederacy's Congressional agents is not as extreme these days, nor is the South's domination of committee chairmanships (dropping from 10 of 18 in the Senate and 8 of 21 in the House as late as 1970 to the current 3 of 16 in the Senate and 7 of 21 in the House today).

We've experienced dramatic economic change, population shifts, the rise of a mass black political activity and of the Republican Party, and a rapid turnover in our Washington lawmakers (only 39 of the 138 in office now held their seats in 1973). Yet the numbers on the "Changes" chart on the next page reveal that as a whole, the region's delegates in Washington still place the same rightward pull on national policy as their predecessors did in 1963.

The chart compares the ratings for Southern and non-Southern (North) legislators compiled by groups ranging from the quintessential liberal Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) to the touchstone for conservatives, Americans for Constitutional Action (ACA). (See page 110 for a discussion of how ratings are done.) Observe:

• On civil rights issues (NAACP rating for 1963 and Leadership Conference on Civil Rights for '82), the South has shown its greatest improvement, while scores for Northerners — especially Republicans — have turned more conservative. The gap between regions on racial issues has narrowed, but the Northern retreat gives the total Congress a lower score, indicating that its leadership on civil rights issues has deteriorated since 1963.

• In the House, the gap between North and South has increased on labor issues, largely because the number of conservative Southern Republicans jumped from 11 to 38 while the North became more Democratic. The demise of the Democratic South in the Senate has not by itself hurt labor; the remaining Southern Democrats were more liberal than their '63 counterparts. But when the shift of 9 seats to the Republicans (where they joined John Tower, the lone GOP Southerner in '63) was added to the shift of 11 seats in the non-South, control of the Senate went to the Republicans, making life tougher for labor than reduced ratings can show.

• The ADA and ACA scores also reflect the liberal loss and conservative gains in the last two decades. The gap between rates for the North and South widened in the House, but narrowed in the increasingly conservative Senate. The widest gaps exist between Northern and Southern House Democrats (45 points for ADA and 35 for ACA), and the fact that these differences have remained constant after 19 years indicates how entrenched the conservative Democratic tradition is in the South. The notorious Boll Weevil caucus in the '81 and '82 Congress has roots as far back as cotton itself.

• The House underwent considerable change in '83, as shown in the four right-hand columns. The South gained 8 seats from the North from reapportionment, and both regions took a total of 24 seats from the Republicans in the November '82 elections. The South lost only 3 of those 24, another indication that even in off years, Republicans are finding the South — and Sunbelt in general, rather than their former Midwestern heartland — as their most fertile territory. The 11 newly elected Democrats from the South showed stronger kinship to their Northern counterparts, and pulled the 1983 ADA rating for the entire region up 13 points over 1982. Nevertheless the liberal gap between North and South has actually increased since '63.



• The table on the opposite page gives 1982 ratings by 7 liberal groups (see Key at bottom of chart), each specializing on a different issue. Generally, an individual who scores less than 35 on two issues is a conservative across the board. The lesson, of course, is that liberal issue-oriented groups should organize together to rid themselves of their common enemies.

• Some state delegations do better on one issue than another. For example, Alabama's delegation votes relatively more liberal on economic issues (votes 1-5 on page 18 and the AFL-CIO rating on page 17) than on the environment (votes 12, 13, and the LCV rating), a reflection of its populist past and the clout of organized labor in the state today. Louisiana does better on the environment than on foreign policy and military spending (votes 15-20 and ADA rating). The greater number of W=Wrong marks on these last votes, compared to those for social issues (votes 6-14) indicates the South's abiding and open affection for military solutions.

• The chart shows an interesting polarization between parties — no Republican got a grade above 25 — and between representatives within a state. South Carolina has the most polarized delegation in both houses, with Virginia close behind, having become more liberal since defeating 3 of the 9 Republicans who made it the most conservative Southern delegation in 1982.

• Seven of the 8 new House seats added to the South in 1983 were in Texas and Florida, two states least typical of the Old South and also most promising for modern Republicans. Their delegations herald the polarization between parties and between liberals and conservatives that other parts of the South may anticipate as their populations balloon. On the Southern Exposure scale, 7 of the top 11 and 11 of the bottom 27 are from Texas and Florida.

• The 40 Congressional districts with 25% or more black populations have some of the most conservative and most liberal Representatives in the South. The Second District of both Mississippi and North Carolina are the most black in their states; black candidates ran in the Democratic primaries in both states in 1982, but failed to muster enough support to defeat whites who went on to become the most conservative Democrats in each state's delegation. Eight of 27 Representatives with grades of 10 or less are in these 25%+ districts, as are 6 of the 11 with a grade of at least 80.

• The 11 most liberal Southerners in the House all come from districts that least fit the WASP mold of the Old South. They are: the South's only two black legislators, Mickey Leland and Harold Ford; 2 of the South's 6 Jews in the House, William Lehman and Lawrence Smith; Lindy Boggs, Gillis Long and Jack Brooks from districts with large black and cajun populations; Wyche Fowler from a 50% black district in Atlanta; Dante Fascell from a 34% Hispanic and black Miami-area district; Henry Gonzalez from a 32% Hispanic district in San Antonio; and John Bryant from a Dallas district that is 28% black and Hispanic.

There's a lesson for liberals here, too. Thirty-five years ago, V.O. Key noted a populist strain in his Southerns Politics and speculated that "if the blue-collar vote in the South should double, Southern conservatives in Congress would probably be less numerous." He recognized the obstacle of racism to his vision, and he suggested that "if the Negro is gradually assimilated into political life, the underlying Southern liberalism will undoubtedly be mightily strengthened." The opposite way to view the challenge now appears to be more accurate: the task ahead is to assimilate the typical white Southern voter into a political tradition charted by black, Hispanic, and non-WASP interests. That tradition, in cold numbers, votes more consistently for liberal policies that help the majority of white working- and middle-class citizens. Unfortunately, as Numan Bartley and Hugh Graham observe in Southern Politics and the Second Reconstruction, Southern whites are persistently "more inclined to use their ballots in state and local politics to express their personal beliefs or prejudices rather than their socioeconomic self-interest." Until that obstacle is addressed (they suggest through political organizing that connects the vote to bread-and-butter issues), the South will remain a conservative drag on the nation.