‘Southern’ Political Attitudes More Nuanced Than Previously Known
Identity, not geography, key to regional distinctiveness
Findings from the most recent Blair Center-Clinton School Poll show that a person’s identification as “southern” has a greater impact on attitudes than place of residence, and the demographics of southern identity are rapidly changing.
In the poll’s latest report, Angie Maxwell, assistant professor of political science and Diane D. Blair professor in Southern Studies, found that distinctions of personal identity must be explored when considering attitudes in the United States. The results suggest attitudes regarding religion, national identity and other issues are more nuanced than previously understood.
“The breakdown of attitudes among southerners is much more complicated than where they live. Geography and identity must be considered together to more accurately measure ‘southernness,’” Maxwell said. “With distinct impacts on attitudes, a deeper investigation of those who ‘feel southern’ is required.”
According to the poll, 38.4 percent of those who currently live in the South — defined here as the 11 states that formed the Confederate States of America — identify as “southern,” while 9.4 percent of those who live outside the South identify themselves as “southern.”
There also are substantial differences between groups who live in the South and identify as southern. Of respondents who live in the South, 44.7 percent of African Americans identify as southern, compared to 44 percent of whites and 25.6 percent of Latinos.
"Religion is often cited as one of the primary distinctive traits of the American South, which has long been nicknamed the Bible Belt,” Maxwell said. “As religious denominations multiply and diversify, the simple question regarding one’s view of the Bible gives us additional insight into those who consider themselves biblical literalists, often referred to as fundamentalists.”
When asked about religious attitudes, the poll found a geographic gap as well as an identity gap among respondents who reported holding a literal view of the Bible. There was an 8 point difference between participants who live in the South (39 percent) and those who do not (31 percent) who reported believing in a literal interpretation of the Bible.
Southern identity significantly broadens this gap, which is evident when regarding southerners as a whole. Of those who identified as southern, regardless of geography, 44.3 percent reported holding a literal view of the Bible.
There are also clear and substantial differences been whites, African Americans and Latinos who identify as southern. For example, 58.5 percent of African Americans who live in the South and identify as southern identified as Biblical literalists, compared to 40 percent of whites and 36.7 percent of Latinos.
The poll also considered this question in terms of political ideology. Of those respondents who identified as white southerners living in the South, 37.8 percent of those who identified with the Republican Party also considered themselves to be Biblical literalists, compared to 26.9 percent who identified as independents and 14.0 percent who identified with the Democratic Party.
The poll also explored attitudes regarding what it means to be “fully” American.
“Too often the ‘southern’ label is limited solely to white southerners,” said Maxwell. “We must look deeper if we are going to understand attitudes toward important issues like national identity and how they relate to our concepts of race, religion and partisanship.”
Respondents were asked the importance of being born in the United States, speaking English well, being white and being Christian when considering national identity. Those who considered themselves southerners, regardless of whether they lived in or outside the South, were more likely to hold each of the distinctions as “very important” in order to be considered “fully” American.
The majority of southerners (52.9 percent) believed that it was very important to have been born in the United States, compared to 44.1 percent of those who live in the South and 42.1 percent of those who lived outside the South. Of those who live in the South and identify as southern, 50.9 percent of whites, 64.7 percent of African Americans and 43.5 percent of Latinos had the same attitude toward the importance of birthplace. For white respondents who live in the South, birthplace was very important to 48.3 percent who identified as political independents, 46.2 percent who identified as Republicans, and the 29.7 percent who identified as Democrats.
Similar discrepancies among the groups were found when asked about the importance of other qualities such as speaking English well, being white or being Christian. A breakdown of these numbers is contained in the full report.
“Just as party labels have changed over time, the southern label is also in flux,” Maxwell said. “This has profound implications on the politics of the region and how we understand political attitudes.”
This is the sixth report of findings from the Blair Center-Clinton School Poll. Previous reports have included an overview of the poll’s findings, attitudes about women in the workplace, attitudes toward the economy based on race and region, immigration reform and African American public opinion. Additional reports will be released throughout the year. For more information about the Blair Center-Clinton School partnership, visit the poll website.
The national sample included 3,606 respondents, with 1,792 participants living in the geographic South. The sample also included 1,110 Latino, 843 African American, and 1,653 non-Hispanic white respondents.
About the Partners:
The Diane D. Blair Center of Southern Politics and Society was established in 2001 by an act of U.S. Congress. This research center was named in honor of Diane Divers Blair who taught in the political science department of the University of Arkansas for 30 years. The Blair Center reflects her academic model and strives to approach the study of the American South from a variety of angles, attempting to reveal the undercurrents of politics, history and culture that have shaped the region.
The nation’s seventh presidential school, the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service is the first school in the nation to offer a Master of Public Service (M.P.S.) degree, giving students the knowledge and experience to further their careers in the areas of nonprofit, governmental, volunteer or private sector service. Additionally, the mission of the Clinton School’s Center on Community Philanthropy, directed by Charlotte Williams, is to promote issues and research into community-based philanthropy and its role in generating social, economic and political change.
Darinda Sharp, director of communications
J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences
Ben Beaumont, director of communications
University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service