The Political Economy of the U.S. South

The Slave Order in American Political Development: Evidence from the New Deal

(Under review)

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How and to what did degree did slavery shape the trajectory of the American state? Though extant accounts of the legacy of slavery demonstrate a pernicious impact on social capital and race relations, we know little about the impact of slavery on the formation and content of public policy. To better historicize the way in which race shapes policy outcomes, I advance the slave order thesis, which suggests that the institution of slavery generated both the culture and context for racial discrimination in political economy outcomes. Using the New Deal period–one of the defining progressive eras of US politics–as a case study, I argue that slavery left a remarkable imprint on the content of public policy more than 50 years after the formal abolition of the institution in the US South. To test my argument, I use county-level data on the distribution of New Deal spending across the South. Estimates using an instrumental variables identification strategy suggest that counties that had a historically high prevalence of slavery received less spending for the Works Progress Administration—the hallmark public employment program of the New Deal. My argument and results suggest that the slave order left a tangible impact on the lives of African Americans long after it was abolished.

The Political Economy of the Collapse of King Cotton: Evidence from a Natural Experiment

(Manuscript under revision, please email me for a draft)

(with James Feigenbaum and Cory Smith)

How do economic structures shape political behavior in highly racialized contexts? To explore this question, we turn to the historical setting of the U.S. South. Since the founding of the United States, cotton has motivated the politics of the U.S. South in various forms including the development of slavery, economic policies, and intergroup relations between Whites and Blacks. To investigate this relationship, we use the natural experiment generated by the Boll Weevil infestation during 1892-1922 to identify the causal effect of cotton production on the nature and persistence of authoritarian politics in the U.S. South. Using the intensity of exposure to the Boll Weevil to instrument for the level of cotton production, we find that areas with high levels of cotton production experienced more lynching and greater support for the one-party state in the short to medium-run. Over the long-run, these areas had a higher probability of experiencing Civil Rights protests and higher voting rates for the racially liberal party. To help interpret these findings, we provide a theory of dynamic persistence where social movements play a key role. Our framework and results help broaden our understanding of the relationship among economic structures, intergroup relations, and historical persistence.

The Economic Origins of Political Competition

(Manuscript under revision, please email me for a draft)

(with James Feigenbaum)

Why did the U.S. South develop into a one-party state while the rest of the United States remained a robust democracy? More broadly, what are the origins of political competition? Though the peculiar development of slavery explains the South’s initial political development, the persistence of the one-party state in the South suggests that slavery alone cannot explain why the former Confederacy remained authoritarian well after emancipation. Instead, we explore how the fundamental contours of the Southern economy–in particular, its reliance on cotton–generated incentives for the Southern planter elite to maintain the one-party state even after the end of slavery. Moreover, we argue that the nature of economic production in the South generated complementarities between labor coercion against African Americans and one-party rule. To test our argument, we use a natural experiment in cotton production stemming from the infestation of the cotton-destroying Boll Weevil to identify the causal effect of the cotton economy on the nature of political competition in the U.S. South. We find that between 1924-1968, increasing the size of the cotton economy raised the Democratic Party’s vote share across all offices in addition and reduced the competitiveness of these races. Our findings contribute to the economic origins of political competition in democratic polities.

Works-in-progress

  • Segregation and Social KKKapital, 1920-1966
  • Race, Labor, and Labor Militancy in the Gilded Age