Southern Democrats is the term commonly applied to members and supporters of the United States (U.S.) Democratic Party who live in the states typically called the American South. This geographic region includes up to 16 states. The included states vary based on a range of historical and political references.
The term Southern Democrats was first used in the early 1800s when many regions of the United States were divided in their opinions on the morality and legality of slavery. They were often perceived as the strongest supporters of slavery, putting them in direct opposition to their Northern Democrat counterparts. Their views on slavery and other social issues were also commonly thought to be in conflict with the relatively new political party that called themselves Republicans.
As the politics of the land continued to evolve in the middle to late 1800s, some Southern Democrats became more liberal and embraced more middle-of-the-road political views. A significant number of other Southern Democrats, however, were bound together more closely by opposition to the Civil Rights Movement. These people formed ultra-conservative factions such as the Dixiecrats and right-wing vigilante groups such as the White League and the Ku Klux Klan.
Support for civil rights and changes in laws that prohibited institutionalized racism resulted in some radical changes in the Democratic party overall. The general party politics slowly shifted to the left around the turn of the century. Some Southern Democrats reacted by joining forces with the Republican Party, which was starting to wax conservative and welcomed the Democratic support.
Despite the many changes the two major political parties underwent in the early 1900s, most voters remained true to their original parties. But when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 went into effect, many Southern Democrats decided to oust their Democratic representatives in favor of Republicans. Not since the Great Depression years had the Southern states elected so many Republicans to major political offices.
Over the next couple of turbulent decades, many voters switched political parties more than once. The Democrats in the South started to lose control of some political strongholds in the south, which many blamed on the liberal Democrat influence. The Republicans took advantage of this perceived weakness and gained control of both houses of Congress in 1994, a position they maintained for the rest of the decade.
Southern Democrats still exist today, but the moniker is not as prevalent as it was when the country was much younger. An attempt to unify in both name and platform is the goal claimed by many current members of the Democratic Party. The current Southern Democrats are generally identified as supporting government legislation of traditional values, tough foreign policies and fiscal responsibility in handling public funds.