The Northern and Southern United States have a long history of cultural differences. One of the more surprising is the focus of a new paper which finds that when a Southerner sits in the White House, the United States is both more likely to escalate military disputes to war and more likely to come out on top.
The cause of this difference, according to the coauthors of the paper, political scientists Allan Dafoe of Yale and Devin Caughey of MIT, is the South’s “culture of honor,” which makes citizens of Dixie less likely to let an act of aggression pass unnoticed.
“Insults take on great importance in this type of culture because they help to show you’re not the type of guy who can be pushed around,” says Dov Cohen, a psychologist at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign and coauthor of the book, “Culture of Honor.”
The current study, published in April in the journal World Politics, looked at 36 presidents who held office between 1816 and 2010. The authors tagged 11 of the 36 presidents as Southern and analyzed nearly 300 international disputes involving the United States during that period. Southern presidents were not more likely to get into disputes than Northern presidents, but once disputes arose, major distinctions emerged: Southern presidents were twice as likely as Northern presidents to use military force; Southern presidents tended to prosecute military conflicts twice as long; and Southern presidents were three times as likely as Northern presidents to win military conflicts. A telling example, according to the authors, is the difference in how New Englander John F. Kennedy and Texan Lyndon Johnson considered the Vietnam War.
“Once Johnson had committed US forces, he basically thought it was unthinkable to withdraw because he believed once you show yourself committed to a conflict, even if that turns out to have been a mistake, you can’t back down,” says Caughey. “That’s a cultural belief that’s very prevalent in the southern United States.”
Honor cultures are found all over the world and have been studied extensively by scholars. They tend to develop in places here the rule of law is weak and wealth is portable (like cattle or hard currency) and amenable to theft. Under those circumstances, people have to act as a “sheriff on their own hearth,” as an old North Carolina saying puts it, and a reputation as someone not to be trifled with is important for personal security. These conditions existed much longer in the South than the North, giving rise to a culture of honor that can carry over into the presidency.
“You bring someone from a culture of honor into the White House and it’s not like they can just leave that at the door. You have a cultural mentality coming in and you enact that cultural mentality once you’re in office,” says Cohen.
Dafoe and Caughey are neutral on whether attachment to honor is important in a president. In a previous study, Cohen found that Southern presidents with military experience tended to get particularly high marks on character and foreign policy. This could be because the culture in which they grew up more closely resembles the culture in which international relations are conducted, a wild world where there’s no central authority to keep the peace. In that environment, it can be helpful to know how to stare down a foreign leader.
“These are routines that if you’re in a culture of honor, you’re quite familiar with,” says Cohen.
Kevin Hartnett is a writer in South Carolina. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.