Key, V. O., Jr. 1908-1963

Key, V. O., Jr. International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. Ed. William A. Darity, Jr. Vol. 4. 2nd ed. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2008. p258-259.

By Alexander P. Lamis

V. O. Key Jr., one of the United States’ greatest political scientists, pioneered the study of elections, political parties, and public opinion, and left a remarkable collection of books and articles despite a career cut short at age fifty five. His Southern Politics in State and Nation (1949) analyzed in penetrating fashion the confusing, little-understood political arrangements of the one-party Democratic South using innovative, intelligible techniques of electoral analysis. Noting that in “its grand outlines, the politics of the South revolves around the position of the Negro” (1949, p. 5), Key went on to show that the big losers in the region’s odd political system were “those who have less,” of both races.

Likewise, his masterful Public Opinion and American Democracy (1961) offered invaluable theoretical insights into the elusive role of public attitudes in the governing process, elucidating the all-important linkage between what governments do and what the people think. “If a democracy tends toward indecision, decay, and disaster, the responsibility rests [with its political leaders], not in the mass of the people” (1961, p. 558), he concluded.

Key grew up in the West Texas town of Lamesa, where his father was a prominent lawyer. After earning a BA and MA at the University of Texas, he studied at the University of Chicago from 1930 to 1934 under Charles Merriam, an advocate of a “new science of politics,” earning his PhD in 1934. After two years of teaching at UCLA and a year each working for the Social Science Research Council in Chicago and the National Resources Planning Page 259 Board in Washington, D.C., Key assumed his first longterm faculty position, at Johns Hopkins University in 1939. There he immediately launched into writing his influential, path-breaking textbook Politics, Parties, and Pressure Groups, which appeared in 1942 and went through five editions. His colleagues hailed the book; Charles Beard wrote to the author that his “bully” book “gleams with humor well concealed” (quoted in Lucker 2001, p. 49). Key made political power the book’s central theme, telling the publisher in his 1939 proposal that “all of what we call political phenomenon can be interpreted” around this concept, adding: “By imaginative treatment, these dry-as-dust matters could perhaps be made, if not to sparkle, at least gleam” (quoted in Lucker 2001, pp. 43―44). Therein lies an element of Key’s success: He matched insightful analysis with an engaging writing style.

Key remained at Johns Hopkins University for a decade, broken only by wartime service at the Bureau of the Budget. Yale University lured him away in 1949, but two years later he moved to Harvard, where he operated at the pinnacle of his discipline for the last twelve years of his life. In the Journal of Politics in February 1955 he published his most famous article, “A Theory of Critical Elections,” which called attention to a type of election “in which the decisive results of the voting reveal a sharp alteration of the pre-existing cleavage within the electorate” (p. 4). The article gave birth to an enduring subfield―the study of electoral realignments.

Always at the forefront of his discipline, Key mastered the new techniques of survey research in the late 1950s, taking up residence at the University of Michigan to work with the National Election Studies, then in their infancy. “To speak with precision of public opinion,” he asserted at the outset of his resulting 1961 book, Public Opinion and American Democracy, “is a task not unlike coming to grips with the Holy Ghost” (p. 8). But in 550 well-crafted pages, Key captured the elusive topic, locating it firmly within the political process.

At the time of Key’s death in 1963, he was at work on a massive study of the voting process. Using Key’s incomplete manuscript, his student Milton C. Cummings published The Responsible Electorate in 1966. The central theme of this slim volume is that voters exhibit an impressive amount of rationality in light of the choices they face, a notion still widely quoted using Key’s apt phrasing: “Voters are not fools.” If he had lived to complete the work himself, there is no doubt he would have produced a weighty study comparable to his last classic, Public Opinion and American Democracy.

SEE ALSO Democracy ; Elections ; Interest Groups and Interests ; Merriam, Charles Edward, Jr. ; Political Science ; Politics, Southern ; Public Opinion ; Race and Political Science ; Rationality ; Survey ; Voting Patterns


Key, V. O., Jr. 1942. Politics, Parties, and Pressure Groups. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell.

Key, V. O., Jr. 1949. Southern Politics in State and Nation. New York: Knopf.

Key, V. O., Jr. 1955. A Theory of Critical Elections. Journal of Politics 17 (1): 3―18.

Key, V. O., Jr. 1961. Public Opinion and American Democracy. New York: Knopf.

Key, V. O., Jr., and Milton C. Cummings. 1966. The Responsible Electorate: Rationality in Presidential Voting. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

Lamis, Alexander P., and Nathan Goldman. 1987. V. O. Key’s Southern Politics: The Writing of a Classic. Georgia Historical Quarterly 71 (2): 261―285.

Lucker, Andrew M. 2001. V. O. Key, Jr.: The Quintessential Political Scientist. New York: Peter Lang.

Source Citation: “Key, V. O., Jr.” International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. Ed. William A. Darity, Jr.. Vol. 4. 2nd ed. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2008. 258-259.

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