Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


When Oklahoma became the forty-sixth state in 1907, it brought together two disparate territories. The eastern half of the state was Indian Territory, a place where the federal government had been sending Native Americans since 1817. The western region, officially unassigned land, eventually became Oklahoma Territory. These two regions, reflecting significant topographical differences, were even more distinctive in history, culture, and political orientation.

In the Land Run of 1889, white settlers poured into the "unassigned lands" of what would become Oklahoma Territory. These homesteaders came largely from the Midwest, bringing their Republican politics and the values of frontier individualism. The northern and western Oklahoma Plains was ideal wheat-growing country. Today, it remains sparsely settled, primarily agriculture land. Beginning in the mid-1800s, other settlers, mostly whites from Texas and the South, had begun a relentless invasion of Indian Territory. The land in the southeastern region, with rolling hills and scrub forest, was far less suitable for large farms. Many of the new occupants became subsistence farmers. They brought along their Democratic heritage and a southern cultural and political outlook.

The enduring question remains: is Oklahoma primarily a Plains or southern state? It is both, and distinctive regional differences are still visible today. The northwestern wheat-growing region is still far more Republican than the rural southeast. The political fault line bisects the state from northeast to southwest, largely reflecting the Indian Territory. Oklahoma Territory division at statehood. Old-timers still refer to the southeast as "Little Dixie." It is the poorest part of the state and remains the most Democratic. Since World War II the state's two large metropolitan areas, Oklahoma City and Tulsa, have joined the rural northwest as Republican strongholds.

Statewide, more and more Oklahoma voters have turned to Republican candidates. The last Democratic presidential nominee to carry the state was Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Unlike the states of the Deep South, race has not been a major cause of this shift. With an African American population of about 8 percent, race has never been the defining issue in Oklahoma politics. A key influence in the state's shifting political allegiance has been religion. With an abundance of Protestant fundamentalists and evangelicals, the state has become a bastion of social conservatism. In 2000 the Christian Right dominated the state's Republican Party. Oklahoma's six House members, and senators Don Nickles and Jim Inhofe, were all Republicans, a first in state history. All had 100 percent Christian Coalition voting records.

For statewide offices, the Republicans have fared less well. In the year 2000 Gov. Frank Keating, a Tulsa Republican, was serving his second term. Of the additional ten statewide offices, the Republicans held five. Democrats controlled the state legislature, holding about three-fifths of the seats in the House (60 of 101) and the Senate (33 of 48). Although party registration favors the Democrats (about 57 percent to 35 percent Republican, with 8 percent Independent), more Sooners self-identify as Republicans than Democrats. At the end of the twentieth century a statewide survey of party identification shows 39 percent Republican, 31 percent Democrat, and the balance Independent or other. These figures represent a precise reversal of party identification from the 1980s.

The state's populist-influenced constitution scatters power widely. Boards and commissions abound, mostly controlled indirectly, if at all, by the state's chief executive. In formal power, Oklahoma's governor ranks below average. The office is especially weak on appointment power and the authority to reorganize the executive branch.

Following a 1960s bribery scandal in the state supreme court, the voters approved a constitutional amendment removing the courts from partisan politics. The governor now appoints members of the two highest courts to a six-year term (the supreme court has nine members and the court of criminal appeals five members). The nominees must come from a list of three names provided by a judicial nominating commission. Each six years, the incumbents may seek a new term by appearing on a retention ballot. The voters elect lower-level judges on nonpartisan ballots.

Oklahoma's political culture has been called "frontier individualism" or "agrarian populist." With a pro-gun, antiregulation electorate, the state enjoys a low tax burden. Still, it has a higher than average number of state and local government employees. Such an anomaly results in part from the continued political strength of rural Oklahoma. The state contains seventy-seven counties, each electing eight separate officials, and there are more than 500 independent school districts.

The state's population (about 3.4 million in 2000) grew less rapidly than the nation's as a whole, causing the loss of a congressional seat following the 2000 census. The economy has diversified and is far less dependent today on extractive industry and agriculture. Still, the state's per capita income is below average and is only partly offset by a lower cost of living. As the state's quest for a more diversified economy continues, Oklahoma struggles to find its place in a global technology economy.

See also IMAGES AND ICONS: Boomers / NATIVE AMERICANS: Indian Territory.

David R. Morgan University of Oklahoma

Markwood, Christopher L., ed. Oklahoma Government and Politics: An Introduction. Dubuque IA: Kendall/Hunt Pub. Co., 2000.

Morgan, David R., Robert E. England, and George G. Humphreys. Oklahoma Politics and Policies. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1991.

Scales, James R., and Danney Goble. Oklahoma Politics: A History. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1982.

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