|Since the early 1980s, numerous foreign automakers have built plants to
manufacture motor vehicles in the American South. Mercedes, Honda, and Hyundai in
Alabama and Kia Motors in Georgia are some examples of this phenomenon. These so
called “transplant factories” are now an important part of the American auto industry.
State and local governments have competed for the investment of these automakers by
providing incentives packages worth hundreds of millions of dollars. This new auto
industry has become interwoven into the fabric of Southern political, economic, and
social life. Previous studies of the Southern auto industry have tended towards
quantitative economic analyses, and have ignored the deep social and political history
that presaged its development. In the early twentieth century, Southern populists
articulated a vision of regional progress tied to industrial employment, economic
diversification, and technological progressivism. These populists clashed with
conservatives, who wished to maintain the South’s rural, agricultural, and highly
stratified society. In the post-World War II era, state economic incentivization emerged
as a key tool of populist leaders who wished to expand the number of available industrial
jobs. The constant desire to improve the South’s image through the strategic deployment
of technology was another factor that drove the recruitment of new industry. The arrival
of foreign automakers represented an intersection of globalization and the South’s
politics of development. Southern politicians aggressively courted foreign automakers
because they believed they would increase the technological credibility of their region.
Unfortunately, this strategy has done little to alleviate the chronic underdevelopment of
the South’s human resources, and to improve its quality of life relative to the rest of the
United States. The South remains trapped in a cycle of underdevelopment, forever
chasing the “next big thing” via quick fix industrialization schemes.