Boll weevils was an American political term used in the mid- and late-20th century to describe conservative Southern Democrats.
During and after the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt, conservative southern Democrats were part of the coalition generally in support of Roosevelt's New Deal and Harry Truman's Fair Deal economic policies, but were opposed to desegregation and the American civil rights movement. On several occasions between 1948 and 1968, prominent conservative Southern Democrats broke from the Democrats to run a third party campaign for President on a platform of states' rights: Strom Thurmond in 1948, Harry F. Byrd in 1960, and George Wallace in 1968. In the 1964 presidential election, five states in the Deep South (then a Democratic stronghold) voted for Republican Barry Goldwater over Southern Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson, partly due to Johnson's support of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Goldwater's opposition to it. After 1968, with desegregation a settled issue, the Republican Party began a strategy of trying to win conservative Southerners away from the Democrats and into the Republican Party (see Southern strategy and Silent Majority).
Representative Howard W. Smith (D-VA) took up the boll weevil as a symbol in the 1950s, during the Eisenhower administration.
Nonetheless, a bloc of conservative Democrats, mostly Southerners, remained in the United States Congress throughout the 1970s and 1980s (the Conservative Coalition). These included Democratic House members as conservative as Larry McDonald, who was also a leader in the John Birch Society. During the administration of Ronald Reagan, the term "boll weevils" was applied to this bloc of conservative Democrats, who consistently voted for tax cuts, increases in military spending, and deregulation favored by the Reagan administration.
"Boll weevils" was sometimes used as a political epithet by Democratic Party leaders, implying the boll weevils were unreliable on key votes or not team players.
Most of the boll weevils eventually retired from politics, or in the case of some, such as Senators Phil Gramm and Richard Shelby, switched parties and joined the Republicans. Since 1988, the term "boll weevils" has fallen out of favor. A bloc of conservative Democrats in the House, including some younger or newer members as well as the remaining boll weevils who refused to bow to pressure to switch parties, organized themselves as the "Blue Dogs" in the early 1990s. A different bloc of Democrats also emerged in the 1990s, under the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), espousing conservative pro-business views on economic issues and moderate views on social issues.