The Sunbelt Sprawl: Unpacking the American Sunbelt’s Economic and Ideological Baggage

Diets are never easy. Going from 4000 calories a day to 2000 trips up even the most disciplined of individuals. The same might be said of the consumption of federal expenditures in the American Sunbelt. After having gorged on federal spending in the post war period, the Sunbelt had grown so accustomed to federal aid in the form of defense spending, highway construction and the like. Propping up its developing economies in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, the economic downturn in the Reaganite ‘80s came as shock a shock to the Sunbelt’s low tax anti-government ethos.

A 1987 study conducted by the Sunbelt Institute – the “research arm of the Congressional Sunbelt Caucus and corporate and regional advisory groups” – argued that “Frostbelt” cities like New York, Chicago, and Detroit received more federal dollars than their warmer Sunbelt counterparts. Dr. Bernard L. Weinstein noted pointedly that an argument could be made that “the Sun Belt is the most distressed economic region of the United States.” According to Weinstein, during the 1980s Sunbelt states witnessed population declines while their colder counterparts reported small gains. Additionally, over 60% of the 16 states Weinstein categorized as part of the Sunbelt experienced job losses since the decade had begun. Weinstein and the Institute placed the blame squarely on the national government’s back suggesting “that biased and misdirected Federal formula grants” contributed to “a steady flow of Federal procurement dollars to states outside the Sun Belt.” As the report landed on the desks of national legislators, the Sunbelt Caucus vowed to make redressing the “imbalance” its “number one priority” Hell hath no fury like a free market anti statist conservative whose been deprived of his or her federal allowance.

The irony of the 1987 report or even the idea that the Sunbelt would require its own caucus and “research arm” seems quaint. During the 1970s, due to two decades of government related expenditures, the peopling of the Sunbelt exploded and though its growth slowed in the 1908s, throughout the 1990s the Sunbelt enjoyed rapid economic growth and population expansion once again, which according to demographic and economic experts were driven “as much by quality of life as easy credit.” Their sprawling wide open cities may have been derided by Eastern establishment types, but cities like Tucson, Phoenix, Jacksonville, Charlotte, Atlanta and their metropolitan suburbs allowed for many Americans residing in the East and Midwest to purchase homes throughout the Sunbelt.

The now infamous housing bubble that exploded in recent years, decimating the American economy, grew in relation to Sunbelt expansion. IndyMac, a California company, serves as perhaps the most notorious example of many. The New York Times reported in 2009 that “States in the South and the West that grew by exceptional leaps and bounds during the real estate boom of just a few years ago are now experiencing sharply slower growth in population…”

Emerging in the ether of post war optimism, the Sunbelt grew in large part due to government largesse ranging from military expenditures to highway construction. Yet, when discussing the Sunbelt today, what exactly are we talking about? The 1987 study entitled “Report on Regional Biases in Federal Funding” counted 16 states but news agencies like the New York Times failed to identify which states were considered Sunbelt worthy. How many people do you think were avid fans of the Sunbelt Institute’s publications? Furthermore, what criteria do historians, journalists, and others use to determine Sunbelt categorization? If Virginia counts as part of the Sunbelt, which the 1987 report suggested it was, how similar is it to Southern California? Even over a decade later, this distinction seemed unclear. The map accompanying the aforementioned 2009 New York Times article entitled “Recession slows population rise across Sun Belt” failed to distinguish this clearly, but the article suggested the region included Arizona, Florida, Nevada, South Carolina, Utah, Washington, and Texas.

For many historians, these distinctions remain equally problematic. Since the mid 1990s, Sunbelt histories have experienced notable growth. Amy Bridges, Michael Logan, Mike Davis, Lisa McGirr, and M.D. Lassiter among others have all offered contributions. Yet, each offers a geographic vision of the Sunbelt that complicates understandings. Sunbelt histories, even of political leaders and regimes, only recently began to proliferate.

One of the earliest and most significant contributions came from Amy Bridges in her now essential manual of Sunbelt “reform governments” Morning Glories: Municipal Reform in the Southwest (1996). Bridges pushes back against narratives that “reformers” have been portrayed as more egalitarian, honest and meritocratic, eschewing the crude ethnic loyalties and corruption of more established Eastern and Midwestern “machine governments.” However, Bridges argues this characterization masks real problems. First, the alleged reformers established governments that often circumvented minority voters or even directly barred them from casting votes. Moreover, the “good government” that supposedly fueled these growing municipalities simply disguised unfair business practices with rhetoric about private sector efficiency and meritocracy, as most of the “good government” officials engaged in sweetheart deals or uncompetitive bidding practices.

In relation, Michael Logan’s Fighting Sprawl and City Hall: Resistance to Urban Growth in the Southwest (1995) confines itself to the Sunbelt cities of Tucson, Arizona and Albuquerque, New Mexico. Focusing on their growth from the 1930s to the 1970s, Logan reevaluates the traditional argument that Sunbelt cities expanded by consensus in this period as suburban annexation and urban development policies enjoyed the broad support of local residents. Instead, as Logan argues, in each city early protests mounted against development over various concerns from the expansion of city services, higher taxes, loss of cultural/personal lifestyle, government tyranny and damage to nature/environment, these eruptions altered plans and final outcomes. Unsurprisingly, Mexican and Mexican American communities found themselves and their neighborhoods marginalized in both cities, but Albuquerque’s developed a broader social and political presence earlier than counterparts in Tucson.

Logan and Bridges provide historians with invaluable insights regarding Sunbelt America in the first half of the century. One of their strongest observations regard the pro-development/pro-business municipal governments of the Sunbelt. The free market neo liberalism that arose by the mid-1970s found a home in many Sunbelt regions perhaps enhanced by the Sunbelt’s history of pro development ethos. Thus, newer works have explored developments from the 1960 through the 1990s, as the region emerged as an incubator for the ideas and rhetoric of the Reagan Revolution. Also, each illustrates how pro-growth language of development masked racial/class biases, a rhetoric that the New Right built upon promoting a race neutral language that was anything but neutral. Ultimately, both works also reveal the foundations of “the new American right” into which historians M.D. Lassiter and Lisa McGirr intervene.

McGirr’s Suburban Warriors focuses on Orange County, California, its formation and the subsequent grassroots social movement that helped lay the foundation for the free market mania of the New Right in the 1980s and 1990s. For McGirr, grassroots conservatism emerged before the urban violence of the 1960s developing” its ideological roots in a more thoroughgoing, anti-egalitarian, conservative world view.” (McGirr, 12) Orange County’s “conservative regional elite, its mode of development, and the kind of migrants who made their home there” proved the key factors that facilitated the rise of the new right in the centuries final decades. (29) Ironically, despite its opposition to federal intervention, government welfare and taxes, much of the West, especially Orange County benefitted from federal expenditures. Post war expansion of the nation’s defense industry resulted in demographic and infrastructure shifts that privileged Sunbelt regions over Eastern and Midwestern states, observes McGirr, “Nowhere in the nation was the federal government more directly responsible for economic growth than in the building of the West.” (37-8)

The expansion of the West meant not only the settlement of new ethnic and racial populations, but a search for community. Unfortunately the built environment failed to encourage traditional forms of civic membership, as result, the burgeoning New Right attempted to find “alternative forms of community … in the politics and social interaction proffered by local businessmen, right wing ideologues and conservative church leaders.” (39) As result of this paucity of public space, schools became a site of political organizing and conflict. Orange County parents feared the creeping spread of liberalism into their children’s schools thus, fueling grassroots mobilization.(74)

Early on a strain of anti-communism helped unify the movement as much of Orange County’s economy rested on military spending. Many residents claimed membership in what McGirr refers to as a “the nation’s technical elite, and their occupations directly linked them to the military industrial complex of the Cold War.”[4] (85) Again, this only reinforced free market principles, individualism, and private property. Of course, religion also operated to create community in O.C. Eventually, the evangelical movement overwhelmed the ties of anti-communism, bringing a unique mix of traditionalism -based on a suburban social normative – and modernity – as represented by the county’s white collar workers. As McGirr points out, Orange County conservatives wanted a return to normative traditions, “but also called for a new one based on a highly modern technocratic defense of ethos, as assertion of an invigoration of the nuclear family unit as the locus of moral authority.” (95) Though the region’s history of fundamentalism dates back to the turn of the century, not until the 1970s did political leaders and others recognize the power of such organizations. Many of these “religious conservatives were successful middle class men and women. They balanced their own modern existences with traditionalism, as skilled members of the technical and bureaucratic vanguard they “reveled in the world of consumer culture” emphasizing a laissez faire capitalism laden with a staunch moralism. (261)

Inevitably, Orange County residents found themselves at odds with Civil Rights leaders of the 1960s. To these homeowners, Martin Luther King represented little more than a troublesome rabble-rouser who wanted to interfere with the property rights they so deeply valued. Ronald Reagan recognized this tension, using the open housing movement and California’s Rumford Act, as straw men for Orange County fears, suggesting they conferred upon ‘one segment of our population a right at the expense of the basic rights of our citizens.” Limited property rights and the possible introduction of racial diversity into white suburban enclaves threatened many Orange County residents.

Politically, the first notable national politician to court OC voters and their ethos, was Barry Goldwater who decried the collapse of morality and the spread of communism. As previously mentioned, within California, Reagan harnessed this ethos successfully, but not until Richard Nixon organized his 1968 “silent majority” campaign did a presidential candidate fully exploit this ideology. McGirr, like M.D. Lassiter after her, suggests that Nixon’s 1968 and 1972 elections courted “middle America” as represented by Orange County residents. In this way, McGirr questions the traditional narrative known as the “southern strategy”, suggesting the suburban Sunbelt that grew out of Orange County, which served as the driving force behind the New Right. Notably, Lassiter focuses more on the Sunbelt “outer South” (North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, and Virginia) rather then California’s most famous county. However, despite geographic differences, each point out that metropolitan white collar residents drove these political changes.

By the 1980s, though it remained tied to defense expenditures, Orange County’s economic development encountered resistance. Greater racial and ethnic diversity emerged as Suburban Warriors points out that after the mid-1970s, the county’s diversity grew such that between 1970 and 1980, its minority population increased by 20%, a trend that since has continued upward. In relation, Mike Davis’s City of Quartz suggests this increased diversity helped fuel the “slow growth” movement, that superficially argued for stricter land use policies to protect the environment. Davis argues “slow growth” advocates marshaled the language of environmentalism to prevent the construction of apartments and other forms of development they believed might harm property values. Often, “slow growth” politics have served as a method of social exclusion, masking racial and class biases with environmental rhetoric.

When Orange County leaders pushed for increased regulation regarding land use, McGirr underscores the irony of such positions, “Seeking to preserve their ‘utopias’. . . many homeowners, in an assertion of their own affluence and in protest against the urbanization of suburbia, came ‘to embrace a structural reform implying massive regulation of one of the most sacred marketplaces (land development).’ They did so in the unconvincing language of the ‘people’ against the heartless corporations.”(269) For McGirr, the importance of the Orange County ethos lay in its influence on other communities across the South and West including “Cobb County, Georgia; Scottsdale and the suburbs North of Phoenix, Arizona, in Maricopa County; Forth Worth, Texas and the suburbs Northeast Dallas …. to name just a few.” (271)

If Suburban Warriors focused on the beliefs of Orange County, California, M.D. Lassiter’s The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South addresses similar developments but instead focuses on metropolitan areas in the outer south (North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia) and their struggles with desegregation, revealing not only the emerging Sunbelt ideology but also the class divisions that separated many whites. Like Kevin Kruse’s White Flight and the Making of Modern Conservatism, Lassiter locates class based differences among whites that affected their physical and political realities. For Lassiter, the race neutral language of the Sunbelt South served to displace the overtly racist rhetoric employed in what he refers to as the Black Belt. Additionally, Lassiter argues his attention to economic stratification differentiates The Silent Majority from its peers, “the overreliance on race reductionist narratives to explain complex political transformations – such as the rise of the “Right” and “white backlash” and the “Southern Strategy” and the “Republican South” – downplays the centrality of class ideology in the outlook of suburban voters and ignores the consistent class divisions among white southerners evident throughout the civil rights era.”[9] (4)

Like, McGirr, Lassiter complicates arguments privileging the “Southern Strategy”, arguing that this narrative oversimplifies and incorrectly explains the rise of the New Right. Thus, Lassiter’s Silent Majority refuses to accept the idea of “southern exceptionalism” which has caused historians to miss “the broader story of grassroots mobilization of the Silent Majority that reframed racial discourse and subsumed regional differences beneath a national politics of middle class entitlement.” (6) To this end, Lassiter credits McGirr’s work for expanding “the grassroots narrative, from the Goldwater troops in the 1960s, to the tax revolts of the 1970s, to the evangelical mobilization of the 1980s and 1990s.” (7)

Still, for Lassiter, most New Right histories fail to account for the “vast majority of suburban homeowners” who expressed neither an intense activism or a virulent conservatism but did represent their dissent through three fundamental identities: as taxpayers, as homeowners, and/or as the parent of a school aged child (or children). The Silent Majority explores desegregation efforts in metropolitan Atlanta and Charlotte (but also discusses to lesser extents Richmond, VA, Memphis, Tennessee, and Mobile, Alabama) dismantling the myth that business elites led recalcitrant Southerners from their ethos of white supremacy to one of meritocracy, “The primary demographic forces behind postwar political realignment in the New South became the sprawling middle class suburbs and the expanding black electorate, not the defiant Dixiecrats and the defeated massive resisters.” (41)

Instead, like McGirr, Lassiter uncovers the actions of an urban/suburban middle class that hoped to reshape southern metropolitan regions. As Lassiter notes, this middle class of “ordinary suburban parents exercised the responsibilities of citizenship, standing up for the rule of law and the democratic ideals of public education.” In contrast, business organizations remained conspicuously silent, as “the leaders of the white southern opposition to massive resistance became the middle class citizens, especially the female reformers” of various civic organizations. (41) Ultimately, these efforts built upon a national discourse of racial moderation, which advocated a gradual integration (though the degree depended on specific localities) that cast massive resisters and civil rights reformers as equally extreme which “emerged as a popular viewpoint in the rest of the nation before it became the dominant ideology in the metropolitan South.” (99)

The discourse of racial moderation viewed integration as required by law, but not necessarily morally correct; in this way it failed to address the underlying tensions that created segregation. Again, like Kruse’s White Flight, which focuses on the divisions between white homeowners undergoing housing and school desegregation, Lassiter observes that Atlanta’s moniker as the “city too busy to hate” really was and is a misnomer. Instead, desegregation efforts “which permitted individual exception to the dual school system represented a metropolitan blueprint” that accommodated class prejudice and the privileges of white collar communities in the “metropolitan South” (104) Unfortunately, Atlanta’s attempts at integration left their metropolitan public system more segregated than even severe northern examples like Newark or Detroit. By 1973, officials agreed to a system of one way busing in which select black students traveled to predominantly white institutions but not the reverse.

The acquiescence of the local black leadership to this policy resulted in what Lassiter refers to as the Atlanta Compromise, an agreement that over the past three decades explains the “extreme spatial fragmentation that dominated the metropolitan landscape, the permanent hyper-segregation of poor black families in the urban ghetto and the collapse of the middle class consensus for quality public education in the central city.”[16] (109) Additionally, both Kruse and Lassiter note that the continued migration of white collar whites to outlying Atlanta suburbs furthered this development as they often brought with them the burgeoning free market ethos of homeownership, which stressed individualism, meritocracy, and consumerism. Lassiter’s second central example, Charlotte, provides a more promising story of integration, though one that reveals the falsity of linear narratives. In the Charlotte example, the impetus for desegregation rested on the dogged efforts of one District Judge, James B. McMillan whose ruling in the Swann v Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education case set off a five year battle over busing that resulted in a successful integration policy that Charlotte then sold to the nation.

However, while even the opposition to busing refrained from racial language or overt bigotry, it also never confronted the deeper issues more centrally. Moreover, as Lassiter writes, the Charlotte and Atlanta examples reveal a policy that empowered white collar families to construct a color blind discourse that defended “the class privileges and consumer rights of the middle class suburbs.” (122) However, unlike more troubled metropolitan regions in America, a combination of legal and spatial factors required Charlotte to face both racial segregation and class discrimination resulting in an integrated public system for over twenty years. Court proceedings revealed that Charlotte’s historical narrative, much like that of Atlanta’s color blind business oriented city, failed to live up to the legend. The de jure/de facto distinction was proven to be false as city reports clearly illustrated various methods of segregation through zoning, infrastructure placement, and other less obvious but equally discriminating practices. (134) Yet, Judge McMillian’s decision, after enduring the opposition of the grassroots Concerned Parents Association who harnessed the race neutral language of middle class respectability to oppose busing plans, helped to ensure Charlotte’s policy addressed both class and racial issues by requiring both white and black students to schools to travel to schools in affluent and working class neighborhoods. However, though Charlotte succeeded in integrating schools throughout the 1970s, the failure to plan future development accordingly such as mixed use areas, mixed income and affordable housing contributed to a resegegration of the school district by race and class.

In 1999, District Judge Robert Potter (a Reagan appointee and former participant in the CRA, the group opposing busing in the 1970s, who failed to recuse himself despite the conflict of interest) in which the Judge revisited the Swann v. Mecklenburg case, invalidating the formula the Charlotte school district invoked in order to integrate the metropolitan’ areas schools. Judge Potter argued that “race based lotteries, preferences, set asides, or other means that deny students an equal footing based on race” were no longer valid since the “dual system” had been eliminated. Later District rulings watered down Potter’s invalidation but Charlotte’s means for maintaining integrated schools remains in danger. Additionally, recent episodes have revealed the complexity of class as some middle class Blacks have openly protested busing for their children. As one resident explained, “If I wanted my children to attend school with kids from the projects, I’d have moved next to one.” (218)

Nationally, Richard Nixon reached out to the very metropolitan white collar voters who made up Charlotte’s CRA or Atlanta’s HOPE. Nixon’s solution to desegregation mirrored that of Sunbelt residents, that being rhetorical support for integration but a refusal to accept the methods required to end segregation. Nixon reassured white middle class voters that although wrongs had been committed in the past, the solutions “need not dwell on the burdens” of history. However, Nixon’s approach hoped to obscure divisions between working and middle class white voters. Nixon defined his “Middle America” in the language of “suburban identity politics” which privileged “consumer status, taxpayer rights, and meritocractic individualism”(198).

Like McGirr’s Orange County evangelicals, their Sunbelt South counterparts wanted reassurance in their way of life along with guarantees that it could and would continue. In both, The Silent Majority and Suburban Warriors, school desegregation and schools themselves served as sites of political conflict which sparked grass roots conservative movements like the Concerned Parents Association which opposed two busing schemes in Charlotte. Nixon reassured these votes, as Lassiter notes, with a “color blind populism” that featured hard working taxpayers, whom Nixon lionized as “Forgotten Americans.” In this way, Nixon evaded “forceful government action to address residential segregation in the suburbs and combat racial inequality in the cities, a political message that resonated for white middle class voters in the metropolitan South and throughout the Nation.” (237)

Ultimately, the Southern electorate of the 1970s remained divided into three parts, each with “strong correlations to class and status and residential geography.” The first and most significant for Lassiter’s argument were the upper and middle class Republican voters of the South’s cities and suburbs. Wallace’s angry working class white rural southerners made up a second group with the largely Democratic African American population making up the third. Nixon’s greatest support came from upper and middle class white Republican voters. Wallace’s supporters viewed Nixon warily while Blacks, for the most part, dismissed Nixon altogether. “By expressing solidarity with the grassroots antibusing movement and purging policy makers who favored full compliance with the law,” Lassiter writes. “Richard Nixon committed the executive branch to a two tiered approach of protecting the affluent white suburbs, with its policies and inflaming working class resentment with its rhetoric.“ (274)

Nixon and others have since discovered the difficulty of patching together a coalition that consists of rural whites, the working class, and “affluent suburban professionals.” This has made the Sunbelt South anything but stable politically, meaning neither party controls the region electorally or, as Lassiter suggests, “The Republican decision to forfeit the substantial black vote, combined with the rapid expansion of the Latino population and the swing fuction performed at different times by suburban moderates and working class populists, effectively guarantees that the GOP cannot reproduce a Solid South on a permanent grassroots basis.” (321) By the late 1970s, Southern schools reported much higher levels of integration than their northern peers. However, in the Charlotte example, uncontrolled development and residential expansion reshaped the metropolitan areas as a “hypersegregated ghetto marked by a high concentration of poor minority students along with multiplying exurban subdivisions home to predominantly white and overwhelmingly middle class families.” (219)


At the turn of the twenty-first century, American demographers noted that the shift to the Sunbelt had increased rather than declined. The Economist reflected on the 2000 Census figures, commenting “America’s population is still shifting away from the industrial north towards the Sunbelt states of the South and west: or, to look at it as Republicans like to, from unpleasantly liberal cities to nicer gun-toting-and-commodities-exploiting conservative parts.” University of Michigan demographer William Frey expanded on the British magazine’s conclusions noting that “a “new Sunbelt” has emerged, one that relies on the opportunities of high technology to lure young professionals inward from the east and west coasts. Over the past decade, states like Colorado, Arizona, North Carolina and Georgia have weaned themselves off mining and textiles and on to computers.” For Mr. Frey, Texas represented the fusion of old and new Sunbelts as the state welcomed younger tech workers and “thousands of immigrants coming north from Latin America.” The question this all raises regards the uniqueness of the Sunbelt formation. How different were pro-development free market discourses in the Sunbelt from those in older Midwestern and Eastern regions of the nation? When the Economist suggests a “new” Sunbelt has arisen based on tech jobs and a youngish population, how is that different from the technocratic migrants that populated Orange County following WWII? By privileging private sector tech jobs over the military and defense industries of earlier periods that created the Sunbelt as a unique entity, are such news magazines reinforcing the very free market rhetoric that has made the region so distinct?

Academics prove no less susceptible to such tropes. Noted urbanist Richard Florida argues that these new “creative classes” drive growth: “[the economy] no longer revolves around simply making and moving things. Instead, it depends on generating and transporting ideas. The places that thrive today are those with the highest velocity of ideas, the highest density of talented and creative people, the highest rate of metabolism,” which are found in cities.” (Economist, “Somewhere to Live,” March 31, 2010) Even issues of regionalism within the Sunbelt emerge to disrupt the idea of a unified culture. For example, how truly similar are California, the Southwest, and the South? If Lassiter considers the outer South the epitome of Sunbelt values, how do we account for McGirr’s Orange County conservatives, Bridges Southwest reform governments, or Logan’s exercised Arizonian and New Mexican suburbanites? Unsurprisingly, a recent Economist article divided the Sunbelt into sections. “For most of the post-war period the South has been catching up with the rest of the country,” the magazine stated. “Land there is cheaper and land-use regulation more permissive, making it a magnet for families seeking a house with a yard, even if it means long commutes from sprawling suburbs. In the sand states–Florida, Arizona, Nevada and California–these trends went into overdrive in the years leading up to the crisis.” (Economist, “Somewhere to Live,” March 31, 2010) How similar are these “sand states”? Demographically, socially, and economically large variations exist between each.

Perhaps the fundamental differences in the Sunbelt construct can be identified more generally. For much of the mid to late nineteenth century, the West and South functioned as developing regions in the world economy. The influx of indentured workers and larger labor flows differed from traditional Eastern and Midwestern cities that exhibited higher rates of European immigration rather than the Mexican or Asian variant so common to the Western and Southwestern Sunbelt. By the twentieth century, these same regions lacked the social, political, and economic developments of older American states. The political structures Bridges uncovers appear remarkably similar to the exclusionary practices of older Eastern metropolises, even if those in the Southwest wrapped their exclusion in meritocratic rhetoric. Fundamentally, the Sunbelt’s minority populations lived under a system of racial hierarchy and coercion that failed to encourage the growth of robust public sector. Or, as Alex Cummings has noted, “The lack of an established political culture — unions, political machines — may be the most salient difference between New York and Massachusetts on one hand and North Carolina and Utah on the other. In the absence of political constraint, we saw unbridled self interest run amok.” Chances are the answer is more complicated than this, but the professor may be on to something.

Ryan Reft