The rise of the Sun Belt

One of the most important political developments in the United States during the last decades has been the rise of the Sun Belt. To understand it you must first understand the fall of the South. After the Confederate States of America were defeated in the Civil War of 1861 to 1865, the South lay in ruins. Its society, its economy and its political institutions were shattered. The South then established an economy based on farming that was controlled by a small number of conservative, white land owners. When they gained self-government again, Southern states voted for the Democratic Party and against the Republicans, the party of Abraham Lincoln and the hated Yankees.

Sun Belt states = yellow (Map: John Arne Eidsmo) Sun Belt states = yellow (Map: John Arne Eidsmo)

For a hundred years afterwards there was a contrast between a progressive industrial North and a backward rural South. The North produced most of the wealth, had most of the population and controlled most of the power in the federal government. The South also differed from the North because of its shameful system of racist segregation, which denied blacks their legal and political rights. Many blacks “voted with their feet” and moved North during these years. By the 1950s  the difference between the South and the rest of America was at its strongest. But those very same years saw changes that would alter the course of Southern development and the balance of political power in the United States.  

A time of change 

By far the most important reason for these changes was the end of segregation in the South because of the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and ’60s. This movement forced the national government to make Southern state governments end segregation. Their “states’ rights” had to make way for national  law. This helped break the power of the Southern conservative leadership and bring a new generation of politicians to power. This included both black and white leaders who opened the region up to new ideas, investments, and industries.

Abandoned factory, Detroit Abandoned factory, Detroit In the 1970s America suffered an economic downturn. This was made worse by higher energy prices and increasing competition from abroad for large American corporations producing steel and automobiles. The heavy industry of the once proud “Steel Belt” stretching from New York to Chicago, was gradually turned into a  “Rust Belt” of  old abandoned factories. American businesses searched desperately for a place that could make them competitive again by giving them lower energy costs, cheaper labor and lower taxes.


Growth in the Sun Belt

The “Sun Belt” was the answer. It stretched from the Old South in the east across the continent through Texas, Arizona and New Mexico to California in the west.  It offered businessmen many advantages. Warm Sun Belt winters reduced heating costs. Air-conditioning made hot Sun Belt summers livable. Cheaper non-union workers were available by the hundreds of thousands, with millions more waiting just across the border in Mexico. American industries built completely new ultra-efficient factories there to meet foreign competition head-on. And best of all, the Sun Belt states offered lower taxes to attract new businesses and investors. From the late 1970s, the Sun Belt boomed while the Steel Belt rusted.


Population and power

This led to a major shift in population and power. By 2000, almost 60 percent of all Americans lived in the South or the West of the country. This included growing numbers of older people who moved south to avoid the freezing winters of the North. For the first time in the history of the country, most Americans did not live in the Northeast and the Midwest. By the 1990s even blacks were moving back south in record numbers, voting with their feet once again.

And with increased population comes increased political power. Every president elected since Lyndon Johnson from Texas in 1964 has come from the Sun Belt. National politics have come to reflect the more conservative views in the West and South. This has strengthened the conservative Republican Party at the expense of the more liberal Democratic Party.

The Democratic South goes Republican

When Democratic President Lyndon Johnson used federal law to force the Southern states to end segregation in the 1960s, he knew he would split his party. Southern conservative Democrats disliked his policy. They found that they had more in common with conservative Republicans and joined the Republican political coalition. By 1994 the majority of Congressmen from the Southern states were Republicans, allowing the Republican Party to gain a majority in both the Senate and the House of Representatives for the first time since the 1950s. The Republican Party remains strong in the Sun Belt.  


Continued growth and change

The United States continues to be a growing nation. Between 1990 and 2000 the population of the South alone grew by almost 15 million persons – twice as much as the Northeast and Midwest combined. If the Republican Party remains the most popular party in the region, then its prospects for continued power on the national level are bright.
This is far from certain, however. The millions of new people who are moving South and West are bringing with them new attitudes and loyalties. The Democratic Party is gaining voters as Southern cities and industries grow. It remains to be seen if America will become more like the Sun Belt or if the Sun Belt will become more like the rest of America in the coming years. One thing is certain - whoever controls the votes of the Sun Belt will control American politics on the national level.



a) What does the text say about the following?

  • the effect of the Civil War 1861–65 on the South
  • important changes during the 1950s
  • reasons behind the economic growth of the Sun Belt after 1960
  • the Rust Belt
  • Presidents from the Sun Belt
  • population shift and shift in political power

b) Write a brief answer (no more than three paragraphs) to the following question: Why has the rise of the Sun Belt changed American political life?