Sunbelt Identities: The Pursuit of Place, Process, and Political Sensibilities
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Sunbelt Identities
The Pursuit of Place, Process, and Political Sensibilities

Although historians cannot verify with absolute certainty when the word “Sunbelt” was first uttered, there is no question that the concept of a region that stretches from California to Florida was popularized in Kevin Phillips’s highly influential 1969 book, The Emerging Republican Majority. In that book, Phillips, a political strategist with ties to Richard Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign, forecast a partisan realignment in which the GOP would grow dominant at the national level by coalescing the votes of racially motivated southern whites with the votes of middle-class suburbanites, especially those living in or near the growing metropolises of the West and Southwest, where economic fortunes seemed at the time both unlimited and inextricably tied to oil, agribusiness, technology, and defense. This idea was quickly coined as the “Southern Strategy,” with a variety of iterations—including “Sunbelt Strategy,” “Suburban Strategy,” and “Southwestern Strategy”—emerging in more recent decades. When conservatives did in fact succeed at the national level during the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s, many recalled The Emerging Republican Majority with a sense that Phillips’s strategic vision had been realized.1

For those looking back at Phillips’s work within the context of Ronald Reagan’s America, the concept of an emerging Sunbelt was largely a political development. And because scholars are usually quicker to identify political developments (as opposed to social, cultural, or economic ones), distinguishing Sunbelt studies from the rise of modern American conservatism has been, and continues to be, a somewhat laborious task. A different way of putting this would be to say that the Sunbelt has never established a clear “sense of place” apart from a political context. Another way of putting this is to say that scholars are still wrestling with the general concept of regional [End Page 63] identity and have yet to settle on the precise contours of what does and does not define the Sunbelt. Of course, regionalism in almost any form is a subjective construct. A person might refer to herself as a “southerner,” a “westerner,” or perhaps a “midwesterner,” but people cannot retain an official or legal claim to these regions in the same way that someone can be a citizen of a nation or a resident of a state. A person might speak with a “midwestern” accent, enjoy “southern” cooking, or dress in “western” attire, but the degree to which these ideas can be neatly traced to a place with defined geographic boundaries is limited. More simply, regional identities are often fluid and mostly imagined. Today, very few individuals living in Kevin Phillips’s world of the “emerging Republican majority” go out of their way to identify themselves as part of the Sunbelt.

And yet the idea of an identifiable Sunbelt continues to gain traction among historians, political scientists, and other scholars who seek to understand social, cultural, economic, and political transformations within the United States. Most scholars who talk about the Sunbelt define it as a region stretching from California—primarily Southern California—across Arizona, Texas, and eventually to Florida, while also extending as far north in some places as southern Colorado, or up to parts of Virginia along the east coast. Taking a cue from Kirkpatrick Sale, it is simpler to say that the Sunbelt is the southern half (or “Southern Rim”) of the continental United States, but there are obviously significant differences between the Sunbelt and the American South, at least in terms of popular imagination.2 When most Americans think about the “South,” they might first imagine a rebel flag, and then connect that symbol with the collection of states that seceded from the Union to form the Confederacy and fight the Civil War. But the concept of a modern Sunbelt defies such clear borders or symbols. In fact, the Sunbelt is usually defined more clearly in terms of cities rather than states, and even more clearly by cities sharing a common set of economic characteristics. Whereas the South’s character remains imprisoned in some ways by its Confederate past, the Sunbelt is at least partially defined by expansive growth and affluent modernity. Historians discussing the Sunbelt...