Summer just began, and in Arizona we’ve been feeling the heat for a great while. We’ve been sitting with triple-digit thermometers for quite a while now, and the air conditioning is fighting to bring temperatures down twenty or even thirty degrees sometimes. As I get into my summer routine of hiding indoors, I was watching “How the States Got Their Shapes” on the History Channel. The show – based on a neat book by the way – shed a little bit of light on an important thing to understand about air conditioning’s place in history.
During my student teaching stint at a local high school here in Arizona, we touched on the age of the Sun Belt. Now, the Sun Belt drew for several reasons: the Civil Rights movement had made the South a little more appealing since it was less hostile than it had been in the 60s and 70s; big industries moved south as unions grew stronger in the Midwest and Northeast during this time; immigrants flocked from Central America and Asia to the Southwest and from Cuba to Florida; the rise of suburbia had pointed many people to the less-stifling metropolises of the Northeast. And as I hide from the 110 degree afternoon, I have to think that air conditioning made the warm climates more attractive to people too.
Since the colonies were founded, the weight of America’s population has always shifted westwards. Colonists sailed west to start America before Boone pioneered through the Appalachians and then Lewis and Clarke opened the Louisiana Purchase, blazing the path for the Oregon Trail. That’s always been a part of America, but the southerly draw has been more contemporary. According to the Census, the mean center of population has shifted 101 miles south from 1900 to 2000, 79 of which were after 1950. The Sun Belt began to grow in the 1960s, and since then we’ve seen the effects of the population shift.
The migration – and immigration – to the southern third of the country has not only changed the population dynamics of the country, but it has also drastically changed the politics of the United States. Glancing through election data, the Sun Belt includes 134 electoral votes (if you count all of California and Nevada, along with AZ, NM, TX, LA, MS, AL, GA, SC, FL). While not a lot of these are so-called “swing states,” they constitute a sizable share of the electorate. This might be why every elected President from Johnson in 1964 to Bush in 2004 was from the Sun Belt. (President Gerald Ford, who hailed from Michigan, was appointed and never elected, courtesy Spiro Agnew and Richard Nixon). From 1950 to 2000, California has gained 23 seats in Congress and Florida has gained 19, with Arizona gaining 7 and Texas 14. Meanwhile, Illinois and Massachusetts have each lost 7, New York has lost 16, and Ohio has lost 12. And the Sun Belt is continuing to grow. If you glance at the reapportionment from 2010’s census, the Sun Belt is gaining ten of the twelve seats.
So, when you take air conditioning into a warm climate, you’ll get a lot of people coming your way. The repercussions for this are continuing to shift as the demographic in the Sun Belt changes. Yes, it’s bigger, but who constitutes that size? The Sun Belt as a whole is still generally conservative, but what began as the relocation of industries to less-unionized states is beginning to be a growing population of immigrants’ descendants. The Sun Belt changed American politics through the amount of representation it got (and continues to get), but it may still change American politics through the type of representation this becomes in the future.