David S. Brown: America’s Sunbelt Politics: The Story of Three Centuries

Moderates: The Vital Center of American Politics, from the Founding to Today, by David S. Brown, cover imageThe fierce polarization of contemporary politics has encouraged Americans to read back into their nation’s past a perpetual ideological struggle between liberals and conservatives. However, in Moderates: The Vital Center of American Politics, from the Founding to Today, David S. Brown advances an original interpretation that stresses the critical role of moderate statesmen, ideas, and alliances in making our political system work. Beginning with John Adams and including such key figures as Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., and Bill Clinton, Brown charts the vital if uneven progress of centrism through the centuries.

In today’s guest post, Brown tells the story of Sunbelt politics and puts current events into detailed historical context.


There is a familiar narrative in twentieth-century American political history and it goes something like this: the New Deal State predominated in the period 1930-1970 as it proved to be more in tune than its GOP opposition to the emerging liberal-urban-northeastern turn in the United States. Conversely, the rise of the New Right, which crystalized in the 1980s under the reign of Ronald Reagan, capitalized on the emerging conservative-suburban-sunbelt character of much of the electorate. This, to my mind, is a strong argument touching upon issues not simply of political success, but of the broader ethnic, economic, and regional factors that have shaped national politics. But what it lacks, I believe, is a broader historical perspective.

Historians and social scientists such as Richard Hofstadter and Daniel Bell first began to use the term “Radical Right” in the 1950s as something of a reaction to McCarthyism. A decade later, with the unexpected presidential candidacy of the Republican Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater accompanied by the growth in wealth, population, and thus political power of many southern states, the term “Sunbelt Right” came into vogue. While many commentators have made much of President Barack Obama’s race, Kenyan father, and post-Boomer identification, his greatest historical footnote might, in fact, be that he was the first non Sunbelt presidential candidate elected in nearly fifty years – since John F. Kennedy. In that span, a trio of Texans (Johnson and the two Bushes), two Californians (Nixon and Reagan), a Georgian (Carter) and an Arkansan (Clinton) have all captured national elections.

I would argue that what we have witnessed over the last several decades is a revisitation of an earlier “Sunbelt moment” in our nation’s political past. I’m referring to the dominance of the Jeffersonian and Jacksonian strains of the Democratic Party that, from 1800 to 1860, enjoyed more political success than the various coalitions—Federalist, Anti-Mason, National-Republican, and Whig—arrayed against it. During this period, the only two-term chief executives (Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and Jackson) were southern slaveholders; the only non-Democratic Party northerners to hold the presidency were John Adams and his son John Quincy Adams, who were both defeated in their bids for reelection, and William Henry Harrison, who served only thirty days of his term before succumbing to pleurisy. His replacement, John Tyler, was a Virginia slaveholder.  And when northerners captured national elections, on four occasions from 1836 to 1856, they were, excepting Harrison, “Doughfaces”—that is, Democratic candidates who were “safe” on the issue of slavery and thus received support from the southern wing of their party.

During this long heyday of southern-Democratic dominance, a radical tone began to predominate within the party. In the 1830s, the nation’s Second National Bank was allowed to expire, its recharter efforts foiled by Jackson’s presidential veto. During that same decade the Constitutional guarantee to the right “to petition the government for a redress of grievances” was violated by the Gag Rule, an anti-slavery piece of legislation that automatically “tabled” petitions sent to the House relating to slavery. In the 1840s the country engaged in a controversial offensive war against Mexico in what many northern Whigs interpreted as a southern bid to extend slavery into the American west. In the 1850s the Fugitive Slave Act led to the kidnapping and conscription of free northern blacks into slavery, the Kansas-Nebraska Act led to “Bleeding Kansas” (a virtual civil war before the Civil War), and the Dred Scott Case attempted, through judicial activism, to “nationalize” slavery by declaring that Congress lacked the power to regulate slavery in the federal territories. Combined, these actions were part of a radical attack on free labor, constitutional rights, and democratic government.

This southern-Democratic Party hegemony collapsed, of course, in 1860. What had sustained it for three generations—agrarianism, slavery, and states’ rights—was giving way to a new concentration of force—industry, free labor, and a more powerful central government. The winner of that historical moment in 1860 was Abraham Lincoln, whose rise from humble rail-splitter to prairie lawyer embodied the aspirations of millions of “middling sort” Americans in the North, many of whom joined Lincoln in voting Republican in 1860.

One might well wonder the present condition of the more recent Sunbelt right. California, Virginia, Florida, North Carolina, and New Mexico have all gone Democratic in most recent national elections, one reason why, between 1992 and 2012, Democrats defeated their Republican opponents in four of six national contests. But Donald Trump’s victory last November called this momentum into question. Considering that Trump failed to carry three of the five states mentioned above, however, it seems less likely that he owed his victory to a Sunbelt resurgence than to the fact that he carried a number of old Rustbelt states—Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin—that went Democratic in every presidential election between 1992 and 2012 excepting Ohio in 2000 and 2004. The politics of region remains critical to our political process, though in 2016 the decisive votes were cast outside the Sunbelt.

David S. Brown is the Raffensperger Professor of History at Elizabethtown College. He is author of Moderates: The Vital Center of American Politics, from the Founding to Today (2017) and Richard Hofstadter: An Intellectual Biography (2006).