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The Desert City (Sunbelt #2)
Phoenix, Arizona was a prototype for developing the American Sunbelt in the latter 20th century.
Phoenix Arizona Panoramic Photo. Sunset in the City. United States of America. Courtesy of Shutterstock.
Cyber Ninjas was hired by Arizona Republicans to aid in their challenge to the efficacy of the Arizona elections in 2020. It was all over right-wing media from Fox News to OAN and Newsmax. This charade not only endangered the election equipment used by the state but also undermined the confidence many have in their local and federal elections. Now in the 2022 campaign cycle, we have Republicans, like Kari Lake, not only running on Trump’s Big Lie but also pushing more fabrications about it at a dangerously fantastical level.
Here is the aforementioned person running for Arizona Governor:
The main site of this catastrophe was heavily populated Maricopa County. Phoenix is the seat of this county and there were plenty of Arizona Republicans claiming votes were fraudulent or just tacitly supporting the scrappy audit that took place. Until they couldn’t.
It should also be noted that Arizona is one of the most diverse states in the nation. Its southern tier, the most popular region known as the Valley of the Sun, stretches across the U.S. – Mexico border. It is also home to 27 federally recognized Native American tribes and Mexican Americans are the largest ancestry group in the state.
The centrality of Arizona and the southwestern border in our politics is not a coincidence.
The Rise of Phoenix
In American Nations, Colin Woodard characterizes this section of the nation as El Norte. He defines this once nascent part of America as now experiencing an economic and population resurgence:
El Norte is the oldest of the Euro-American nations, dating back to the late sixteenth century, when the Spanish empire founded Monterrey, Saltillo, and other northern outposts. Today, this resurgent nation spreads from the United States – Mexico border for a hundred miles or more in either direction. It encompasses south and west Texas, southern California and the Imperial Valley, southern Arizona, most of New Mexico, and parts of Colorado, as well as the Mexican states of Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon, Coahuila, Chihuahua, Sonora, and Baja California. Overwhelmingly Hispanic, it has long been a hybrid between Anglo- and Spanish America, with an economy oriented toward the United States rather than Mexico.
While this is more of a macro lens on the region that tracks larger historic trends, it also helps to get granular.
In her essay, Sunbelt Boosterism: Industrial Recruitment, Economic Development, and Growth Politics in the Developing Sunbelt, Elizabeth Tandy Shermer discusses the rise of Phoenix from a development perspective.
Phoenix, Arizona, was no exception to this regional trend. In 1910, this small town had but 11,000 residents. By 2000, it was part of a metropolitan region of more than four million people. Led by Barry Goldwater and other leaders of the Chamber of Commerce, the Phoenix elite came to embrace government power and planning in order to reconstruct a developmental state that privileged business by insulating the government from the electorate, weakening organized labor’s strength, curbing regulatory restrictions, and reversing progressive tax policies. In the face of greater competition from other cities, the Chamber, through both its private industrial development program and its control over the city government, expanded its efforts to develop a business climate that offered recreational opportunities, top-notch schools, higher education options, and anything else high-tech industrialists demanded. By 1964, more than 7000 firms had relocated, started up, or established branch plants in the Phoenix Valley. Such success not only positioned local boosters as leading figures in a national network of likeminded businessmen but also made them key spokesmen for an economic philosophy incongruous with modern liberalism.
Check out Phoenix in 1885:
Shermer outlines the creation of the Charter Government Committee in 1949 and how it became a vehicle for Phoenix Chamber men to run for public office and influence policy. Before that, in 1948, the Chamber created the Industrial Development Program which “tackled compiling information for new firms, advertising and publicity, industrial outreach, coordination with other Arizona business organizations, and fundraising for recruitment campaigns.”
Still, the power was unequally distributed in these early stages as the Anglo-centric elite hoarded wealth, political leverage, and opportunity.
In discussing the boosting of Arizona State University, Shermer visits the embedded social system of the time:
To facilitate the development of a first-rate engineering program, Phoenix aerospace and electronics manufacturers helped start a private organization, the ASU Foundation, which prioritized science and engineering through contributions to supplement state funds for expensive equipment, top-notch lab space, and faculty wages in order to attract respected researchers from Ivy League and other top schools. The university proved a boon to high-tech industries and to the chamber’s drive to foster a modern, heavy Anglo, professional, technocratic metropolis. Shortly after the school began granting graduate degrees in the hard sciences and engineering, more than 150 students enrolled. Over the next few years, Motorola and General Electric employed more than two-thirds of these advanced students.
Also, the activities in Phoenix launched the political career of Barry Goldwater. Sunbelt boosterism became a crucial part of a conservative movement slowly developing in repudiation of New Deal liberalism.
Shermer does note how Phoenix did a better job of diversifying its industries and economic interest unlike other Sunbelt cities:
From the outset, the Industrial Development Committee focused on a diversified, “well balanced” economy based on industrialized agriculture, tourism, wholesaling, distribution, and manufacturing. Boosters prioritized light electronics and aerospace manufacturing and research and development because they worried over keeping their outdoor playground pristine, protecting the water supply, and controlling who lived beside them. High-tech industries were lucrative, high profile, and, relative to heavy industry, modest in their needs for water and power. A leading member stated that the Chamber “did not want dirty industries.”
Of course, all of this development came at a cost. To compete with other rising Sunbelt economies and metropolises in the Southeast and Southwest, the Chamber crafted policies that would define their space as a friendly “business climate.” This included right-to-work laws that antagonized unionization among labor classes and it also included tax relief for prospective boosters.
Boosters also constructed a particularly inviting tax code. The Chamber of Commerce targeted levies in and around the city of Phoenix and the state of Arizona. For example, in 1952, the organization fought the county inventory tax on wholesalers and retailers. The reduction or elimination of this duty required working with other business groups around Arizona because the decision was left to the Arizona County Assessors Association. The Phoenix Chamber led the way in organizing statewide support. With this pressure to bring county taxes in line with Phoenix duties, the Association agreed to cut the valuation from 45 to 35 percent of the cost in January 1953. At the state level, businessmen pushed through impressive breaks for aerospace, electronics, and computer manufacturers. Legislators signed off, for example, on a repeal of the tax on sales to the federal government, an exemption on inventory, and a loophole that permitted businesses to subtract the amount firms paid to the federal government when figuring what they owed Arizona.
Essentially, Phoenix interests worked outside the metropolis to promote tax codes that made it easier for businesses to spend and expand without worrying about paying inventory taxes or even the state governments themselves.
Shermer concludes her essay by discussing the way boosterism in Phoenix led the path for a post-New Deal national conservativism. Many Chamber members moved on to aid national business organizations.
The most famous Arizona booster was Barry Goldwater.
The most renowned booster was Barry Goldwater. His rise to nation prominence was built on a decidedly antiliberal politics, particularly a critique of the empowered labor movement, which echoed much of the antiunionism within Sunbelt boosterism. During his first term, Goldwater spent much of his time traveling the country to deliver speeches for the Republican Senate Campaign Committee. He advanced a Phoenix, rather than a Dwight Eisenhower, Republicanism. Goldwater’s attacks traversed party lines: he defamed anyone still promoting the expansion, no matter how limited, of the welfare state. When Goldwater did speak before the Senate, he preached the developing industrialization gospel that he and his compatriots honed in Phoenix. Goldwater found himself exasperated that the first Republican president in two decades seemed to embrace the New Deal state.
Brand Spankin’ New
Americans often underestimate the newness of our nation. As a people, we are still very young.
Americans entered the Interwar period (1914-1945), which featured two World Wars and a shifting of power from European colonizers to America’s business elite, naive and still developing.
Reconstruction in the former Confederate South was still a complicated legacy that found it difficult to address racial apartheid and agricultural elitists.
Many parts of the American Southwest were still an arid desert with sparse population centers.
In general, the overwhelming heat of the geographic “Sun Belt” made living conditions difficult before the invention of air conditioning.
We see politicians preach this tax-free and high-growth gospel today because it is the foundation of much of America’s economic development in recent memory. These politicians, in both Democrat and Republican Party politics, almost do it on autopilot.
Obviously, the GOP does it exponentially more as the Democrats continue to revert to their populist roots.
But, the story of Phoenix is the tale of a larger development trend that would shift America’s population and political power from the traditional Snowbelt (or Rustbelt) to the emerging Sunbelt.
Here’s a treat. Thanks for reading:
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