Does air conditioning make people vote Republican?
I blame A/C for the decline of the labor movement and for decimating the Midwest's population. Mostly, I blame it for the election of George W. Bush.
By Edward McClelland
Aug. 21, 2008 | When I moved into my apartment, in May, the first thing I did was tear out the air conditioners. I don't need air conditioning: My front window is 50 yards from Lake Michigan, and, as any Chicago weatherperson will tell you, "It's cooler by the lake." I can't afford it, either: Three window units can add serious dollars to one's monthly electric bill. But those aren't the real reasons I got rid of the A/C.
Air conditioning offends my sense of Northern pride. They have a saying in Maine: "If you can't stand the winters, you don't deserve the summers." But the air conditioner allows Arizonans to enjoy a cool, lakelike breeze in the comfort of their living rooms, without ever having to buy snow tires. As one who has seen firsthand how the Sun Belt created a poor Yankee cousin called the Rust Belt, I blame the air conditioner for the decay of Detroit, Cleveland and Buffalo, N.Y. I blame it for the decline of the American labor movement. And I blame it for the election of George W. Bush, as well as the fact that we haven't elected a Yankee president in nearly 50 years. Honestly, I don't want something like that in my house. Especially if I have to pay for it.
As we observe Air Conditioning Appreciation Week, we should thank A/C for reducing malaria and infant mortality, for allowing pollen sufferers to breathe in the summer and for cooling the labs that produce our computer chips. But we should also talk about the unintended consequences of a machine that pumps out cold air.
Let's start with the Bush dynasty.
Here's a little history. In 1924, when my grandmother was born in the small town of St. Petersburg, Fla., the state had 1 million people -- and six electoral votes. It was the least populous Southern state, a marginally habitable peninsula of humid swamps, hard-packed beaches, alligators, rum smugglers and Seminoles. As a girl, my grandmother kept cool by swimming and propping open her windows. As an 84-year-old woman, she lives in the Panhandle and keeps cool with an air conditioner.
"When I was young, I never had air conditioning, so I don't think I missed it," she says. "I went to the beach a lot. I even went on Christmas Day. Now, I couldn't live here without air conditioning. A lot of people tell me they wouldn't live here without air conditioning."
By "a lot of people," she means 15 million. That's how big the state has grown in my grandmother's lifetime. Florida now wields 27 electoral votes. Do some math. A state with six electoral votes is far less likely to screw up a presidential election.
Do a little more math, and you'll see that before air conditioning redistributed the country's population, the Florida recount wouldn't even have been necessary. In the 1940s -- the last decade before the air conditioner became a must-have home appliance -- Al Gore's states contained a decisive 291 electoral votes. As Hofstra professor James Wiley pointed out back in 2004, air conditioning "induced a major population shift within the country that eventually led to the Electoral College defeats of the Democratic presidential candidates in 2000 and 2004." In 2006, an AlterNet story tracked the migration as well.
Without air conditioning, Bush might not even have become a Texan. Right after World War II, his forward-looking father transplanted the Bush family from Connecticut to Texas, a move akin to the Corleones going to Vegas. (I'll bet he bought a window unit for the house in Midland, too.) If Poppy anticipated that air conditioning would swell his adopted state's population and move it into the Republican column, he was right. No state embraced A/C more avidly than Texas. As an official history of the invention put it, "a place like Houston could only be tolerable with air conditioning."
In 1966, Texas became the first state in which half the homes were air-conditioned. That same year, George H.W. Bush was elected to Congress -- from Houston. Coincidence? Or does air conditioning make people vote Republican? After all, the GOP's rise in the South coincides with the region's adoption of air conditioning.
In his essay "The End of the Long Hot Summer: The Air Conditioner and Southern Culture," historian Raymond Arsenault wrote that air conditioning made factory work tolerable in the South, reduced infant mortality, eliminated malaria and allowed developers to build skyscrapers and apartment blocks. Air conditioning industrialized and urbanized Dixie, lifting it out of its post-Civil War funk. No longer a poor, defeated colony, devoted to government aid and hating on Abe Lincoln, the South could fully indulge its conservative leanings.
You can also blame air conditioning for John McCain's political career. In 1982, Arizona was awarded two extra congressional seats, thanks to the arrival of A/C-blasting snowbirds. McCain bought a house in one of the new districts, and became its first congressman.