Sunday, November 18, 2012

Its not just demography...its geography

I suspect that - other than on the right wing fringes - not enough has been made of the fact that Barack Obama is our first modern-day urban President. That part tends to get overshadowed by the fact that he is also our first African-American President. But it should surprise no one that the two tend to go together.

Much has also been made of the demographic polarization we've seen in the last two presidential elections. But just like the President we elected, that polarization is married to a geographic divide.

I've been trying to pay attention to the few people who are writing about that particular divide. Karen Cox did so in her discussion about the stereotypes we perpetuate about the South.
Voters in Charlotte, N.C., Atlanta, Nashville, New Orleans, Birmingham, Ala., and even Jackson, Miss., gave Mr. Obama substantial majorities, not because they are out of step with the rest of the country but because they are part of the same urban-rural divide that drives voting everywhere...

Many people have labeled my home state of North Carolina a red state, but it’s much more complicated than that. In the very rural mountain county of Avery, for example, Mr. Romney won with a whopping 74.5 percent of the vote, yet in Mecklenburg County, which includes Charlotte, he lost to Mr. Obama by nearly 23 percentage points...

Similarly, in Fulton County, Georgia, whose county seat is Atlanta, Mr. Obama bested Mr. Romney with about 64 percent of the vote but lost in the state’s mostly rural counties. If Charlotte or Atlanta were the size of New York City, then perhaps we wouldn’t tag either North Carolina or Georgia as red states.

Even when you break down a clear blue state like New York, you can see this urban-rural dichotomy. In Brooklyn, Mr. Obama carried 81.4 percent of the vote; in the rural county of Hamilton, Mr. Romney won 62.2 percent. The same urban-rural divide can also be found in blue states like California and Washington. In other words, before our liberal allies in blue states point their fingers and scoff, they might want to take a look in their own rural backyards for evidence that their states actually have something in common with the supposedly backward ones in the South.
She's right. I see this divide in my own "blue" state of Minnesota. But it gets more complicated than that. There are actually 3 groups that need to be identified...urban, suburban and rural. As Lydia DePillis reminds us, the Republican "Southern Strategy" was actually a "Suburban Strategy."
Back in the 1960s, inner cities were on the decline, their white residents high-tailing it for the urban fringe. Democrats responded with a war on poverty. Richard Nixon, by contrast, saw an opening.

"[Republicans] recognized the same problems. They didn’t see them as something to be solved, but something to be exploited," explains Princeton University history professor Kevin Kruse. Kevin Phillips' seminal 1969 book The Emerging Republican Majority outlined a "southern strategy" to wrest white people away from the Democrats—by demonizing the black inner cities. "If you look at who he's talking to, it's a 'suburban strategy,'" says Kruse.
We're still seeing this kind of thing in the more "dog whistle" type attempts to demonize poverty and in the overt rantings of people like Stanley Kurtz.

The good news here is that nothing in this country is ever static. The very dynamics that created these divides are changing as we speak. For example, DePillis points out that recent data shows that cities are growing faster than suburbs.  She also suggests that urban politics tends to change Republicans.
While Republicans have drifted far to the right in recent years, municipal governance is largely non-partisan in nature, and urban politicians who try to adopt the kind of ideological swagger they need to weather a Republican primary often aren't convincing...

"Municipal politics draws everybody to the center. You hang around long enough, you can’t stay on the edges," [Oklahoma City Mayor] Cornett says. "At the end of the day, people elect mayors to get things done."
There is also the fact that many Latino immigrants are settling in rural areas due to their ties to agriculture. That sets up real life situations like the one Cox describes in her article.
Every summer my brother, who is decidedly Republican, plants a garden in which he grows a variety of peppers — jalapeños, habaneros and poblanos. He is proud of his garden and shares his harvest with friends who own a Mexican restaurant near his home in Greensboro, N.C.

I doubt that his conversations with the people who work there center on whether they are in this country legally or illegally. So while he may remain a Republican, I believe he recognizes the contributions of Latinos to his community and knows that they do not threaten his success as a white man.
That's how change happens! If you don't believe me, read the story about how Craig Hickman - a black gay organic farmer - just got elected to serve in the Maine House of Representatives from a rural area.

Perhaps I'm more optimistic about the possibilities here because of our history in Minnesota. Back in 1944 our state Democratic Party merged with the Farmer-Labor Party to create what we now call the "DFL" (Democratic Farmer Labor Party). That coalition between urban and rural hasn't always held. But I did watch Paul Wellstone - one of the most progressive Senators in our lifetimes - revive it in this state by connecting the dots between urban issues, labor rights and small farmers. So I know it can be done.

When it comes to national politics, one of the shifts I think we're seeing in this time of transformation is a recalibration away from suburban politics back to focusing on the issues that affect our urban and rural areas. Keep an eye on that one as a frame for understanding President Obama over the next 4 years.

2 comments:

  1. Illinois is like that. Most of the state is very red, with the exception of the urban areas. I am not saying that rural folks are stupid...they are far from it...but most urban/suburban folk tend to have more education which does lead to a higher degree of liberalism.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I don't have a link at hand, but I've read analysis in the past that talked about the influence of Rush Limbaugh on rural thinking. It had to do with the programming that was available in those areas and how he managed to get himself into those markets. Fox News is also big in rural areas. I grew up in a small town in Indiana, moved away after high school and came back when I was in my 60's for health reasons. I moved from Northern Virginia, a diverse culturally and racially area very much in touch with new ideas and the latest in technology, awareness of government and other countries to rural Indiana. I can remember thinking I was moving into a third world country when I came back here. There is an incredible isolation from ideas as well as homogeneity of the population. And the ideas seem to come mostly from television. I grew up here and I'm familiar with the people, but I've been gone for so long that it seems very strange to me.

    ReplyDelete