Ron Berger —
In his keynote address to the delegates at the 2004 Democratic Party convention, Barack Obama, an Illinois state senator and nominee to the U.S. Senate, gave a rousing speech that would catapult him to the forefront of the Democratic Party and eventually the presidency of the United States. Obama noted that “alongside our famous individualism, there’s another ingredient in the American saga, a belief that we are all connected as one people”:
“If there’s a child on the south side of Chicago who can’t read, that matters to me, even if it’s not my child. If there’s a senior citizen somewhere who can’t pay for their prescription and having to choose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer, even if it’s not my grandparent. If there’s an Arab-American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties. It is that fundamental belief—I am my brothers’ keeper, I am my sisters’ keeper—that makes this country work. It is what allows us to pursue our individual dreams, yet still come together as a single American family: ‘E Pluribus Unum,’ out of many, one.”
Obama added that there is “not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America, there’s the United States of America . . . there’s not a liberal America and a conservative America, there’s the United States of America.”
Oh, if this lofty ideal were in fact true, but all but the most naïve must admit that it is not. Nowadays it is difficult to disagree with Paul Starr, a professor of sociology and public affairs, who suggests that America “is stuck—unable to make significant progress on critical issues such as climate change, rising economic inequality, and immigration.” To explain this inaction, political pundits often point to political polarization: “Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, are now so sharply opposed to each other that they are unable to find common ground.”
There is a school of thought among political scientists who study public opinion that suggests that it is only political elites who are divided and that the public at large is drawn together by a common set of values. But there is another school of thought that thinks the division runs deeper and extends to what Starr describes as the “politically engaged public.” In this article, I highlight the geographical nature of this divide.
The Politics of Red and Blue
America’s political divide is often characterized in terms of the colors red and blue, with red referring to Republican geographical enclaves and blue referring to Democratic enclaves; and with purple referring to areas that are mixed. (It is also the case that the red side of the political spectrum is characterized as “right” and the blue side is characterized as “left”.) Starr is arguably correct in noting that the geographical base of the red part of the country is in the South, especially in the states of the Old Confederacy of the pre-Civil War era. In this region of the country, there is a remarkably resilient historical-cultural legacy that still views the Civil War as a war of “Northern aggression” aimed at undermining “state rights.” Additionally, the racial legacy of slavery and its abolition, along with the modern Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, continue to impact the contemporary political scene—in spite of the fact that a majority of voters twice elected a black man to serve as President of the United States.
But more is involved than the ongoing divide between North and South, because the largest divide in U.S. politics is between the rural and urban populace. Thus, Starr observes, “Some rural areas in the North are socially and politically more like the South, while some urban areas in the South are more like the North. The West has its own divisions. But the regional and racial continuities are unmistakable.” What is new about the current period, Starr adds, is that these regional divides have reached the upper Midwest, most notably in states like Wisconsin and Michigan, which have become battlegrounds “not just electorally, but in the larger ideological conflict over America’s future.”
In part, the rural-urban divide involves a question of lifestyle and the values and beliefs associated with it. For one, people in rural areas and the small towns that are part of this geographical topography are more religious and, in particular, of Christian faith. Although people in urban areas are also religious, more of them are secular and/or believe in science as an authoritative source of guidance regarding some of the most pressing problems of the day, most notably the problem of global warming, commonly referred to as climate change.
To be sure, religious belief in a “higher power” is not incompatible with an understanding of science. But if science is rejected as an authoritative source of guidance about public policy, we no longer have a basis for consensus regarding the evidence that climate change poses a very real threat to the long-term sustainability of humankind as well as non-human animals and plant life. For anyone who needs to be persuaded of this fact, they will have to consult other sources. It must suffice to say here that when someone like Republican Senator James Inhofe, who believes that global warming is America’s “greatest hoax,” can be appointed to head the U.S. Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee, as he was when Republicans achieved a Senate majority in 2015, it becomes difficult to have a rational debate about what to do about one of the most serious problems facing the world today.
People who identify with the blue side of the political spectrum—whether they call themselves Democrats, liberals, or progressives—are often baffled by the voting preferences of rural voters. Although these voters generally earn less income and have less wealth than the economic elite, they often align themselves with the rich. Why rural citizens vote in this manner is an immense challenge for anyone who wishes they would do otherwise.
At this point in U.S. history, rural voters are not persuaded that the Democratic Party has an economic program that will advance their interests. The Republican Party and its media affiliates (conservative talk radio and Fox News cable television) have successfully tainted the Democratic Party as the party of “big government,” as the party of “special interests” composed of labor unions (especially public sector unions), racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities, and cultural and intellectual elites who are dismissive of rural concerns. Rural voters view themselves as hard-working, self-reliant people who do not benefit from public spending, and they think that government programs foster dependency among undeserving people. Yet, they do not think that their own reliance on Social Security, Medicare, farm subsidies, home-mortgage tax deductions, highway infrastructure, and the like fosters their dependency on government. Ironically, as well, red states rely more on federal government subsidies than blue states, which enables them to keep their own state taxes artificially low.
Over the last few decades the Republican Party has succeeded in “branding” itself as the party that represents this anti-government sentiment. If government does not work in people’s interest, at least Republicans will cut their taxes. Moreover, rural voters prefer the Republican Party’s stance on a host of social and cultural issues, including gun rights and opposition to abortion, gay and lesbian marriage, and affirmative action.
The Life Experience of Rural Voters
Even the most casual observer knows that life in the rural areas and small towns of the United States is different than life in the cities. Rural voters, on average, are more likely than urban voters to be white, Christian, and older, and to have less formal education. They are more likely to own guns, enjoy hunting as a pastime, believe that religious prayer in schools is appropriate, oppose women’s right to abortion and easy access to birth control, and think that homosexuality is a sin. The lower geographical density of rural populations also allows for the subjective experience of more individual freedom in the sense that residents may live their lives unencumbered by neighbors who live in close proximity. On the other hand, rural residents often know their “neighbors” who live a half mile or more away better than urban apartment residents know their “neighbors” who live down the hall, in part, because the latter are comprised of more mobile or transient people.
As noted, rural voters are more likely than urban voters to identify with the Republican Party. Research by political scientists James Gimpel and Kimberly Karnes indicates that a key factor that accounts for rural residents’ voting preferences is that they are more likely to be homeowners and self-employed than their urban counterparts. This life experience reinforces a sense of self-reliance that resists the view that government or collective organizations such as labor unions are necessary for personal economic advancement.
Insofar as there is less economic inequality within rural areas than between rural areas and urban areas, rural residents are less likely to confront the lived experience of discrepancies in income and wealth. Farm families in particular are able to survive economic downturns because they rely on unpaid or underpaid family labor, or the voluntary labor of their neighbors. And when economic opportunities are not available in rural areas, residents (especially younger people) end up migrating to urban areas to find jobs, consequently lowering the unemployment rate in the communities they leave behind.
An ethic of helping one’s neighbors in rural areas, which is reinforced through voluntary church participation, resonates with the broader conservative view that charity, rather than government aid, is the best way to help people in need. Moreover, the Biblical invocation to “love your neighbor as yourself” is easier to fulfill when neighbors are racially, ethnically, and religiously alike.
The Historical Context
Beyond these observations, some history about the geographical divide I’ve been discussing is in order. The modern Republican Party, which is currently the beneficiary of rural voting, essentially began in 1854 as a party whose main political objective was the abolition of slavery. A few years later, it became the party of Abraham Lincoln, who was elected president in 1860. Lincoln was from Illinois and the geographical base of his party was solidly in the North. The modern Democratic Party, on the other hand, was the party of Andrew Jackson, who was elected president in 1828. Jackson was from Tennessee, but it was not until Tennessee seceded from the United States, along with 10 other southern states in 1860 and 1861—Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia—that the Democratic Party became the party of the South.
To be sure, the differences between Republicans and Democrats of the 1800s were not limited to the question of slavery. They also included broader conflicts regarding the relationship between individual states and the federal government that are beyond the scope of this article. For now, I want to note the extreme irony of the current period in which the South has become the geographical base of the Republican Party. As political scientist Seth McKee notes, “It must be inconceivable for the oldest generation of southerners to contemplate that a majority of rural southerners are now Republican.” An understanding of this reversal is essential for interpreting the contemporary political divide.
The South, as we all know, was defeated in the Civil War by the Union army (the army of the North). The experience of that defeat and the subsequent military occupation by the Union army during the reconstruction of the post-slavery South, which lasted until 1877, created intense cultural antipathy toward the Republican Party, which was viewed as the party of the North. The Democratic Party, in turn, became the bastion of white supremacy in the South, where a system of legal discrimination and segregation known as Jim Crow (based on a black character in an early 19th century song) in the states of the former confederacy lasted until the 1960s.
In the North, the Democratic Party of the late 1800s expanded its political base by supporting labor reforms that appealed to urban Catholic immigrants who were integral to the burgeoning industrial economy. This created a powerful North-South coalition that peaked in the period between 1932 and 1948, when Franklin Roosevelt (from New York) and Harry Truman (from Missouri) combined to win five consecutive presidential elections (Roosevelt four and Truman one).
During this time the affinity of Southern voters for the Democratic Party suppressed the impact of rural versus urban voting patterns in national elections. However, the 1948 presidential contest that culminated in Truman’s election marked the end of the “solid” Democratic South. Truman supported civil rights for African Americans, and a group of Southern Democrats known as Dixiecrats led by Senator Strom Thurmond (from South Carolina) organized under the banner of states’ rights to try to preserve the Democratic Party’s commitment to Jim Crow.
In the 1950s, when the civil rights movement emerged full bloom, Republican president and former general Dwight Eisenhower helped advance it by supporting an end to segregation in the armed forces and the elimination of voting restrictions for African Americans. His appointment of Earl Warren as chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court—Warren had been a Republican governor of California—resulted in the historic Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954, which abolished the legal basis for school segregation in the country (a distinction between de facto segregation, based on neighborhood residency, and de jure segregation, based on what Brown defined as unconstitutional law, remained).
In the 1960s, Democratic presidents John Kennedy (from Massachusetts) and Lyndon Johnson (from Texas) gradually lent their support to civil rights as well, which culminated in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965—two pieces of federal legislation that more fully marked the end of “state rights” to legally discriminate in the United States. But in the presidential election of 1968, Republican candidate Richard Nixon successfully pursued a so-called “Southern strategy” that appealed to the racial views of the region. Following a period of urban riots by African Americans who were frustrated by police brutality and thwarted expectations for racial equality, Nixon exploited a powerful message of “law and order” to persuade Southern Democrats (and voters across the country) that the Republican Party was now the party that supported their interests. In that election, third-party candidate George Wallace, a Democratic governor from Alabama, received 14 percent of the national vote for his advocacy of racial segregation. Nixon won the election over the Democratic candidate, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, by less than one percent of the vote, but without the Wallace candidacy, Nixon would have won by a landslide. From that point on, especially as the civil rights movement pursued policies of involuntary busing of children to integrate schools and affirmative action to advance the interests of disadvantaged minorities in higher education and the work force, the Republican Party effectively positioned itself to appeal to white voters who did not agree with and/or felt threatened by this new civil rights agenda. This legacy continues to this very day.
Although I have focused on rural versus urban voting, any account of the rural-urban divide in U.S. politics also needs to consider the voting patterns of people who live in the suburbs, for it is here that national elections now tend to be won or lost. Research by political scientist Jefferey Sellers and colleagues finds that while Democrats have a decided advantage in more dense urban areas with large minority populations, Republicans have a (less marked) advantage in the less dense peripheries of urbanity that constitute the suburbs, which are more white, affluent, and formally educated. At the same time, suburban voters tend to vote with a state’s winner—everybody loves a winner—voting Republican in red states and Democratic in blue states.
The problem of political gerrymandering is also important. The U.S. Constitution requires a national census to be taken every 10 years, at which time voting districts are refashioned to reflect the changing geographical distribution of the population for the purpose of political representation. Controversy regarding this system has risen over how districts are divided to distribute representation in both state legislatures and the U.S. House of Representatives.
The term “gerrymandering” dates back to the early 1800s, when Massachusetts Governor Thomas Gerry Eldridge signed into law a redistricting plan that heavily favored his political interests. Eldridge later served as vice-president under President James Madison, the fourth president of the United States.
Gerrymandering is a political strategy that attempts to divide voting districts in ways that lead to electoral outcomes favored by the political party in power, that is, the party that holds the majority of representatives in state legislatures. This strategy includes two tactics: legislative “packing,” whereby the controlling party partitions opposition voters into a smaller number of concentrated districts that leave the remaining districts more amenable to majority party representation; and legislative “cracking,” whereby the controlling party breaks apart natural geographical boundaries—such as minority populations that live in contiguous areas marked by a community of interests—so as to dilute their voting influence.
Historically, both the Democratic Party and Republican Party have engaged in gerrymandering to gain a political advantage. Unfortunately, this bipartisan approach has legitimated gerrymandering as a political strategy, which only leads to accusations of hypocrisy when the disadvantaged party calls “foul” when the advantaged party engages in the same political manipulation that both parties have done previously. The Democratic Party, for instance, has gerrymandered districts to concentrate minority voting blocs in order to increase opportunities for minority voters to elect minority legislators. Ironically, this tactic has decreased opportunities for white legislators sympathetic to nonwhite interests—but who may be better positioned to appeal to otherwise less supportive white voters—to win elections in biracial or multiracial districts. In other words, increased representation of Democratic minority legislators in state legislatures and the U.S. House of Representatives has ironically led to decreased Democratic influence in these same legislative bodies.
Be that as it may, in the current period the gerrymandering that was undertaken by the Republican Party after it took control of a majority of state legislatures and the U.S. House of Representatives in 2010—the non-presidential election year between 2008 and 2012 when voter turnout was lower than when Barack Obama was twice elected president—entailed one of the most blatant attempts to exploit the political power to gerrymander our country has ever seen. Consequently, we now live in a historical decade in which the majority of voters in some states may, overall, vote for Democratic candidates, while the majority of voters in particular districts may vote for Republican candidates, leading to Republican majorities in both state legislatures and the House of Representatives. An additional consequence of this gerrymandering tactic is more political polarization, as politicians running for public office no longer have the incentive to compromise in order to appeal to an electoral constituency that is diverse in its points of view. In many respects, we now live in an era in which politicians choose their voters, rather than in which voters choose their politicians.
Lastly, the issue of how political representation is apportioned in the U.S. Senate must be considered. Although the U.S. Constitution requires voter representation in the House of Representatives to be apportioned on the basis of population size, representation in the Senate is apportioned according to two senators per state, regardless of population size. This means that voters in states with larger populations have less representation in the Senate than voters in states with smaller populations. Currently, the blue state of California, for example, has a population of about 38,332,520, while the red state of Wyoming has a population of about 582,560, less than 2 percent of the population of California. Yet, both states have the same amount of votes in the U.S. Senate, which means that the vote of each individual in California has far less impact on national policy than the vote of each individual in Wyoming. Such is the problematic state of democracy in the United States as we confront the future of our country.
This article was originally posted on the website of Active McFarland on September 25, 2015.
Thanks to Ruthy Berger, Jerry Collins, Charles Cottle, and Ann Kleinhaus for their input on this article.
Richard Florida. 2013. “The Suburbs are the New Swing States.” CityLab (Nov. 29), http://www.citylab.com.
Thomas Frank. 2004. What’s the Matter with Kansas: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. New York: Metropolitan Books.
James Gimpel and Kimberly A. Karnes. 2006. “The Rural Side of the Urban-Rural Gap.” PSOnline (July), http://www.apsanet.org.
Mike McCabe. 2014. Blue Jeans in High Places: The Coming Makeover of American Politics. Mineral Point, WI: Little Creek Press.
Seth C. McKee. 2008. “Rural Voters and the Polarization of American Presidential Elections.” PSOnline (Jan.), http://www.apsanet.org.
Heather Cox Richardson. 2014. To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party. New York: Basic Books.
Jefferey M. Sellers, Daniel Kübler, Alan Walks, and Melanie Walter-Rogg (eds.). 2013. The Political Ecology of the Metropolis: Metropolitan Sources of Electoral Behavior in Eleven Counties. New York: Columbia University Press.
Paul Starr. 2014. “The American Situation.” The American Prospect (Fall), pp. 5, 7.
John Tierney. 2014. “Which States are Givers and Which are Takers?” The Atlantic (May 5), http://www.theatlantic.com.