Urban Rural Politics: America’s Biggest Divide

The starkest divide in American political culture is not between north and south. It is not between whites and “minorities” – not even heartland and coasts. Nothing captures the red-blue divide in the US quite like the disparity between cities and suburban/rural areas.

In 2008, something peculiar happened in Nebraska. The state’s 2nd congressional district, which contains the city of Omaha, voted for Barack Obama. On the map, the district is basically a dot of blue in a sea of red. This happened in Nebraska because it’s one of only two states that award electoral college votes by district rather than “winner takes all”. If Texas allocated votes by congressional district, then surely Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and Austin would be similar blue dots. Similarly, vast swaths of upstate New York would be red.2008 Omaha

For the Obama campaign, Nebraska’s 2nd district was not necessary for victory, but it was a nice cherry on top of their cake. While anomalous in terms of electoral history, the story of Omaha captures what’s going on in cities and states throughout the country.

The following is the results of the 2012 Presidential election by county. Red is Republican, blue is Democrat.2012_Presidential_Election_by_County

The following is a map of US population density by county. Yellow is low density, blue is high density.US population density 2000 The similarities tell a much larger story about America today. Where we live has a whole lot to do with how we live and what we believe. Perhaps we choose where to live based on the latter – a chicken and egg problem essentially. Either way, any real conceptualization of the red-blue divide in the US that focuses too much on East coast tendencies, or Midwest values is ignoring the real story.

According to The Atlantic, 27 of America’s 30 biggest cities voted for Obama in 2012 – that’s 90 percent! Furthermore, cities are getting bluer and rural areas are getting redder. We are constantly being warned that our country is becoming increasingly polarized. At least we know now where that battle lines and boundaries are being drawn.

The Importance of Texas

Yes Virginia, there are liberals in Texas, and not just in Austin. 

Quick question (and don’t look it up on Wiki) – what percentage of Texas voted for Barack Obama in 2008? Given that Texas is often seen as the “role model for red states”, it may surprise many to know that four years ago, Obama won nearly 44% of the vote. While Obama’s numbers declined by about 2% in 2012, this level of support still shows a state that is much more complicated than the caricature that it is often presented as. Convincing a small percentage of the state to turn blue can change the country for decades.

Let’s not kid ourselves – Texas is most certainly a conservative state. But even in the most ideologically extreme states, at least a third of the electorate goes against the prevailing wind. When we say that a state is really red, that just means that the state isn’t a tossup in the election. A shift of a few percentage points can change all of that. In Texas, the margin of difference is small enough to flip the state, or at least color it purple.

Texas is the second largest state in the country and has 38 electoral votes – almost 20% of Romney’s electoral vote haul. If a big blue state like New York flipped, it would be a big deal too. But electorally speaking, New York is much bluer than Texas is red (Romney won only 36% of vote there) and more importantly, the demographic trends do not bode well for future Republican gains.

Texas on the other hand is at the heart of one of the most dramatic demographic shifts in our nation’s history. I hate breaking things down in terms of white and non-white, but for what it’s worth, much of the country votes that way. As Texas becomes more racially and ethnically diverse, the greater the likelihood of a flip.

I doubt any monumental shifts will occur by 2016, but beyond that, it’s certainly a possibility. It would be foolish for Democrats to ignore Texas, and it would even more foolish for Republicans to take it for granted. With Texas, Dems are more or less guaranteed Presidential victory; without it, Republicans are guaranteed defeat. There are plenty of skeptics, but for the first time in more than a generation, Texas is being viewed as a real battleground for national elections.

Read more:

The Bitter Bluff of Secession

If the secession petitioners actually got their way, they’d be a lot worse off and the rest of us would be a lot better off.

For a brief moment after the recent election, I had hope. Prominent conservatives had publicly admitted that Obamacare is the law of the land (given the electoral results, its repeal could no longer be a priority) and that raising the top marginal income tax rate would not be the end of the world. It seemed as though we might actual have a period of bipartisanship. Some folks just didn’t get the memo.

The White House’s website has a section called We the People which allows people to start online petitions. Any petition that garners more than 25,000 signatures will get an official response from the President. There are currently petitions in all 50 states to secede from the Union due to the “unfortunate” results of the election. Other than Florida, which voted for Obama, every other state that has accumulated the requisit 25,000 signatures (Texas, Louisiana, Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, North Carolina and South Carolina) voted for Romney.

This is yet another case of red state blue state foolishness. The Romney states want to leave? If they did, the rest of the country would be better off (financially at least). With the exception of Texas, every single one of those other states get more from the federal government than they give. These states are the real moochers.

I’ve written before that blue states have been subsidizing red states for years, but thanks to these petitions, this discrepancy has been getting a lot more attention recently. If you didn’t like the links in the previous post, here’s some more in the secession context:

I still have hope that we will have at least a few months of uncomfortable and reluctant bipartisanship. But this whole secession business is nonsense. If a Texan you know wants to secede, tell them to relax. If anyone you know from the confederacy of takers wants to secede, let them know how lucky they are that nobody takes them seriously.

For anyone interested, there’s another petition on the White House’s website, entitled “Deport Everyone That Signed A Petition To Withdraw Their State From The United States Of America“. As of this writing, it has 22,601 signatures and has just over 3 weeks to get the remaining 2,399.

Why Obama Won

All the conservative talking points about demographics are an excuse for not coming to terms with being out of touch.

Republicans have been doing a lot of soul searching following Tuesday’s election and have come up with various explanations as to why their candidate lost. The consensus for now is that the country is changing and that the party is out of step with this change.

Rather than meet this change in a responsible and realistic manner, so many prominent conservatives have resorted to lamenting the passing of a golden era, the death of “real America”. The most common statement thus far been “Obama only won because of demographics” which is a lot like saying “I only failed the math test because of numbers”. Similarly heard is “Obama only won because of the Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, women and urban residents”. Conservatives are pretending that these people are nothing more than special interest groups – as if they don’t already constitute a vast majority of the country.

In other words, when a Republican wins an election, it’s because the country as a whole voted for him – end of story. When a Democrat wins, a black man at that, the electorate is dissected so as to lay blame on those pesky minorities and women.

It should come as no surprise that the Republican establishment is mourning the end of an era in which White men ran the show. Personally, I think this is premature because White men still overwhelmingly run the shows that matter. But still, the times they are a changin.

Here is my favorite excuse from the aftermath. 

You heard it, but have a closer read. “It’s a changing country. The demographics are changing. It’s not a traditional America anymore. And there are fifty percent of the voting public who want stuff. They want things. And who is going to give them things? President Obama. He knows it and he ran on it. And whereby twenty years ago, President Obama would have been roundly defeated, by an establishment candidate like Mitt Romney. The White establishment is now the minority. And the voters, many of them, feel that the economic system is stacked against them and they want stuff. You’re gonna see a tremendous Hispanic vote for President Obama, overwhelming Black vote for President Obama and women will probably break President Obama’s way. People feel they are entitled to things and which candidate between the two are going to give them things?”

So there you have it. White men made the country and now women and the coloreds are destroying it. Rather than thinking about ways to appeal to women and minorities, conservatives are blaming them for not seeing the light, for wanting things, for not working hard enough. The self-victimization never ends.

Jon Stewart describes the conservative resentment most accurately: “They’re really only entitlements when they’re something other people want. When it’s something you want, they’re a hallmark of a civilized society.”

Why I Am not Voting

As a New Yorker, I know that my state is a lock, so I’m going to maximize my vote by not using it.

I support Barack Obama for the Presidency, but hope he loses the popular vote. As much as I want the President to complete a second term in office, any loss in legitimacy would be offset by the prospects of replacing the Electoral College (EC) with a national popular vote.

Until now, the EC has disproportionately benefited smaller and more rural states, which tend to be Republican. Only if the American right feels cheated by the electoral system, can we begin to have a meaningful discussion about reforming it.

Americans across the political spectrum are in favor of replacing the EC with a popular vote, but this sentiment does not carry over to our elected leaders. Whereas Democratic officials have publicly expressed support for selecting the President through the popular vote, Republican lawmakers have been fully aware that this would eliminate the disproportionate power given by the EC to their states.

If President Obama were to capture at least 270 electoral votes, but lose the popular vote, all that could change. It would send the American right into such a tizzy that instead of focusing on voter suppression, birth certificates and secret religious convictions, they may turn their ire at the electoral system that elevated the man they so dislike, once again, to the highest office in the land.

This will undoubtedly decrease Barack Obama’s legitimacy as President, should he win, but this is the man that since day one of his Presidency has been deemed illegitimate as their leader and as an American by significant portions of the American right. No electoral mandate will be enough to win these people over. Should conservatives feel that they have lost something as a result of the EC, then, and only then can we begin to reform our electoral process to achieve a popular vote.

I’ve already gone into detail about how and why we should effectively dismantle the current Electoral College system (it doesn’t even require altering the Constitution). Had my vote been from Ohio, I’d be out on the streets, banging my drum. Unfortunately, my vote is from NY – it will not matter – and that is a shame. This is about convincing all (enough) Americans that the popular vote is a good idea.

I know promoting this sort of behavior is risky. It assumes that Obama will win the EC. It assumes he will take Ohio and other key swing states. It assumes that the loss in legitimacy would not make Obama a 4-year lame duck. If, in the end, Romney gets the minimum 270 electoral votes and also wins the popular vote by one vote, I will punch myself in the face and stop blogging.

Human Development Index among red and blue states

It’s easy to get confused by the endless red-state blue-state rhetoric during this election season (which is to say, the past six years). It’s worthwhile to take a look at how people live across the divide.

In this week’s New Republic, Jonathan Cohn’s Blue States are from Scandinavia, Red States are from Guatemala explores the historical roots of this great American divide. Cohn argues that there are affectively two countries in the United States. In one, government is seen as a mechanism to ensure that as many people as possible have their basic necessities taken care of. This is expensive. In the other “country”, government costs very little and provides very little.

What are the consequences of this divide? As Cohn points out “by nearly every measure, people who live in the blue states are healthier, wealthier, and generally better off than people in the red states…The four states with the highest poverty rates are all red: Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, and Texas. And the five states with the lowest poverty rates are all blue. Since it’s difficult to measure “nearly every measure” the next best thing is to look at the American Human Development Index developed by the Social Science Research Council, and inspired by the global HDI commissioned by UNDP. The AHDI takes into consideration things like health, education and overall standard of living.

The following is a list of the states (and DC) with the highest AHDIs and the states with the lowest AHDIs.

American Human Development Index 2010/11
12 Highest 12 Lowest
Connecticut  6.30 
 North Carolina  4.64
Massachusetts  6.24  New Mexico  4.56
Washington, D.C.         6.21  Montana  4.49
New Jersey  6.16  South Carolina         4.36
Maryland  5.96  Tennessee  4.33
New York  5.77  Kentucky  4.23
Minnesota  5.74  Oklahoma  4.15
New Hampshire  5.73  Alabama  4.09
Hawaii  5.73  Louisiana  4.07
Colorado  5.65  Mississippi  3.93
Rhode Island  5.56  Arkansas  3.87
California  5.56  West Virginia  3.85

With the exception of two swing states, every single one of the top AHDI states is blue. There are zero red states at the top – the highest ranked red state is Alaska, coming in at number 17. Continue reading “Human Development Index among red and blue states”

The Individual Mandate and the Constitution

While the pundits thrive on turning the Supreme Court into a sporting venue, a couple of law scholars point out the obvious constitutionality of Obamacare’s individual mandate.

It’s difficult to imagine what the founding father and framers of the constitution had in mind when they set into motion the creation of the country and the republic more than 200 years ago, but we often seek their guidance in some sort of hindsight game of guessing their intentions. What would the framers think about abortion? Gay marriage? Government mandated healthcare? It’s not an entirely ridiculous practice – the US Constitution is the oldest living document of its kind in the world. This is no small feat for a country that is often regarded as a relatively young one. There are costs and benefits in basing our laws on the values and intentions of men who lived in the late 18th Century, but in the most recent instance of invoking the framer’s intentions, critics are barking up the wrong tree.

After a moment of reflection, it’s remarkable that the debate over the constitutionality of the individual mandate within the Affordable Care Act (ACA, aka Obamacare) has come this far. Yesterday, two remarkable articles were published in the New Republic.

In one, conservative constitutional law professor (Columbia) Henry Paul Monaghan argues that the mandate is obviously constitutional. In a nutshell, Congress has the right to regulate interstate commerce; since most people will, at some point in their lives, require medical care in the form of a service for a fee, it qualifies as a form of commerce that applies to the greater population; Congress has a right to regulate health insurance under the purview of interstate commerce. There may be outliers who live “off the grid” and would be forced to purchase something they may not need, but there is also a decent chance that they too will, at some point, need medical coverage. And besides, we often make sweeping legislation for the greater good at the cost of certain outliers – they ought not be an excuse to hold back society as a whole. The most telling sentence in Monaghan’s article was the last two sentences:

I recognize that many persons believe the health mandate is very bad legislative policy. But the appropriate judicial response to such a complaint has long been clear. The Court was admirably forthright about the point in its ruling in Munn v. Illinois in 1876: “For protection against abuses by the Legislature, the people must resort to the polls, not the courts.”

In the other article, another professor of law (Harvard), Einer Elhauge, gives examples of government mandated health coverage enacted by the founding fathers. They very first Congress, which met in 1790, passed a law mandating all ship owners to purchase medical insurance for their seamen. The bill was signed into law by a man named George Washington. Eight years later, an issue arose over the fact that this law covered drugs and physicians services, but not hospital stays. Congress responded by…wait for it…passing a law requiring all seamen to purchase hospital insurance for themselves.

I’m not a fan of trying to discern the exact intention of the Constitution’s framers. Even if we do pursue their intentions, we must make the right decision even if it conflicts with the framers’ intent. In this hullabaloo over the ACA’s constitutionality, there have been too many critics crying foul that we are violating the principals of the framers. It turns out even the framers were pretty clear in their support of individually mandated health coverage.

sidenote: there have been other, weirder individual mandates too. In 1792, Congress passed a law requiring all “able-bodied men” to buy fire arms. That’s right – not only a right to bear arms, but a law requiring that you must. Perhaps it’s a good thing that we don’t follow everything our framers set down to ink.